Editor’s note: This is part two of our interview with the Old-Time Music, Piedmont Blues, and Country Blues singer and songwriter. You can find part one here.
What was it like winning a Grammy with The Carolina Chocolate Drops?
It was an overwhelming experience and a great confirmation for me in some way. As I spoke before about leaving Arizona, I was on a trajectory of becoming the greatest in terms of whatever the greatest was going to be. It was when I met Joe Thompson at The Gathering. As I mentioned before, I was interested in the fringe history of the Blues. I kept running into all of these songsters. That is ultimately why I ended up naming myself The American Songster. I found that these musicians had a large variety of songs and their Blues sometimes were irregular compared to a lot of the more standardized Twelve Bar Blues that developed later on in the history of the Blues. I was already interested in that kind of Folk Music and String Band Music.
I wasn’t so much into Old Time fiddle Music that much even though I enjoyed Eck Robertson and the bluesy fiddle stuff. When I saw Joe singing “Steel Drivin’ Man,” which is his version of John Henry, it dawned on me that the perception of the Blues being the dominant Folk music was inherently wrong. It showed me that the broader secular music that preceded the Blues was actually the more dominant form of music that was prevalent in the area. It just so happened that the Blues became extremely popular during the mid to late 1920s in such a way that it just changes our perception as to what people were doing at the time. It made me want to search more into the story.
The Grammy was a confirmation in terms of what I was searching for and what I thought was interesting. I was gigging for seven years before I started The Carolina Chocolate Drops. If you can believe this, the group got a standing ovation every single show whether it was a small crowd or a big crowd. I knew that wasn’t normal. In a certain way I always had in my mind that this group was going to go far. I didn’t know how far and where it was going to go, but I knew that I had to keep pushing as much energy as I could into the group to get it to go as far as it could. I was sort of the de facto A & R man for the group. I would sit down with Rhiannon and Justin from the original group and ask them which songs they were interested in doing. At the time Justin specialized in North Carolina fiddle tunes and Rhiannon specialized in ballads for the most part. I was specializing in Jug Band Music, Early Jazz, and Country Blues. I would sit with them and ask them which songs they would like to perform. I would record them.
At that time, I already had a small tape recorder in Phoenix and I had self-produced my own records for several years up to that point. I wasn’t familiar with a modern studio but it wasn’t the first time I had ever been in front of a microphone or how to record something in a stable environment and try and get a good take. I had already frustrated myself enough times. When you record you have every version of frustrating yourself while trying to make it the best that it can be. So, I had already passed that moment in my musical journey. In many ways when I was talking to the engineers and the producers who made the recordings for The Carolina Chocolate Drops, I was already a very well-informed person as to what I wanted to hear and what I wanted to see captured on each record.
I made the demos and would send the lists of thirty songs to the label. The label would tell me what they thought were the strongest songs and we would have a discussion. I was very much involved with the way in which the albums came together. When we worked with Joe Henry, at that point we had done a lot of independent releases with the Music Maker Foundation. I would like to talk about them a little bit since we are talking on American Blues Scene. They have been really essential and we ultimately did five albums with Music Maker all together. Tim Duffy knew that he was too small of a label to take us to the next level. We started searching out labels and we went with Nonesuch.
When we began to talk about producers, Joe Henry was suggested. One of my policies is I like to talk on the phone with people to see if we are actually going to be able to make good music. If you talk on the phone and everyone is on the same page, usually the music works out great. We were talking with Joe Henry and were talking about albums he recently produced and he mentioned Don’t Give Up On Me by Solomon Burke. It won a Grammy for Solomon Burke and Joe. I thought it was a fantastic record. It had a great feel and great vibe. Because we were touring so hard, we only had I think six days to cut what would become Genuine Negro Jig. Joe told us that he could get us recorded and mixed within those six days. We talked and Joe mentioned Solomon Burke and Solomon was our guiding light.
It is funny now that everyone is talking about Black Country Music but I have always known about Black Country Music and Solomon Burke was a guiding light because he was sort of a Black Country Music artist and R & B singer that just switched between genres. I felt that he was the right guiding force to take us there. When we did Genuine Negro Jig, I felt very confident about it because no-one had heard the sound of the music we were producing. Even in old time circles, the music of Joe Thompson is very different from standard Appalachian String Band Music. One of the reasons for that is because Joe comes from the middle part of North Carolina compared to the western part of North Carolina.
In some ways a lot of String Band Music is from the Asheville area and Joe Thompson’s music is more around Durham North Carolina which is more akin to the music of Blind Boy Fuller, Brownie McGhee, and Sonny Terry. In another way as well, I was really drawn to Joe’s music because of that alone. When Genuine Negro Jig came out, people were so blown away by this style and tone of String Band Music that was Bluesier than any type of Bluegrass that you hear for the most part. Genuine Negro Jig opened up a world of the African derived banjo and also the African derived Folk Music that still permeates within American Music and I think that was something that people were ready to hear. This was also the time when we were touring and President Obama was doing the primaries. This was a time when there was a lot of interest in diversifying the image of African American Culture and allowing African American people to be broader than sort of the standard civil rights manifesto. It was sort of the opening of the culture in a certain type of way. We were able to be a part of it and we were in the wave of that. When the Grammy came in, it was epic.
It was the beginning and the end of the trio in a certain type of way. We had pushed so hard that our original fiddle player Justin was so burnt out he just quit right when the nomination came in. It was the day after. It was a shocking time but at the same time I had always been interested in treating folk music and string music as jazz. I’d always been interested in Bebop and New Orleans Jazz. I noticed the way personnel could be changed out and I always treated The Carolina Chocolate Drops in the same sort of way. I think of the group as the way Duke Ellington treated his band. You have featured people. He wrote parts that made sense for the skills of a featured person like Bub Miley, for example.
Duke Ellington would compose to Bub Miley’s style so that he could look good in addition to the collective. I always treated The Carolina Chocolate Drops like that. After that, we hired new members and kept on for a couple of years. That was the big build up. The Grammys were such an exciting experience for that one. There were many interesting moments. That year for Traditional Blues Pinetop Perkins and Willie Big Eyed Smith had won. It was Pinetop’s last album. As we were walking up, we were watching them and it was really beautiful. Mavis Staples won her first Grammy that year for Contemporary Folk with the album she did with Jeff Tweedy so I was able to meet her.
As I was walking up to the podium, I had my bones in my jacket pocket and I rattled them in the air in exalted joy. I was on top of the world. As I was standing waiting for the portrait this guy tapped me on the shoulder and he was wondering what I had in my hands. I turned around and it was Herbie Hancock. He asked me if I could show him how to play them. I said, “Ok. Yeah.” I taught Herbie Hancock how to play the bones. It was a dream come true and he started to tell me stories when he was in North Carolina he used to play spoons and the bottle. There was an interesting moment when he started to tell me a bit about the musical culture he had grown up with. It sparked something in his mind. These are the things that you can’t anticipate but embrace them when they come your way.
What is a Dom Flemons live show like?
One of the things I am trying to do is to cultivate cultural memory. Cultural memory is a very interesting and a somewhat intangible element to life because if you are five or six years old and your grandfather plays the harmonica, that is something that stays in your mind. Until you see someone who plays harmonica similar to him, you may not remember that that ever happened. During my show I play a lot of songs that will hopefully evoke that feeling from people. I have had a lot of folks come up to me after the show and tell me stories like that where they were brought back home. I was just in Florida and because I mentioned Alabama in a song a woman came up to me and told me it had been years since she had been back to Alabama and she felt like she was brought back home. There are a lot of structural things I tend to do. I try to make sure that I am presenting the largest variety of instruments and performance styles throughout the whole performance. I will have the guitar and the banjo.
The banjos I have are plectrum four string banjos. I will have a five-string gourd banjo and I will have a six-string banjo. It’s called Big Head Joe the giant six string guitar banjo. I will present three or four styles on the guitar and on the banjo. I will play the harmonica and play a few different styles: Country Style of first position harp as well as second position Blues harp. If I have time, I will do The Fox Chase and some show pieces as well. I will do some Henry Thomas and I will pull out the pan pipes and quills. Henry Thomas plays them on his early recordings. I will play the rhythm bones which are little castanets that I keep in my hands. I will present some music with the rhythm bones as well. During the course of the show, I try to tell a little bit about my story through each of those songs. I always start with a Joe Thompson number “Cindy Gal” which I play on the harmonica and the bones just because Joe is one of the guys who really got me to break out of my own home state and leave. I always feel that I need to pay tribute to him.
When I play the Henry Thomas numbers, I think about my good friend Mike Seeger who is also a big influence on me and was also at the Black Banjo Gathering too. He was so kind in letting me come out to his house and we spoke a lot about different types of music. We talked about different types of esoteric African American Music and Old Time Music. Mike had a lot of wonderful field recordings in his personal collection. He tended to burn a lot of stuff for me of stuff that I might ask him. He had a cd burner connected to a record player so he would also make homemade cds for me too. In some ways I am a nightclub act. I tend to like feeling my audience out a bit to see where they are at. Some audiences want to hear a little bit more Blues, some more Country Music, and some want more Folk Music. Some want to hear more instrument music which has been interesting, too. I have some beautiful melodies of North Carolina Piedmont music that I have put together where I do a little bit of Elizabeth Cotten, Etta Baker, and Lesley Riddle. This style of music is very soothing and contemplative in a very relaxing casual way. When I sat down with a lot of the artists at Music Maker, I was really able to figure out how to get that nice driving rhythm that doesn’t ever seem to be going too fast. So that is something that I will play for an audience and they are really moved by just hearing the sound of a song like Railroad Bill for example.
Etta Baker has that beautiful set of variations she does for Railroad Bill. Then of course Black Cowboys takes up a good portion of the middle of the show. With Black Cowboys, I didn’t want it to be just cowboy songs with the word Black in all of the titles. I wanted it to be a natural expression of African American culture as we know it and also how it fits in contemporary culture. Songs like “Black Woman,” for example, which is an African-American field holler. Other songs like “Little Joe Wrangler,” which has no racial designation. When you suggest that the cowboys could be Black cowboys or any other type of ethnicity out there, the song “Little Joe Wrangler” starts to change. The actual impressions of what is happening in the song start to change a bit just by the nature of how history is told as social discourses at that time. I really wanted to touch upon those things and of course there are the songs that I wrote for the album. “Steel Pony Blues,” which I wrote after reading the story of Nat Love, and it is about generational migration which goes back to this doctorate. In a way the song for me is evoking Nat Love. There is also the generational story of my own family where they came in on the train. I repeat “They Call Me Mr. Flemons” in verse three and four. In verse three it is because I am a Pullman Porter and that is sort of a side eye type of comment because anyone familiar with the Pullman Porter’s history knows that it wasn’t a job that had full dignity. Because of that it was a step in the right direction but it’s not the full step. By the time you get to verse four it takes you directly to me.
There is an evolution to get me to where I am at now. I wasn’t brought up on a ranch and I am not a cowboy by trade. I had a fine line to walk. It’s funny that Lil Nas X did exactly what I didn’t want to do, which was to throw a cowboy hat on and say I am a cowboy. That was the one thing I didn’t want to do but maybe I should have. I might have received money out of it if I did. I wanted to show that modern African American culture is connected to their migration of workers. They are literally coming out of slavery and finding their own independent wages as ranchers and going out farther and farther west as The United States is being expanded and given new jurisdictional lines with the Mississippi River. Now in the post-world war era we have folks that are in Compton, L.A., Chicago, and in different parts of the urban centers of The United States that have links to the west. That is something that I wanted to get into the mind frame of the audience as they are listening.
Remember, to evoke cultural memory the audience may think: oh yeah, my uncle did always wear a cowboy hat. My father came from Flagstaff. He was an outlier in Phoenix because he was the first Black guy with wrangler jeans and cowboy boots. People weren’t sure what to make of him because of that. The first half of the show evokes ideas about leaving home; these are things I learned in North Carolina, here are things I learned with the Black cowboys and how it links back to southern musical culture. One thing I have noticed is a lot of people spend a lot of time talking about the white washing of Black cowboys’ story. Now in the twenty-first century there is so much material that you can access that it is almost impossible to suppress that history. My approach is to push Black History forward instead of talking about what people didn’t do. I’m pushing out the information that I found. It was much more than when I was working on String Band Music. Those were really small snippets that needed to be compiled together to form a complete story. That was very difficult because it’s getting into the early Colonial Era.
There was so much information on Black cowboys. There were ridiculous amounts of information available by books, articles, and publications. It just hasn’t been in the public consciousness. Being a nightclub act I tend to crack jokes and now you can count on two hands all the Black cowboy films that have come out since the albums came out. So that is the first half of the show. The second half of the show I am in a seated position. I used to sit down a whole bunch when I played. I saw Dave Van Ronk in Phoenix before I left for North Carolina. I got to see him right before he passed away. His show changed my whole outlook on how I should present my material. I love that he told these interesting anecdotes about each of the songs. Sometimes they may have even been better than the songs. It would be wrong to say that the songs weren’t just as good. I was drawn to that and I like to get back into the position of sitting down.
A lot of people would tell me I look like an old man sitting down all the time. To be able to change the energy of the room standing up giving full energy out there compared to sitting down. It calms the whole situation down in a certain type of way. I get into the deeper Country Blues stuff. I will feel the audience for what they are interested in hearing. That’s when I pull out my open tuned guitar and the banjos: the gourd banjo as well as Big Head Joe, my six-string banjo, who is so big I need to sit down to play it. I can get back into very early American history because with Big Head Joe I will play some Papa Charlie Jackson. I know for a fact that no one has heard someone play Papa Charlie Jackson on an instrument similar to him. It is a beautiful space to talk about the instruments I am playing as well as talk about the history that surrounds the instruments. After doing the seated position for a bit, I will stand up for a bit and I will do a harmonica solo or two. I end out with a slow ballad and one or two up tempos and call it a day. That usually gets about ninety minutes worth. That is structurally where I go and it is the basic skeleton so I don’t get bored with my own show and I try to not have all of my tunes completely fixed into place all of the time.
Same thing with my stories. Sometimes I will tell more stories or less stories and other times I will tell a different story. I have four or five stories for every song. Even if people have seen me twelve times, they may hear me do something different. I have marked out my break sections to have room so I can improvise just ever so slightly. Sometimes if a crowd is really energetic, I also know how to do a bit of the Bluesman thing and shoot a couple of notes back at them. It gives me room to do that. Folk audiences tend to be really quiet. Sometimes they don’t want to say anything so I have my arrangements if it’s a quiet crowd. I don’t hold it against them. I did a gig the other day and some of the folks were two steppers. They requested a Papa Charlie Jackson song I recorded called “Drop That Sack.” I started playing it and they started two stepping right out in the audience. I started to play to them as I have done many square dances before to give them the goods and the rest of the audience likes it too as they like that I am really backing them up. It allows people to see that the show can be three dimensional even though I am just one guy standing up there. It’s all about cultural memory and however people want to interpret things. I am always bringing in new ideas and new songs to keep the audience guessing.
What else do you want to achieve?
That’s the hardest question of all. Everything is the answer, but life only gives you so many years. Everything can never be possible. I am always amazed no matter how many places I’ve gone, there are always new places to go. I am interested in continuing to travel as much as I can. There is always new research that needs to be done. That is something that I have found over time is many times some of the most well-loved songs and the scholarship around those songs has only been done once. Some of the scholarship at times can be over one hundred years old and we have been quoting the same quotes while never referencing back the source material. I found that at a certain point going back to the source material always has its own type of inspiration because then you can find a different perspective on things. A perfect example is when I bought a copy of W.C. Handy’s autobiography Father Of The Blues.
Now I have heard the quote of W.C. Handy hearing the guy playing the strange wild music that sounded like nothing he’d ever heard before again and again. It is something that has been a source of inspiration because it is also a very intriguing story. When I read his book, the whole route was just a small excerpt and Handy himself mentions that the weird strange music the guy is playing is on the guitar in the style popularized by Hawaiian musicians at the time. That changes the whole perception of what the scene looked like. For me, I was thinking of a Bukka White guy sitting with a bottleneck. Handy said the guy was playing it over his lap which is more in line with Sylvester Weaver doing ‘Guitar Blues’ which would be very popular later. Henry Thomas has “Shanty Blues” which is kind of like a version of “Bootleggers’ Blues” or Bukka White’s “Po’ Boy.”
Even when you see how Charley Patton is holding the guitar in his lap or when he does “Spoonful” or “Mississippi Bo Weevil Blues.” Now I have been given a whole other impression of what these photos might mean. Before you see the picture of Patton you may be wondering what hand position is that and I don’t know how he must have been playing that thing. To know that that is a part of it, there is inside in that. In the digital age what would stop someone looking up Hawaiian musicians coming through Mississippi during those years? You might even be able to find a name. These are things I feel we have such an opportunity in the twenty-first century with new information and documentaries coming out all of the time and things like that.
There is always an expansion of Folk Music History. It just makes it exciting to go into the job every day. Getting this doctorate has knocked me down a peg because in my wildest dreams I would have thought I could have received a doctorate. It also has had me in deep reflection because it is such an honor and now when I show up to gigs being Dr. Dom in the same way that Dr. Ralph Stanley was able to take on that title. Thankfully, I have always done my due diligence so I am never intimidated by titles like that. It is going to be a whole new world with this type of thing. I am always writing a lot of essays for people. My good friend Jerry Zolten published a new edition of his book Great God A’Mighty: The Story of The Dixie Hummingbirds and I wrote a forward for that. At some point there is going to be a big box set on Specialty Records coming out and I wrote an intro for that. I am keeping up and trying to keep a real open mind on how I can be a help to the community. There are so many conversations going on at the moment that I just want to make sure my material and information I am putting out there is helping everybody.
Music is ultimately for everybody. We can draw lines in music as we all know when a song moves you and you are compelled to follow that sound that is something that is for everybody. I try to treat my material in a manner that everyone can appreciate it as well as create dignity and respect for the cultures that are being talked about. I feel like I am living like a Doctor Who kind of existence. One day I will be deep in the south all the way to being in New York City and finding a person who has held on to a piece of sheet music from the 1870s. I get things all the time from scholars in the mail that know I have an interest in certain types of old material. I will get random packages that will be beautiful collections of material. They know I am a scholar and they want it to go to a good home. Just to be able to do this makes it more exciting to go into work.