It’s fitting that Black Cowboys, the latest record from writer, storyteller, historian, and songster Dom Flemons, was released on Smithsonian Folkways, the non-profit label arm of the eponymous museum and its Center for Folklife — the album plays and reads like a museum exhibit in musical form. This collection of songs, from traditional Western folk melodies to African slaves’ field hollers to Flemons’ timeless originals, celebrates the heritage of African American cowboys in the Wild West.
The existence of black cowboys has largely been omitted from the greater historical record, relegated to forgotten dime store novels, dusty biographies, and seldom-sung songs. The commercial narratives that took the nation by storm in the last century, such as Wild West rodeo shows, singing cowboys, and myriad television shows and films, largely centered on whiteness and white heroes as the keystones of the pioneer West. Flemons understood the larger, more complicated picture — in part due to his African American and Mexican American heritage and growing up in Arizona. With this record and its exhaustive liner notes he brings these integral stories, these neatly interlocking puzzle pieces of black identities shaping the American West, out into the mainstream.
When I listen to this record and read through the liner notes it strikes me that the crux of the entire project is revisionist history and figuring out how to undo it.