The common image of cowboys is usually a John Wayne-type — a handsome man with a quick draw. Or maybe it’s something based on a real-life cowboy, herding cattle in muddied boots. Regardless, the collective image is definitely white.
The world typically understands American cowboys as brave (white) men conquering the Wild West and in doing so, erasing the presence of everyone who isn’t white.
Folk singer Dom Flemons, who plays the Ace Hotel on Thursday, is trying to change how we see these figures with his album Black Cowboys. It’s a collection of covers and originals meant to provide a comprehensive history of the cowboy that is missing from our lexicon.
“Cowboys are one of the most enduring and prominent images in American culture, and I learned that one in four cowboys who helped settle the West were black,” says Flemons, born and raised in Phoenix.
His album covers various pieces of black cowboy history, from Nat Love, an escaped slave turned cowboy, to Bass Reeves, who was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger.
Black Cowboys features a version of “Home on the Range,” one of the most recognizable American cowboy songs. What’s lesser known is that the most recognizable version comes from a recording of a black cook in 1908.
Flemons also wrote three original songs for the album: “One Dollar Bill” is about Hollywood’s “sepia-toned” cowboys; “Steel Pony Blues” is about Love; and “He’s a Lone Ranger” is about Reeves.