Those are just two of the facts unearthed by Dom Flemons when he researched his Smithsonian Folkways album Black Cowboys. Flemons, who plays Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on Thursday night (August 30), calls himself “the American Songster.” He’s a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning old-timey string ensemble the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group that taught the general public that the banjo is an African instrument.
A musician proficient on four-string banjo, guitar, jug, harmonica, kazoo, snare drum, bones, quills, vocals and more, Flemons has become the latest success story in a cultural awakening to the contributions of minorities to the popular diaspora with tipping points from the success of movies like “The Black Panther” and just these last two weeks, “Crazy Rich Asians.” Black Cowboys spent seven consecutive weeks on Billboard Bluegrass chart, charted up to No. 2 on the Folk radio chart, and has garnered other spotlights in Wide Open Country, Cowboys & Indians Magazine, Washington City Paper, American Blues Scene and American Songwriter.
Flemons has appeared on the Grand Ole Opry three times since May when he was the only solo performer on a night that celebrated Carrie Underwood as a 10-year Opry member and also showcased Old Crow Medicine Show and Riders in the Sky. He is the grandson of a man who worked as a preacher and sawmill laborer in the same Arizona town Nat Love called home, and after emigrating from Mexico, his maternal ancestors became civil rights leaders in Arizona.
Half black and half Mexican, Flemons is an historian, music scholar and collector with published articles in the Oxford American, New York Times Magazine, Ecotone, No Depression Magazine and Mother Jones. He’s on the Board of Directors for Folk Alliance International, and his memorabilia is housed in the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. His liner notes for Black Cowboys take up a 40-page album insert. So, when he says the genesis for the Lone Ranger was a black man, I stand up and salute.
“Bass Reeves (the real Lone Ranger) was born into slavery,” Flemons explains. “He also lived with the Cherokee nation. He was a deputy marshal for Isaac Parker, the hanging judge. The oldest brother in the Dalton Gang clan was another deputy marshal who was assigned by Judge Parker in the same year that Bass Reeves was assigned as a marshal. Then I think he got killed, and the younger brothers sought revenge on the people that killed him, and they became the Dalton Gang, the famous outlaw gang. All of the western culture that we think of as the legendary stories have links with what was going on socially at the time.”
Flemons says his biggest surprise in sourcing Black Cowboys was in finding so many different stories. “It really gave me a better sense of what people did after slavery and the reconstruction era. It really gives you a sense that people really did make it after slavery, and that it wasn’t just slavery right into the civil rights era like people would think from reading their history books.”