Dom Flemons performed the cowboy traditional “Goodbye Old Paint” as a disconsolate field holler that called to mind the slave anthems turned gospel songs I used to hear from my auntie’s record player on cold Sunday mornings. Songs like this have a way of unfolding in a layered harmony, with simple verse structures that become more and more beautiful with each repetition, like the petals of a flower unfolding in concentric rings. I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat, feeling something in me melt. Legend has it that a black cowhand named Charley Willis taught this song to another black cowboy named Jess Morris, who registered the composition with the Library of Congress by mail in the early 1940s (John Lomax would make an audio recording of Morris’s performance in 1942). 

In Flemons’s sure hands, the lonesome chorale became broad and bracing. In the silence after each call he lofted into the theater, the notes would echo and rain down on all of our ears. By the time all of the performers gathered for an all-star sing-along of “Home on the Range,” I was, despite myself, near tears. For me it was a call back to my earliest memories. When I was a very small child I used to wander around the house, holding a plastic horse and singing that song to myself, turning its winding melody over and over in my head.”

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