AN AMERICAN REVIVALIST: Dom Flemons and the Return of the African-American String Bandby Geoffrey Clarfield
During the height of the Depression, folklorist Alan Lomax persuaded his employers at the Library of Congress to send him across the South to collect folk music. During his visits to Appalachia he recorded Appalachian folk music from both Anglo- and African-American musicians and singers, including the late Jimmie Strothers, whose classic version of “Cripple Creek” can be heard on Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia. That record is part of a series of reengineered originals produced by Anna Lomax Wood and Don Fleming through Alan’s NGO, the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE), where I now work as Director of Research. By mid-century, the blacks of Appalachia no longer played the banjo or the songs that went with it.
Looking for portents of a revival of old-time black banjo music and its related repertoires, I sat down for lunch with Dom Flemons at the Lomax Archive here at ACE in Manhattan to talk about the black string-band revival and how he became one of its most passionate proponents.
“To tell the truth,” Dom tells me, “I want to play acoustic music the way Jimi Hendrix played the guitar, with a raw and wild edge. I also wanted to use the percussive nature of the guitar to its fullest, and I think I have succeeded to some degree. It may be partially due to the fact that in high school I played auxiliary percussion. That means I played pretty much everything but the snare drum as my main instrument. In marching band I played in a bass drum line and learned to march and use my whole body while playing music. When I first started playing banjo I was always amused at how it was a like playing a snare drum that you could play chords on at the same time.”
Dom is sitting across from me while we eat lunch. When he talks he sits upright like a ramrod, looks you straight in the eye, and speaks with a confident, friendly Southern drawl.
Dom tells me, “As a teenager I discovered Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Dave Van Ronk, and wanted to write and perform like them. I actually did this for a while, falling into the Arizona folk scene, and just learned to get out there and sing and play, which was surprising to me at the time because I was never the best singer or instrumentalist. My love of music just kept me going.” When I asked him how his studies affected his career as a performer, he says, “I was an English major, not a music student, when I went to college, and I had a great love of Shakespeare and Chaucer, the English poets, the Anglo-American ballad tradition, and folk music of all kinds. I am also a great admirer of Mark Twain, particularly his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, where racial and cultural identities are turned inside-out. Reading books like that gave me a lot of ways to think about race and how it is used and misused in this country. My love of words also got me involved in doing slam poetry, which made me put down my guitar and perform using my whole body for the first time.”
He continues, “There was nothing like Dylan and the folk music I heard on record where I grew up. People my age listened to punk rock, rap, and generally loud music. At first I could not get used to the rawness of one voice and a guitar, and when I got into older recordings it was hard for me to listen to the lo-fi quality of many of the recordings. One of the performers who helped me transition into listening to old-time music was Lead Belly. I grew up in Phoenix in a stable middle-class family. I wasn’t sure how or why, but I was interested in folk music. One thing that struck me about Lead Belly was, when I heard him sing and talk it reminded me of my paternal grandfather. I am the son of a black father and a Mexican mother. My dad’s father is a revivalist of a sort, an evangelical country preacher who has preached at the Riverside Church of God in Christ in Flagstaff, Arizona, for many, many years. What captured my imagination is that when Lead Belly was joking with his wife at one point on the record, they sounded just like my father’s parents, who both came from the South. My grandfather grew up in East Texas near where Lead Belly was born and raised.”
As he is finishing his lunch, Dom continues, “So there I was, in the Phoenix folk scene, collecting old 33s of Lomax’s Irish and English ballads in the Camden Folksongs of Britain series, and also a great New World Records release called The Roots of the Blues. That’s where I first heard ‘Buttermilk’ by Bob and Miles Pratcher, which was my first black string-band song, and also the first fife and drum record I ever heard of, Ed and Lonnie Young playing ‘Jim and John.’ In 2004, I discovered that the Lomax Archive, together with Rounder Records, had started publishing CDs, including the “Deep River of Song” series. Sid Hemphill’s fife and drum and string-band music, along with the other recordings from black Appalachia, transfixed me. I was also blown away by the Black Texicans album, which features the wonderful recordings of Pete Harris playing square-dance music. This opened my eyes to the concept of black cowboys, which I had never, ever heard about before. But this was all still on the edge of my interests until I was invited out to the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005. It included African-American performers, Mike Seeger (a relative of Pete Seeger), and scholars interested in black string-band music and its origins. This was the turning point for me.”
The Gathering was organized to raise awareness of black string-band music in the hopes that African-American musicians young and old could get together and form a community where everyone would know that they weren’t alone in the world. As Lomax might have put it, it was an exercise in cultural equity.
Dom goes on, “This event completely changed my mental outlook. I met Mike Seeger. I got to sit with Joe Thompson and realized that his music was a link to all of the folk music that I had been listening to, and in time I would learn how to play his family’s tune repertoire. I also met Caroling Chocolate Drops singer and instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens there. In Arizona there was no audience for what I was trying to do, so I went out East and joined up with Rhiannon and fiddler Justin Robinson to start learning Joe’s music, and also to try to pursue a career of my own in music. Lucky for me, I had a wonderful aunt who decided to give me her car to drive across the country, and I moved out East. Dead broke with my degree in hand, I moved to North Carolina and joined the Drops. Seven years, a Grammy, and a storehouse of wonderful experiences so far, the group is on the road about 200 days a year, selling our version of black string–band music, which incorporates elements of blues, jazz, spirituals, minstrel music, and several other styles.”
After his solo albums and his work with the Drops, Dom is a still a record collector and folklorist who uses his academic training not only to reinterpret the music of the past but to make sense of why he is doing it. He says, “There is no doubt in my mind that this music had to wait a long time before it could be rediscovered by the black community. African-Americans such as Rhiannon, Hubby, Leyla, and myself come from a new generation that can take the time to explore these repertoires with a new outlook and a distance from the past, especially when it comes to the minstrel material. Without a doubt, some minstrelsy repertoire and performance characteristics could still be interpreted as demeaning and racist because in fact they were. But not all of it. There are some mighty fine pieces of music that deserve to be widely heard. Also, as a single group, we can only cover so much ground. It is important to spread the word so that others can take up their own journey of discovery. Sociologically, so much of that world is liminal, weird, and carnivalish, like the circuses and medicine shows that sustained and disseminated the form as it grew and spread all over the country and the world. One other thing to keep in mind about minstrelsy is that it is theater. The show must go on!”
When I ask Dom how he recreates a series of repertoires from recordings and turns them into living, authentic-feeling performances, he notes, “I was able to get an incredible break by meeting Joe Thompson, an old-time fiddler who had played music all his life. We met him when he was 86 years old. That was my living link with old-time music. When I first saw Justin and Rhiannon playing together after a session at Joe’s, I became fully aware that with great serendipity we were reviving a tradition of music that could’ve died out if we hadn’t come along to give it new life. I also knew from the moment we started playing out there that there was a great interest in what we were doing musically. Over time, I met Tim Duffy, who runs Music Maker Relief Foundation, and he hooked me up with a lot of older blues singers including John Dee Holeman and Boo Hanks.”
As I write the last paragraphs of this article, I listen to some of Dom’s recordings. The first is a cover of a Mississippi Sheiks tune for fife and drum. It is definitely modern, but the stamp of Syd Hemphill is upon it, and if you told me it was Syd’s kids playing, I would easily believe it. And then there is a ballad, sung in the Old Appalachian style with frailing banjo and strong voice. It is the “Ballad of Earl King,” and again, if you told me it came from the Lomax collection I would probably believe it. Dom told me how this performance evolved: “Well, I wrote ‘Earl King’ during my last year in college. I took a music appreciation class and we came across Schubert’s “Erlkönig.” After reading the English translation, I was inspired to make a banjo ballad out of it based on a combination of traditional tunes. At the time I was listening to a lot of Dock Boggs and Clarence Ashley.”
“Earl King” sounds very much like an archival recording from Black Appalachia in the 1930s, and, better still, it is just as haunting. It is the kind of thing Jimmie Strothers would have played.