‘Songster’ Dom Flemons is still carving out a path of his own

by Marty Lipp
dom flemons interview



Before Spotify, before CDs, before LPs, there was the songster. And today, there is the American Songster, Dom Flemons.

In the 18th century, a songster was a book compiling lyrics of popular songs, so that in the era before recorded music, people could sing them. Around the turn of the 20th century, the term came to mean a musician who travelled around like a human jukebox playing the popular songs of the day.

Flemons — who will perform at The Loft at City Winery in Philadelphia on April 18 (his April 19 show at Roy’s Hall in Blairstown has been cancelled) — has adopted the old term to encompass his wide-ranging repertoire. Born and raised in Phoenix, Flemons first came to national attention with the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, a trio of Black musicians who explored the traditional Piedmont style of music from North Carolina. He struck out on his own in 2014, exploring a variety of American genres, including blues and country, often highlighting the Black contributions to these rural styles that today are popularly thought of as the province of white musicians and audiences.

“I was feeling that just calling myself a folksinger or a blues singer felt like it was sort of a limiting term for the type of music I was doing, because I was playing a lot of different types of styles of American music,” Flemons says.

Flemons has become a performer, educator and archivist, mining the many veins of American traditional music that have been eclipsed by commercial music. For many years, he principally tapped and updated old songs, but on his latest album, Traveling Wildfire, he leans more heavily toward original songs that echo the older styles.

The cover of Dom Flemons’ album, “Traveling Wildfire.”

On his musical journey, Flemons has taught himself how to play a variety of instruments. On Traveling Wildfire, he plays more than a dozen. For his solo tour, he says, “I’ll have more of a reduced arsenal of instruments. I have my banjo with me, and my guitar, the harmonica, the bones, and the quills.” The last two are a percussion instrument made of bone or wood and a type of panpipe.

To research old styles of music, Flemons searches through used record stores across the country (his collection now tops 5,000 albums). He also has studied with veteran musicians, such as the late North Carolinian fiddler Joe Thompson, who inherited Piedmont music via face-to-face sessions with his elders.

“When someone like Joe was making music, it was part of a family tradition that had been passed down for several generations,” Flemons says. “So for him, it was just something that was a part of the cultural landscape. It was the music that they performed during the right times of the year. It was something that was very much a casual part of their general community. Nowadays, of course, we have music that is much more of a commodity and it’s something that we digest as a commercial product. And that’s something that’s very different.”

While his repertoire, including his original songs, evoke a very different era in American history, Flemons notes that he finds them still relevant.

“When I’m arranging songs, they don’t seem too far away from the present moment,” he says. “One of the proverbs I’ve used for many years has been the Ashanti proverb, sankofa, which means ‘go back and fetch it.’ It’s a proverb that defines this idea of enriching the future by bringing the lessons from the past forward.

“I think that the messages are all the same. That’s one of the things that’s beautiful about American music in particular. I feel like the messages remain just as valid as they were back when they were presented years ago. And I think it’s because they’re the same issues. The same nuggets of wisdom. The same messages of hope for social change. …

“The validity of some music like the blues is that there’s always going to be someone who has that blue feeling and has to overcome situations that are sometimes out of their control. And the music is there to create a voice and create a conduit for those ideas, for that type of progress.”


From left, Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons of Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Flemons’ tour comes at a time when there is unprecedented reexamination of the Black contributions and presence in American rural culture and music. The most attention-getting manifestation of that is Beyoncé’s recent chart-topping single “Texas Hold ‘Em,” which features Rhiannon Giddens, who was in the Carolina Chocolate Drops with Flemons.

In 2018, Flemons released the Grammy-nominated album Black Cowboys, and on Traveling Wildfire, “Nobody Wrote It Down” reminds listeners of Black stories that are infrequently remembered.

“The Carolina Chocolate Drops were able to present old-time styles that were very far removed from popular Black music at the time,” Flemons says. “That was its own journey in and of itself. And that was its own trajectory, an uphill battle at that, to help redefine — and to help refine — the ways that people thought about early American music.”

As much as Flemons’ music honors the past, he says he does not want to simply copy it. It’s a delicate balance of respectfully expanding the tradition that he strives to maintain.

“Sometimes if you’re too strict on those lessons from the past,” he says, “you lose out on where you can go and how you can open up the musical tradition to new possibilities.”

For more on Flemons, visit theamericansongster.com.


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