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The Making of an American Songster

Dressed in his signature Australian hat and suspenders, Dom Flemons performs to entertain—yes—but also to educate audiences about the authentic roots from which his early traditional music playlist grew. Doing so takes research which is often extensive and time-consuming. Ah …but the results are rewarding.

He started playing drums in high school, which got him going. Playing percussion gave him a sense that you could play multiple instruments simultaneously and still be a single musician. "That's kind of my first introduction to the idea of being the multi-instrumentalist." Halfway through high school, Flemons got the bug to play guitar and wrote folk songs and rock 'n roll. "I started busking on the streets and in coffee houses." He said he did that for many years, from high school to college, and was an open book when it came to music, admitting that he loved folk, country, blues, ragtime, jazz, and rock'n'roll.

The first time Dom Flemons heard Flat and Scruggs's "Rollin' in my Sweet Baby's Arms," he was hooked. "I heard that classic sound and was drawn to it. And being a fan of songs with words and melodies, bluegrass is just a treasure trove, so I was drawn to the sound because of that."

He studied everything from the earliest bluegrass to the 90s and into the early 2000s, confessing that his evolution as a musician happened through stories about people like Arnold Shultz, whose influence on Bill Monroe and bluegrass has not yet been fully exposed and credited. Discoveries like this prod you into "thinking critically about literature, what bluegrass represents as a musical style, and how Shultz influenced Monroe and bluegrass."

In 2005, Flemons attended "The Black Banjo Gathering" event held at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

"That's where I met [Joe] Thompson for the first time." Thompson, a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) 2007 National Heritage Fellow, was born in 1918 into a traditional string band family that included his brother Nate and, later on, his cousin, Odell. But by the time Flemons met Joe, Nate and Odell had passed away. "When I met Joe for the first time, I got to see firsthand the power of the early black folk music," said Flemons. "I had never really spent a lot of time listening to fiddle music. So, when Joe did this very bluesy style of fiddle, specifically his version of John Henry, Steel-Driving Man, I was completely enamored with everything he represented."

Flemons would leave Arizona to go to Joe's house in Carolina, which is how the Carolina Chocolate Drops formed. "We would sit around the table and play songs for hours, and [Joe] would tell stories about growing up. He just wanted to sit and play. That was something that brought him a lot of joy." Joe's open-door policy encouraged many in the music community to come, including The Avett Brothers. "[Joe] was a very, very giving individual with his music. When we [The Carolina Chocolate Drops] started playing consistently as a black band, it sparked a sort of new energy in Joe. It was something I don't think he necessarily anticipated. We could back him up and take him out on gigs and stuff. I think he enjoyed the sound of a four-person band."

However, Flemons did much more than music with Joe. He conducted personal recordings of conversations with him, documenting along the way and getting to know the people at Music Maker Relief Foundation. "I got to know the staff over there, Tim and Denise Duffy, while I was touring with the Chocolate Drops. I was going over to people's houses that were old-time blues songsters, like John Dee Holeman and Algia Mae Hinton, who played music that ran parallel to the fiddler/banjo music I was doing. I was riding two different waves."

Flemons played with the Carolina Chocolate Drops for nearly ten years, drifting, as he said, between communities of modern musicians in bluegrass and people interested in preserving those styles. "Then I found myself with musicians I had never anticipated, like Little Jimmy Dickens and Marty Stuart on the Grand Old Opry in 2008. I could start connecting with them on the same musical level. My involvement also allowed for some reconciliation, which started happening when I performed there."

His roots music expeditions led Flemons to Texas Worried Blues, an album featuring Henry Thomas recordings. "I was floored by this fellow's music, and he played this special instrument called the quills, which sounded like a panpipe. And being a big fan of Peruvian music and other panpipe music, I was drawn to it instantly because it opened up the idea of what old-time American music can be. There have only been a few people that have recorded the instrument." Quills, reminiscent of a child's instrument, evolved into the harmonica. Therefore, most quills players tend to be harmonica players. Canned Heat adapted Thomas's "Bull Doze Blues" into their international hit, "Going up to the Country."

"I got obsessed with figuring out how to play the instrument and finding panpipes to recreate this sound. It wasn't until I met Mike Seeger in 2005 that I started playing the quills. At every concert, I do the quills on at least one song. Where Henry Thomas got them from is a mystery, and what he was actually trying to recreate is not particularly clear, which I kind of like. That's a part of my presentation. These kinds of things open the door to a broader aspect of American music and what it can be."

Flemons believes in using music to teach youth about culture and tradition. There is power in Sankofa, an African word from the Akan tribe in Ghana, meaning to "go back and fetch it." The Sankofa image reveals a bird flying forward, but touching its beak to a wing, going forward but remembering the past. "I tend to go back to Sankofa. How you create that effect, I've always found that that's a little different every time. Early on, when I was getting my BA in English, that was one of the things that I was moonlighting in the record library on the University's campus. I've always been obsessed with literature, words, stories, and songs."

Choosing the title American Songster instead of African American Songster was intentional because Flemons hopes to advance African American culture as American culture. He stressed that separation is part of the social trauma and hopes to develop this history into a standardized account, believing that ballads are a great way to begin to talk about the human condition, social conditions, and people's feelings and emotions. "Old-time ballads cover so much of that. I feel that the blues are the same way."

Many songs from the early string band, especially from slavery times, "are very elliptical lyrically," he said. "Some songs speak of slavery, and I've started seeing people notice the lyrics." Musicians like Lead Belly and Mississippi John Hurt pushed ahead in pushing African American music in blues. "But they presented something else," he added. "They presented something of themselves that has become undeniable and unmistakable. I never got caught up in white or black because if I performed it, it was a black song. I never try to force it on people." When Flemons does a Roy Acuff song, he styles it in more of the African American vernacular.

"I think there's been an ideological shift for now recognizing that even though we all understand there is a collective of music that is wonderful and amazing, there are things that have been missing, whether it was consciously or not."

GRAMMY Award-winning musician and scholar Dom Flemons, also known as "The American Songster," will release his anticipated new album, Traveling Wildfire, on March 24 on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (pre-order here). In advance of the release, the new song, "Slow Dance With You," is debuting today with an ATMOS mix.

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