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In the extensive and incredibly informative 40-page booklet that accompanies Dom Flemonslatest album ‘Black Cowboys’ (Smithsonian Folkways), on which he pays tribute to the music, culture, and the complex history of the golden era of the Wild West, he quotes from an interview with professor and author Mike Searles from a 2010 NPR interview:

“Many people see the West as the birthplace of America. If they only see it as the birthplace of white America, it means basically that all other people are interlopers—they’re not part of what makes an American. But if they understand that African Americans were cowboys, even Native Americans were cowboys, Mexicans were cowboys, it really opens the door for us to think about America as a multiethnic, multiracial place. Not just in the last decade or century, but from the very beginning.”

The liner notes are filled with history and some incredible images, some of which are family photos from Dom Flemons’s personal collection, historical photos from various archives, and tintype photographs shot by Timothy Duffy including one of Dom’s wife Vania Kinard who “brings to life a striking black western woman.”

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Dom Flemons grew up in Arizona, where barbecue pits and shops called Strictly Western dot the landscape and more than 600 rodeos take place every year. He watched Western movies, but as a black kid, didn’t see himself in them. Flemons grew up to become a leader in 21st-century folk music, co-founding the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band that revolutionized the folk world by showing old-timey music’s African roots.

After leaving that group, Flemons explored various other musical byroads before setting his sights on the West of his youth and discovering an obscured but rich legacy of music made by and about black cowboys. His latest album, Black Cowboys, uncovers the connections between classic songs like “Home on the Range” and the blues of the Texas-Lousiana border; tells the tales of real-life superheroes like Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. Marshal in the West; and re-envisions the West as a key landing place for black people starting new lives after their emancipation from slavery. What emerges within this music is a vision of a West that was never just a preserve of men who looked like John Wayne, but instead was dynamically diverse — Latinx, Native and black as well as white.

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Ten years ago, D.C. musician Dom Flemons was traveling to visit family back home in Arizona when he pulled over to a gift shop at the side of Route 66. While looking around, something caught his eye.

Sitting on the shelf was The Negro Cowboys, a 1965 history novel written by UCLA professors Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones. As he skimmed through it, Flemons was introduced to a world he never knew existed.

“Philip Durham was an English teacher, and discovered statistics showing that about one-fourth of the cowboys that settled the West were African American cowboys,” said Flemons. “Being a big fan of country music and cowboy music in Arizona, I was surprised to see this because I hadn’t seen much imagery of black cowboys in mainstream movies or music.”

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Black cowboys may not be the first thing that comes to mind when the Wild West is mentioned, but they were prevalent and left an undeniable impact on the development of the American West. Following the end of the Civil War in the late 1860s, thousands of newly-freed African Americans moved westward to start new lives. Some chose the grueling and often dangerous path of becoming a cowboy, an occupation in which work ethic mattered more than skin color. These pioneers worked long, hard days alongside Mexican vaqueros, Native Americans, and white cowboys and often turned to song for comfort on the trails.

The newly released Black Cowboys featuring co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons (aka “The American Songster”), places these often forgotten pioneers of the Old West in the spotlight. Produced by Flemons and Dan Sheehy for Smithsonian Folkways as part of its African American Legacy series, the album pays tribute to the music, poetry, and complex history of these cowboys. The accompanying 40 page booklet includes essays by Flemons (on the cowboy’s music) and Jim Griffith (on the history of Black cowboys), as well as detailed notes on each track complemented by many archival photographs.

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In conjunction with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings’ 70th anniversary comes a collection of African American cowboy songs titled Black Cowboys. The almost legendary interpreter to such anthems in this collection is none other than founding Carolina Chocolate Drop and historian, scholar, collector, artist, and anthropologist Dom Flemons – a fine picker and songman in his own right. You may have caught him on television in his role as Joe Hill Louis, Bebop Boy, on CMT’s Sun Records or heard the phenomenal Chocolate Drops out of North Carolina before he struck out on his solo career back in 2013.

On this project, Flemons curates and emulates African American frontiersmen’s traditional songs as well as offering his own recreations of that era of songcraft. From the field holler album opener of “Black Women,” Flemons’ intent is apparent. He lives and breathes his art. This is an audible extension of the heart and soul and wonders within, a desire to capture the lifebeat of the original arrangement and melodies of songs that were one of the only forms of entertainment at the time. Flemons dreamt up the idea after chancing upon “The Negro Cowboys” on his own pilgrimage of sorts while driving from North Carolina to his home state of Arizona back in 2016.

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