As a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons spent nine years traveling the world singing, playing and telling the stories behind indigenous American music, the tunes that originated out of soldiers, slaves, hillbillies, hellions and all the other historical contributors to traditional folk music and its many-headed offspring. He plays guitar, banjo, harmonica, jug, fife, bones and quills.
The Chocolate Drops won a Grammy for their 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig, and became one of the top folk-festival attractions in the country.
In 2014, Flemons – who is equal parts studious folklorist, multi-instrumentalist and American griot – left the group for the solo-artist highway. This Saturday, March 2, he performs at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art from 6 to 8 p.m. (buy tickets here). The spotlight, accordingly, will be on the subject of his newest album Black Cowboys – a collection of old-time songs telling the story (also related in Flemons’ extensive liner notes) of African Americans and the Old West. It’s on Smithsonian Folkways Records.
“Several years back, I found a book called The Negro Cowboys,” he tells the Catalyst, “and that talked about how one in four cowboys who helped settle the West were African American cowboys, working alongside the Mexican vaqueros and the Anglo cowboys, and that got me started.”
It’s a little-known and greatly misunderstood segment of our country’s history, told through song and narrative, with titles including “Tyin’ Knots in the Devil’s Tail,” “Steel Pony Blues,” “Charmin’ Betsy” and “Home on the Range,” which first appeared – sung by a black man – on field recordings by John Lomax in the 1930s.