Dom Flemons is an American Grammy-winning Old-Time Music, Piedmont Blues, and Country Blues singer and songwriter. He plays multiple instruments including banjo, fife, guitar, harmonica, percussion, rhythm bones, and quills. He is known as The American Songster and his music consists and spans over a century of American Folklore, Ballads, and Tunes. He has performed with Mike Seeger, Joe Thompson, Martin Simpson, Boo Hanks, Taj Mahal, Old Crow Medicine Show, Guy Davis, and The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. A founding member of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons has released five albums under his own name.
Flemons says, “I want to experiment rather than to merely replicate. It can never be as good as the original, so I make the music fit my own style. I look at the Old-Time Music, the originals of Black Banjo Music for the Carolinas, the fiddle and the sounds of folks like Sid Hemphill, Henry Thomas, and Peg Leg Howell.” In 2022, Northern Arizona University awarded Dom with an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.
Who are your favorite Blues and Folk artists?
There are a few folks from the 1920s. Henry Ragtime Texas Thomas, Papa Charlie Jackson, Mississippi John Hurt, Big Bill Broonzy, and Son House. If I were to move over to the post war Blues, I’ve always been a fan of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James. I have always been a fan of the musicians on the fringe areas of Blues scholarship. People like Peg Leg Howell, Barbecue Bob, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Sid Hemphill, and Jim Jackson. Boy I could go on all day. Daddy Stovepipe. There are a few more standard people like Blind Lemon, Charley Patton, and Sleepy John Estes. I always forget to mention him, but I love Sleepy John’s stuff.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished recording a new record and that should be out next year. I am not exactly sure when. I think the first quarter of 2023. It has been recorded and we mastered it. Now we are working on the rest of it; the packaging and stuff like that. It will have a nice variety of material. When it comes to bluesier stuff I have a little of Reverend Gary Davis on it and I have a couple of bluesy banjo numbers as well as a couple of original country blues songs that I wrote.
Over the past couple of years there are a couple of highlights I would like to point out. Skip, Skat, Doodle-Do from the soundtrack of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. That is a song from The Louisville Jug Band. I played jug on that and Branford Marsalis put it together and I have always been an advocate for Ma Rainey. That is something that I did recently. Also, I was a part of a Grammy nominated album this year, Tyler Childers Long Violent History. I played jug as well as Big Head Joe, the name of my six-string banjo, on it as well as bones and harmonica. It is more of an Old-Time record and there is a track called ‘Sludge River Stomp’ that has a pretty Blues melody that would be of interest to people. Tyler was inspired to do this juxtaposition of Old-Time Music next to very poignant songs. “Long Violent History” was inspired after hearing about the murder of Breonna Taylor.
It was a very heavy project but “Long Violent History” is the only singing song and the rest are instrumental numbers. He is known as a singer and he started to learn to play the fiddle. It is a double fiddle record and it is a really beautiful Old-Time record. During the pandemic, I had the great fortune to go into Sun Studios in Memphis with my good friend Reverend Peyton and his group Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. We did a remake of Elmore James’ classic track, “Shake Your Money Maker.”
I was a part of the Blues Hall of Fame awards in 2019 and co hosted and inducted the song into the Hall of Fame. At the end of the night, there was a big jam session and I happened to catch Reverend Peyton and Steve Cropper rocking “Shake Your Money Maker” in such a big way that I got everyone to come down to Sun Studios and we recorded the single. It’s Reverend Peyton, myself, and Steve Cropper just killing a version of “Shake Your Money Maker.” A couple years back I played Joe Hill Louis, The One-Man Band, for a Sun Records T.V. program.
Can you talk about your recent show in Chicago regarding honoring the Bronzeville Mural “The History of The Packinghouse Worker”?
That was pretty amazing. The Charles Hayes Center is where the actual event happened. It was interesting when people came in because the multipurpose room where we were playing was the place where all the elder black people would get together for social events. A lot of people had a lot of memories of the venue when they were walking through including Toronzo Cannon who was on the bill. He had a lot of memories of being a kid and running around the multipurpose room.
The mural itself was painted by a fella named Bill Walker and it was painted in the early 1970’s. Bill Walker was a painter who was inspired by Diego Rivera to make this beautiful story of the packinghouse workers in the South Side of Chicago. Chicago is known for being one of the slaughterhouse capitals of the world especially during the World War II era for cattle and pigs. There were several different moments where there were struggles between the workers and the corporate business people.
Of course, this is also mashed in with the train baron era because all of these workers were using the Pullman Trains as they were working back and forth between the South Side and where they worked. There was a very multi-faceted story that Bill Walker wanted to tell that he decided to display on his mural. They were restoring the mural and displaying the restoration. Sadly, it was raining that day so we didn’t get to have the event outside in front of it like we had originally planned.
First, they wanted me to do a few work songs that talked about work in general. That would have been fine in one way but I wanted to write a song about Chicago with a positive uplifting message for the South Side of Chicago. In recent years they have been trying to pull the South Side out of just being known as a place where there is only violence and dishevelment like you see on the news a lot of the time. I have been seeing this for a while.
When I was writing the song, I was trying to think of different ways to talk about the culture of the South Side. One thing to know about Chicago is that there is not just one type of people. Particularly with the South Side there are a lot of people from the Deep South that have open lines of communication with the deep south. Mississippi is one of the big places that a lot of people know but I noticed that there are people from Alabama, Georgia, and even Kentucky. They made their way up to Chicago for work and some people have just been there for three to four generations. For example, my wife’s grandmother is from Mississippi and her mom grew up in the South Side. My wife, Vania, grew up more north of the South Side. They have very deep roots in their family history and apparently her great grandfather was a very prominent preacher in Mississippi and he preached at Progressive Baptist Church near Sox stadium. They have a very deep history of the full migration and movement from Mississippi. A lot of people in the area have that sort of history. I wanted to touch upon that.
I have one verse that goes, “The collard greens and black-eyed peas and stories still untold. Granny said I’s from Mississippi and that’s all you need to know. But granny what about the young folks on the streets and in the news? They want to show that their home aint livin’ the Blues. So, take me back to Bronzeville, that’s where I want to go. The South Side of the city where the Pullman whistle blows. On the L train that’s rumblin’ and it’s rattlin’ my window sill. Take me back to the South Side, take me back to Bronzeville.”
When I performed the song, it was really great to see people react to some of the verses. The packing house mural is just one of several murals in the South Side. There was another guy named Calvin Jones who helped commission a bunch of other murals in the South Side. One of the phrases is History, Hope and Heritage. It’s right on one of the entrances to the South Side of Chicago. One of the big notions around these murals is that the children need to see that there is history, hope and heritage and it is one of the ways in which they can rise above a lot of the lower income situations that happen in the South Side and be able to see beyond the desolation within that community.
Another verse goes, “And the packinghouse workers have a message for you all. Our strength is born when we all unite under a single glorious dream and that’s to look our children in the eyes and say you got it better than me.” I wanted to bring those ideas together just to really incorporate the idea of what Bill Walker was trying to tell with History, Hope and Heritage. It was a beautiful event and I wish I could have stayed for the whole time. I received this interesting phone call from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and they decided to honor me with an honorary doctorate. I had to leave the stage from the South Side and jump on a plane to Arizona to do the commencement ceremony. Now I am a Doctor of Humane Letters.
What was it like recently receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Northern Arizona University?
The Doctorate of Humane Letters is dedicated to people who have used their platform to create truth and heritage and help expand the general public’s knowledge. It was a great confirmation for me in many ways and it is one of the main reasons I became a professional musician in the first place. When I was in college, I was never a professional musician and I didn’t do it for a living. It wasn’t until I went to North Carolina that I made a real go at being a professional. A lot of times people associate that I have only done work with The Carolina Chocolate Drops, but I was gigging for seven to eight years before I was in the band. I never thought that there was enough interest in the type of Folk music I was doing to make a living. When I went to the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005, that was a month before I graduated and I saw that there was a need to help expand the understanding of African American String Band Music and Folk Music in a particular context. A lot of times, the Blues and Gospel music has dominated the study of African American Folk Music.
When I started to listen to people like Henry Thomas, Mance Lipscomb, and Lead Belly, I started to get a broader impression of what Black Folk Music could be. I started listening to John and Alan Lomax’s Field Recordings as well as Sam Charters and a lot of the albums on Folkways. I was really interested in trying to connect the dots between Jazz, Ragtime, Country Music, Blues, and Folk Music. I saw they all had moments where they overlapped. A lot of the books I was reading at the time never put the two things together. I think in some ways we are spoiled by digital technology because now we can have cross referencing within a text. I found all of these interesting overlaps and crossroads that I wanted to explore. The Black Banjo Gathering was a perfect moment to see that there was a brand-new type of Folk Scholarship on the rise and I wanted to be there for that.
I didn’t have anything that was holding me back, so I sold everything I had and drove out to North Carolina and started the group and playing on my own. I started to really study and pursue the music. After doing that for close to twenty years to be able to hear from my alma mater, it was a great confirmation. In a certain way I had my degree but I wasn’t actually trying to use it per say. At the same time being an English Major and having studied different types of ancient literature, I found that I was leagues above and ahead of most people when it comes to Folk Scholarship.
A lot of Folk and Roots musicians are great performers and songwriters, but when it comes to the intricacies of scholarship, history, subtleties, and even the etymology of words and vernacular, it is a lot to take in. I found when I was making my way out there, I was glad that I studied Chaucer and the book I Say Me For A Parable which is the autobiography of Mance Lipscomb. It was written in his vernacular and it is a seven-hundred-page book. It is written as he spoke it and none of the nomenclatures are the same at all. Words are never consistently spelled the same way and it’s all in Mance Lipscomb’s particular dialect. A lot of people cannot read the book as they need a consistency in the way the words look.
For me, I was never hindered by stuff like that as I studied the Romance Languages and the etymology of English. I could read it and make sense of what was written. It was great to see that my language training had been acknowledged with the work I had done afterwards. I translated it from being boring linguistics into more exciting fun music that can inform and educate people through the phrases and the style using a particular instrument. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out ways to have very multi-faceted arrangements on each of my songs, so when you hear it, you can take away a lot of different things.
How did Arizona shape your musical sound?
With Arizona being such a wide-open space, there weren’t a lot of people telling me not to do. That was very helpful in many ways because my studying and my research really came from a lot of my own experiences. I had a lot of people that were really supportive of me when I first started playing. I would go to the Folk Festivals in Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Tucson. I would perform there from age sixteen until twenty-three when I left Arizona. I got to know a lot of people and a lot of people were not doing the type of music that I was playing. At the same time, it is very much a round robin culture in the Folk Scene and you have jamming on old numbers, Gospel numbers, and Bluegrass numbers.
A lot of Arizona culture has been built around knowing that everyone has a very individual style. So, there’s a lot more room for storytelling as well as really showcasing your individual style and letting everyone know. It is very much in the round robin style where one person plays and then another person plays and then another plays. It was something that was very good for me as I was starting out. I was never trying to be a professional musician during the early years, I was just interested in music. I listened to anything I could find on record or in the public library. In one way when it came to me singing lead, I was much more comfortable as a solo performer and I was always drawn to that. That was one aspect of it.
When I started listening to more Country Blues, that turned me on to different ways to play my instruments. Also being a kid that grew up in the eighties with Rock & Roll and all of those things around, they were a part of the landscape and I was always influenced by those things too. In Phoenix they had a great fifties and sixties station that used to play all the Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Doo-Wop music. A lot of my introduction before I got deep into the Blues was a lot of what came after the post war Blues era, which was a lot of early Rock & Roll, Rockabilly stuff, and the R & B. Once I got into that, I started to see with an acoustic guitar I could play polyrhythms.
When I started out in fifth grade, I played percussion. My one formal training as a musician came when I was in the school band playing percussion. By the time I was in high school, I played in the bass drum line. I played four different bass drums and I had to teach the other three people how to play the bass drum parts; the idea of polyrhythms and how they are structured and how the different parts fit together. In some ways the polyrhythm on the third part doesn’t necessarily make too much sense by itself. It is not really a tangible rhythmic line but when you have the first two levels of your percussion you can find a beautiful third rhythm that makes a tune.
I found a lot of inspiration when I started hearing people like Charley Patton because he was using those bass lines. I always liked Piedmont Blues too. When I first heard Elizabeth Cotten for the first time, I was completely enamored with her style of playing. It was so smooth and rolling. I found that people like Charley Patton had those really nice bass note lines that they would do where there was space between them. Bukka White is another person that I was always drawn to. To link back to this doctorate my grandfather was a sawmill worker out in Flagstaff.
My dad grew up in Flagstaff. At that time in the fifties, it was a rural settlement. My grandparents were super old timey and they came from east Texas and Arkansas. When I went to North Carolina it was very comforting and familiar to meet some of the older Blues singers because they did remind me of my grandparents. My grandpa was a Church of God and Christ Preacher. He was a Holiness Pentecostal Preacher that would travel between all the different areas of northern Arizona. Every once in a while, I would find something that would link to him to show me where he fit in the grand scheme of things.
There was a preacher that recorded for the Arhoolie Label named Reverend Louis Overstreet. His stuff is really intense, beautiful electric guitar bass drum Gospel music that is made to make you feel the spirit and jump up and down. He was based out of Phoenix, Arizona. As I picked up a record of his for the very first time, I noticed that he had a church in Phoenix. I asked my grandpa about him and he knew him very well. He helped him get from Louisiana to Arizona so he could set up in Phoenix. I even showed him some of the old footage as there is some footage of some of the ladies doing the holiness dance and it’s a super African looking dance.
I asked my grandmother about it and she told me she used to do it all the time but then became too old. It was like a Rock & Roll concert. Being from Flagstaff it had a vibrant music scene but people were a little bit indifferent if your music and your act wasn’t interesting enough. That was also very influential to me as I developed as a musician. I was always trying to figure out how to get people to look up from their beer and pay attention. It was very difficult and it is a tough town. It is one of the tougher towns that I have played in all of my career in terms of really getting people to listen.
That was a great education. A lot of musicians tend to get the impression that the audience has to care. Sometimes they just don’t and you have to put a little effort to entice them with what you are giving. With the Black Cowboys album which I would do later, there were a lot of cowboy poets, cowboy songwriters, and singers that played traditional songs and talked about the culture. At the festivals they would have people from the pioneer days. There was always a lot of that around even though I never really did a lot of cowboy material before I left Arizona. Bob Corritore would always be around the Phoenix Folk Festival. There was a Blues scene that was connected to the Folk Scene. Everyone was trying to make as much music as possible in Phoenix and it is just such a spread-out town. Nothing is really close to each other.
Can you talk about American Songster Radio?
I started American Songster Radio in 2015. My original first two seasons were done on North Carolina Public Radio WUNC. Currently season three is on WSM in Nashville, TN. It has been great that WSM wanted to revive American Songster Radio. I thought that was awesome in itself. The first idea for American Songster Radio came from I just wanted to show people that I had interests beyond the songs I play. I do a variety of music but I also listen to a variety of music as well. I have never been a musician hung up in trying to show people all the music I listen to. I just work with the skills that I have. I wanted to try and find a platform in which I could showcase some of the types of records that are out there. Even in the digital age everyone has a standard as to what the Blues should be. Everybody knows who Muddy was and Robert Johnson.
After a certain point around 2010, I noticed that young people had no idea what the Blues were at all. They didn’t even know what twelve bars were. It was stark after a certain point. I was doing a lot of educational programming as well as touring and I noticed kids didn’t really know anything. They are just not being exposed to it and the access with the internet and digital technology is so widespread that it would be impossible for anybody to be able to just focus in. James Brown was always the Godfather of Soul and what happens when people don’t even know who is? The living memory of a musician like James Brown may just sort of fade into the generation that knew him or people who heard his records.
I found American Songster Radio helps with this. I found another aspect was that over time I have been able to meet and know some very well acclaimed and famed musicians. Some are super famous and some are not as famous but just as awesome in a totally different way. I always found that I was in conversations with them and they would tell me these awesome stories. I always wanted to figure out a way to document these stories because they usually don’t come up except in conversation. I can kind of pull their chain a little bit and get them to talk about some interesting aspect of what doesn’t consist of the normal album cycle interview.
It started with Taj Mahal and having been able to get to know Taj Mahal. Anyone who knows Taj, knows that he will hold court and he will have some amazing stories to tell. One of my favorite albums of his is called Recycling The Blues And Other Related Stuff. The cover is a picture of Taj with Mississippi John Hurt. I had to ask him about it because I thought it was at the Newport Folk Festival. I told him I loved the picture of him at Newport and he told me it wasn’t at Newport but at The Philly Folk Fest. He told me another story about hanging out with John Hurt at the Philly Folk Fest. It is something that no-one could tell me but Taj because of his personal experience. That is the foundation and where I want to go with American Songster Radio.
I recently interviewed Billy Strings, and I have known him since 2014. I have caught him through a few different phases of his career. When we were together on this recent season of American Songster Radio, I wanted to run down a lot of his journey up until this point and where he’s at with everything because now he’s a Grammy winner and he’s selling out big stadiums. I knew him way before any of that was even possible. I knew him when he was barely making it and running down the road in a busted-up van with Don Julin who was his old singin’ partner. He has always had a really good heart and head on his shoulders. He told me some really amazing stuff about his career and how he has been able to maneuver throughout the years. It was a pretty beautiful interview. I almost try to take a fan’s perspective on a musician. I was interviewing Steve Martin, which is not up yet, and he has an album called The Steve Martin Brothers.
On one side of the cover, he is in a pink suit which is his normal Hollywood guy look he had during his standup years and then the other side is a picture of him with a beard and he is holding his banjo and he has all this turquoise on him. I asked him where he got all the turquoise from and I asked him what happened to that look. Just to be able to have a little joke with him on it and get his perspective on it was really interesting.
He told me he was hanging out with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band a whole bunch and they were the guys who helped him start making records. Will McEuen is the guy who produced all of his first standup records. It was really interesting to see Steve Martin as a contemporary to The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band even though I have never thought of the two acts being right next to each other. That was the premise around it. I’ve experimented with different themes and I did one as well with Dr. William R. Ferris who is a great Mississippi Blues Scholar. We did one theme called Three Songs That Changed Your Life, and it was really beautiful.
I pulled out three records that I thought were really great and I talked about why I liked the songs and Bill pulled out three records that he thought were great. It was great to get deeper into the mind of another music enthusiast. I connect with a lot of other musicians on the road and it is usually because we are all in some ways connected to these albums; the forebears of recorded history that we hold really close to our hearts. Even though a vinyl record is just a piece of plastic, there is something to it. Sometimes you have that record where if the house is burning down, you’re going to get that record. This is where the heart of American Songster Radio ultimately comes from.