American Songster: An Interview with Dom Flemons Appearing Sunday April 10th in Harrisburg, PA

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Dom Flemons, co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, comes to Harrisburg with his trio for a Susquehanna Folk Music Society concert on Sunday, April 10th, 2016, at 7:30 p.m., in the Abbey Bar at Appalachian Brewing Company, 50 N. Cameron Street, Harrisburg. This is a sit-down concert in a listening-room environment and all ages are welcome; Appalachian Brewing Company’s usual 21+ rule does not apply for this show.

Hailed as the “American Songster,” Flemons pulls from traditions of old-time folk music to create new sounds.  As a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African-American string band, he was able to explore his interest in bringing traditional music to new audiences. The band won a 2011 Grammy for its album “Genuine Negro Jig” and was nominated for its 2012 album “Leaving Eden.” In 2014 he released his third solo album and the first since leaving the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In “Prospect Hill,” Flemons digs deeply into ragtime, Piedmont blues, spirituals, southern folk music, string band music, jug band music, fife and drum music, and ballads with showmanship and humor, reinterpreting the music to suit 21st century audiences.

Staff writer Peter Winter had a chance to chat with Dom earlier in the year.

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You’re known for a lot of 20s and 30s music. How did you first come into contact with this music?

The music really started with me being interested in records actually. I had gotten into records after watching a documentary on PBS on the 60s Folk Revival in the Village, and that was what got me interested in playing folk music. So at that time it was like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk. Then there was like Lightning Hopkins, Led Belly of course. All those people started coming up in the conversation as I started looking for what folk music was, and looking for new songs. So it was just a combination of an interest in music in general, an interest in history, and then also an interest in different voices; the sounds of different voices. In folk music there are a lot of very unique voices all over the map. And so that got me started, and from there I started busking out on the street out in my home town Phoenix, Arizona and I was also recording on a 4 track recorder selling demos out of the trunk of my car. Then I went to an event called the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005, and that was what got me out to the East Coast in the first place. So I went to North Carolina, and started the Carolina Chocolate Drops, did that for about ten years, but I’ve always kept up with my own solo repertoire and my own ambitions in studying folk music in the songs I do. That’s always been a strong part of what I presented on stage no matter what, and so now in the past couple years I’ve been playing out more and I’m bringing a whole repertoire of music that people might not have heard me play before. It’s a combination of some string band music of course, but also early RnB, traditional jazz, also some original songs that are molded in the tradition, and even a little bit of early rock n roll. I’ll have a duo this time around, so I have Brian Farrow on the bass and the fiddle with me.

So all this time you’re doing Carolina Chocolate Drops, you’re continuing your own personal discovery of this music and building up your own repertoire, so when you finally get around to recording “Prospect Hill,” was it tough narrowing down the songs? Did you have a list that you knew were going to make on the record? Or were there new songs you discovered along the way?

It was a little bit of a combination of both, I had done two previous solo records “Dance Tunes, Ballads and Blues” (2007) and then “American Songster” (2009) which I just ended up taking the title of that album as a moniker, because I thought that was really a powerful statement in itself. With “Prospect Hill” (2014) you know what I tried to do is that I had so many songs in the back catalogue (I had about 40 songs in the back catalogue) that I came in and did it really workaday style,   without trying to be really completely married to any song.   So I went through all the songs by instrumental set up, and we did takes that were really energetic, and then we would follow it up with a take that was the most relaxed it could be, and so we had a lot of choices to work with. Also had some great people who were collaborating with me on the album. I had Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons, Guy Davis. I also had a small combo of some really top Jazz musicians who were so kind as to allow me to show them how I wanted songs to sound. And from there, I sequenced the record after all the recording was done. So I didn’t come in with the full trajectory of what the album was going to be, but I knew that from the quality of musicianship it would be very clear which songs were the actual songs that were going to be on the record and which ones would have to wait and then you know we did “Prospect Hill” then afterwards I found there were really quite a few really great out takes from the sessions, and so I put that out as the EP “What Got Over” (2015) at the beginning of last year.

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So you already had a lot of success prior to really pursuing this solo trajectory, when you decided it was time to really pursue your own solo career, were you excited and ready that your time had come, or were you a little bit nervous that suddenly it was going to be your name on the record, your name on the showbill?  What was your headspace?

My headspace was that in Carolina Chocolate Drops it was getting very hard to come to conclusions on what we were going to do next and so for me it was very much a leap of faith, but it was the best decision I ever made. Like I said, I pursued my own trajectory, my own story of the music the whole time, so for me it was always having to balance my interests compared to how do my interests fit within the entire scheme of a bigger ensemble? For me, I was just glad to do it. Again, since I played solo from the beginning, stuff like having my name on the record and stuff like that wasn’t a particularly scary thing for me. But that’s also why I made “Prospect Hill” the way I did. That’s why the album has the feel it does. Because coming from a successful group like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, I had to make sure that the album I put out would be something that would draw the fans in as well as show them something different. And so I tried to do that in the course of how that album plays out, because it shows a little bit of familiar stuff so that if anybody is into the Carolina Chocolate Drops, happens to see my name and see the album “Prospect Hill” they pick it up and they say “Oh ok this does have some of the Carolina Chocolate Drops feel to it, but it also has other stuff happening on it.” So that was the biggest thing I had to try and figure out and process was what was going to have that great balance. Now I’m starting to work on a new album on black cowboy music.

Really? That’s fantastic.

Yeah being from Phoenix Arizona, cowboy music has always been a part of the landscape of folk music in Arizona and out west, so I’d always been exposed to it, but I had never particularly played cowboy songs. I had played Jimmie Rodgers, stuff that was kind of quasi-related to it. So now I’m coming into it. I would say five or six years ago I came across a record called “Black Texicans.” It was a compilation of John Lomax’s recordings of different people out in Texas that were singing cowboy numbers, and they were black cowboys. And the liner notes go on to talk about how black cowboys were a huge part of the civilizing of the west, and so that got me started on thinking about that idea, and then as I went along, I found all these stories about black cowboys and songs. There is one song “Goodbye Old Paint,” which is a really well known cowboy song and when I read about the fellow who recorded it, Jess Morris, who was a white fellow and he wrote it or adapted it from an old slave cow hand that he knew on the XIT Ranch named Charley Willis and the guy taught him how to play fiddle, and also taught him “Goodbye Old Paint.” “Goodbye Old Paint” is a tribute to Charley Willis.

That’s a great story!

Yeah! Jess Morris is really clear in saying that Charley Willis was the inspiration for this song. And even “Home On The Range,” the melody of the song, it was a broadside made in the late, I think, 1700s. The melody that John Lomax recorded was from an old cook who was a black cook on the range and he recorded on a cylinder recording and now that’s the melody that everybody sings for “Home On The Range.” Then there’s a lot of stories too. I’ve also been swimming in books about black cowboys, the black US Marshalls. If you just read about them, they are just the most awesome US Federal Marshals. In the pre-civilized Oklahoma territory there was this guy Bass Reeves just like this one guy. You think like Samuel L Jackson. Bass Reeves is basically him.

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Bass Reeves

That sounds fantastic!

…or “Django Unchained” or something like that. That black proletariat was based off of a guy.

 Wow! That’s exciting

(Laughs) Yeah. So that’s going to be my next record. It’s going to be like “Prospect Hill” was an overview of a lot of different styles, because in the Carolina Chocolate Drops, I showed a variety of styles off, and then also crafted the album to show the different styles of everybody in the group, but I hadn’t really shown off all my own styles in the course of Carolina Chocolate Drops. And that’s on purpose partly, cause I wanted to save that for my own trajectory, cause I mean you never know with groups. You know? You just never know if they’re going to stay together or not, I would always keep some songs in my back pocket…in case something like that would happen.

 Keep an ace up your sleeve. So what is the trajectory of that record? Do you think you will record this year?

Oh definitely definitely! Take a couple months off, and start getting in the studio, I can’t quite talk about official dates yet. I can talk about that I’m working on black cowboy music, I can’t talk about the record release yet. We’re shooting hopefully by the end of the year having something, and we’re starting to work with Smithsonian Folkways on that. It’s going to be part of the African American Legacy series

That’s so exciting! Very very cool.

Yeah, so that’s going to be a fun one and I also got an album, another one that’s kind of in the works right now, which is me working with the great Martin Simpson, I did some tour dates with him last year or the year before, playing some songs showing British and American musical connections, and that will come out at the end of the year hopefully as well.

 The wealth of music that you know, from 20s and 30s and even before that, why do you think these old folk songs still have their power? Why do you get excited about them, why do you think people still get excited about them? Why are they relevant?

Well these old songs stood the test of time. That’s why they’re so powerful. And a lot of times they speak on the human condition. They speak in a language that’s easy to understand, and they talk about the lives people actually live, not all the glitz and glam of popular music.   Something that drew me in, you know I was always a person who was interested in history, and it gave a voice to the historical events that I had just read about. The song tells you the entire story in the construct of the song. It’s also a lot of the most beautiful poetry you could find in this old music.   Like “Goodbye Old Paint” for example:

Fairwell fair ladies, I’m a leaving Cheyenne

Fairwell, fair ladies I’m a leaving Cheyenne

Goodbye my little Doney, my pony won’t stand

Goodbye Ol Paint I’m leaving Cheyenne

My foots in the stirrups and the bridle’s in my hand

And I’m going out west for to meet the hoolihan

Goodbye Ol Paint I’m leaving Cheyenne

It’s all very basic poetry in a sense, but it’s told by real people who were out there. And I think that’s appealing to everybody. I think even more so now that…see when I was coming up, my formative years of first really hearing music was when like Soundgarden was coming out and later like rap rock, like Limp Bizkit, stuff like that. But even then, that was people playing instruments. I can’t even say I like that stuff. But now it’s so processed. People have gotten into the headspace of “What is Art?” and it is always a question that can mess things up, cause then everybody has a different opinion about what is art, what is music, what are this that and the other and the past couple of years I’ve just kind of gotten tired of the rat race to follow the new thing. I feel like society in general is kind of in to a weird spot. Progress has always been a thing that has driven everybody, but I feel like progress is now…people are starting to hurt themselves with progress, for no reason. And the music reflects that. And that’s the thing too with folk music; it reflects what people are feeling and thinking in the general sense. In a song, the ones that really hit close to home, people can relate to the story and they can find a little bit of themselves in those stories. But I feel like that’s the thing; the pop music that’s been coming out especially in the past five years there’s so much ego in it, and there’s so much non-music in the music. That could mean atmospheric sounds, that could mean artificial drums or anything like that. I think that certain people that are looking for something different, want that something different. And that’s always been an appeal with the old songs, you can get away from the issues of the now and be able to just enjoy what’s been.

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I’ve been reading about what you bring on stage with you and I understand that you have a pretty sweet custom banjo job…

Oh sure that’s Big Head Joe! I was living in New York for several years, and I came across this big six string banjo with this gigantic head, it’s an eighteen inch head, and it’s a six string banjo, a guitar banjo, it’s tuned like a guitar. One of the guys I really have admired over the years is a musician by the name of Papa Charlie Jackson. He was a guy from New Orleans but he made records in Chicago, and he was the first solo self-accompanied blues singer to make popular records. He was the first one to make a hit being a male singer accompanying himself on an instrument. And he played an instrument really similar to this; a big six string banjo. And there are so few recordings of people playing six string banjos!  Johnny St. Cyr he played with Louie Armstrong and The Hot Five, he played the six string banjo, and then there was another guy by the name of Sylvester Weaver; he was a little bit more obscure.   But only like 3 or 4 guys really played the six string banjo on record.  There is always stuff that is going on outside of the commercial record industry. But Big Head Joe, when I saw this instrument; I knew that I had to get it because it was so similar to the sound that Papa Charlie Jackson got. One of my songs that people know me for “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” that’s a Papa Charlie Jackson number. Just being the Papa Charlie Jackson guy, the banjo is just something that has worked so well with me on my own personal journey, as well as historically it tells a big story. I always keep a lot of instruments around. I’ll have big Head Joe with me, of course, I’ll a regular six string guitar, I’ll have another guitar in an open tuning, I’ll have my four string banjo, I’ll also have harmonicas, I’ll also have the quills which, are a little pan pipe instrument, and then I will also have the rhythm bones with me. And anybody who has seen me with those things knows that that’s a fun time.

Thanks so much Dom, I have one more question to wrap it up. We’ve been talking about all the things that go into you being you. You’re performing, you’re writing your own music, you’re also doing so much digging and finding these old songs and these old stories that go with them, how do you see yourself as an artist? Do you see yourself as a songwriter? A song collector? An interpreter? A little of everything?

I guess I see myself as all three in some way. I’m always an interpreter and a songwriter, and then in terms of being a song collector, I found that that just happened as I went along. I’ll even break it into something that is more familiar. For example, when I first got into say 60s rock at first, I heard a group called The Zombies and their album “Odyssey and Oracle.” Now that album isn’t particularly the first one you hear about. You’ll usually hear about “Sgt. Pepper,” you hear about “Pet Sounds,” you usually hear about a variety of other things mid 60s to the late 60s records. But for whatever reason, when I came across it, it totally blew my head off. And also I was surprised at how modern it sounded for being such an old album. And so for me, when it comes to song collecting, you know I could tell my friends about it and they would be like “what?” scratching their heads and just turn the radio on again. That became something that was very important to me; telling people where I got a song from if I felt it was helpful to the story. Telling people about Papa Charlie Jackson. He’s not really the first guy who comes to mind on Blues Scholarship. There’s Robert Johnson, there’s Charlie Patton, There’s Skip James, There’s Son House, there’s like a ton of people. And Papa Charlie, when you listen to his stuff, his music, it isn’t just blues; and see that’s the thing too, people have gotten so used to thinking of an artist as doing one kind of music all the time.

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Putting these guys in these neat little boxes of what they played.

Exactly! The audience, they know full well that they listen to a ton of different stuff, so it’s not like… music goes beyond just a genre you know? If you’re moved by something, you can sometimes be surprised by what’s actually moving you, you know? That was something that drew me in. I would learn these songs, and I would try and perform them as best as I could like I heard them. To be able to show that to people and say “Hey isn’t that cool this song, we have a collective thing.” To start taking myself out of the equation for a certain part of the show, by showing a song that I liked personally, and then I could project my love of that song to the audience, then they’d get a kick out of hearing the song “Oh what’s that one? Oh that’s a really old song, it’s like a hundred years old.” “Wow. I didn’t know that!” And so that’s what got me started in that and then of course with 20s and 30s music, there’s already a circuit of people that do that in general.  When I saw Dave Van Ronk for the first time when I was eighteen, that was something that really blew me away; he would tell stories between every song. Long stories. He only did like ten songs in a ninety minute set. But he told these awesome stories about Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, meeting Clarence Williams the great jazz piano player…the stories were interesting, and I found that as a literature guy (my own college career was in English, Ancient Literature) that became something that was also interesting to me as I got into the academic field, I thought, “Oh ok, well this part of Jazz History never overlapped this part of Blues History, even though they are characters that link together. So Papa Charlie is one of those guys, he played jazz and ragtime, and blues, and pop songs, all in his own repertoire of stuff, and he recorded maybe 100 songs, and then he died in obscurity; no one knows what happened to him. So you get these interesting stories of how could a guy who has made 100 records die and nobody have any idea what happened to him…he just disappeared. That gets you on the detective trail of finding songs and then as I take it on stage I figure out what are the poignant details, what are the best details that describe my story as well as describe their story and then I just hope that the audience walks away feeling good, feeling entertained.  Hopefully they’ve learned something, but people can be dense so you can’t really bank on trying to teach people anything in an entertainment performance like that. But all I can do is give six facts and hope that maybe two or three of them make it!

Well Dom thanks for taking time this has been a blast!

Oh man it’s a pleasure! Thanks so much for calling!

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Concert tickets are $18 General Admission, $14 for SFMS members and $10 for students ages 3-22. Advance tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets online, or toll-free (800) 838-3006. Dom Flemons is presented with support from Your Name in Lights sponsor Rodney Owens and in cooperation with Greenbelt Events. The concert also is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. Funding for Susquehanna Folk Music Society concerts is provided by the Cultural Enrichment Fund and by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, administered locally by the Cultural Alliance of York County. For more information, visit the Susquehanna Folk Music Society website.

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