There are artists that Reba McEntire has not heard of on display at the newest Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit, which speaks volumes about the definition of “American Currents.”
The country legend and ACM Awards host has her dress from the Kennedy Center Honors and 2018 Kennedy Center Honors medallion on display at the American Currents: The Music of 2018 exhibit that opens on Friday (March 8). She tells Taste of Country her appetite for new styles of music and new artists is never-ending.
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.
Tim Duffy, founder of Music Maker Relief Foundation. (Tintype self-portrait)
It seems like a glamorous life from the outside. Stand under a spotlight playing music to crowds of people who are there just to see and hear what you have to give. Travel around getting paid to do what you love and would probably do for free. But the reality of life as a professional musician is something else. Those few hours in the spotlight are earned by a lot of hard, solitary, relentless work. And even if you do everything right, behave yourself, and work at your craft, as time and trends spool by, your star starts to dim, to fade away. The public has found a newer talent, or is just chasing something different.
But your obligations don’t stop — there are bills to pay and health concerns that eat up the dwindling profits. The roadside is strewn with talented musicians who had to give up their dream to face the reality of making a living another way, struggling just to stay alive.
Twenty-five years ago, the Music Maker Relief Foundation was founded by guitarist and fledgling folklorist Tim Duffy to help ease the problems faced by aging and often forgotten African-American and Appalachian musicians. The North Carolina-based nonprofit provides financial help for indigent musicians and helps resurrect their former careers with hands-on help in recording, promoting, and touring. Early on, Duffy located performers through word of mouth, with musicians passing along info to others in need. He and his staff still go looking for future Music Makers to help, but the job has been made easier with high-profile assistance from artists like Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, and Eric Clapton, who have lent financial as well as hands-on support touring and recording with Music Maker artists. To date, the organization has helped 435 artists, reaching out with more than 12,000 grants.
When President Obama sang “Amazing Grace” in 2015 at a eulogy, he was mourning a minister murdered with eight others in a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Yet Obama’s choice of music was more than just a song—it was a kind of musical shorthand that transcended the moment he was marking. Everyone knows “Amazing Grace,” a spiritual with particular resonance in the black community. As a plainspoken hymn about redemption and forgiveness in the face of sin (or, from a more secular standpoint, oppression), the tune has the specific connotation of offering comfort at times of bereavement.
Popular music is full of songs like that, tunes that come to represent something more expansive than their original contexts. When participants in at least one local offshoot of the Women’s March in 2017 sang “This Land Is Your Land,” or people protesting in the Wisconsin state capitol building against anti-union measures in 2010 joined together in “Solidarity Forever,” they were communicating in a similar shorthand, evoking sentiments that are immediately identifiable to most people.
All three songs are among 83 tracks on The Social Power of Music, a new four-CD boxed set from Smithsonian Folkways divided into “Songs of Struggle,” “Sacred Sounds,” “Social Songs and Gatherings” and “Global Movements.” The songs collected here help to show us where we come from, and where we are now. Some of them—the Civil Rights spiritual “We Shall Overcome,” Peggy Seeger’s pointed anti-rape song “Reclaim the Night” or the United Farm Workers theme song “De Colores / (Made) Of Colors,” to name just a few—serve as reminders that change is possible, even if it’s often incremental and frustratingly slow.
It’s been just three months since Dom Flemons was at Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts, but the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder is already on his way back for a March 2 gig at St. Petersburg’s James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art. The 36-year-old songster (who also appears at Bananas Records the next day) will have some company, too.
“I’m gonna be bringing Big Head Joe with me, I believe, because I’ll be driving down. Unfortunately he can’t fly. He’s afraid of the air traffic, but Big Head Joe is still kicking about with me a whole bunch,” Flemons told CL. Big Head Joe can’t exactly talk to Flemons, but the fifth-generation Arizonan knows a lot about his travel companion, which is actually a banjo that dates back to the days of an early 20th century musicians’ hangout.
“I just found out who the maker of Big Head Joe was. He was a fella that did work for the Clef Club in Harlem with James Reese Europe,” Flemons said. “This fellow who made Big Head Joe, his name was Robert McGinnis. He patented the Clef Club brand, and then he moved to Philadelphia where he was part of the Philadelphia jazz and ragtime community after James Reese Europe died in 1919.”
From the outside looking in, Arizona’s culture can seem as infertile and impermeable as the soil it is built upon. In 1987, the state’s opposition to a federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., led by Gov. Evan Mecham and supported by Sen. John McCain, solidified Arizona as a state plagued by racism in many people’s minds. More recently, that reputation has lived on through laws targeting immigrants and banning ethnic studies in Arizona schools; and the state’s more distant past only compounds the issue.
But like that inhospitable soil, there is a richness beneath a hard, stubborn, superficial layer. In Arizona, there is a vast history of black resistance and self-determination, and at Sunday’s Grammy Awards, 36-year-old folk artist Dom Flemons will put that history on display.
Nominated in the Best Folk Album category, the Arizona native’s critically acclaimed “Black Cowboys” chronicles westward expansion from a black perspective. Ahead of Sunday’s ceremony, HuffPost spoke with Flemons about reclaiming the black folk music tradition, being black in Arizona and searching for a hidden history.
Dom Flemons, co-founder of the Grammy Award winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, visited the Lower School to talk about the history of American music, introduce unusual instruments, and perform traditional songs for the boys. He traced a quintessential American instrument, the banjo, back to its beginnings in Africa, and shared the evolution of music brought to the new world by slaves from from old time music to bluegrass, to ragtime, and to contemporary styles of music. The boys were fascinated by the musician’s use of bones as an instrument, on which he performed this energetic variation of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.