Dom Flemons, American music, and the importance of looking back

Founder of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons learns from those who came before him. That’s the future of music—knowing everything about the past.

Dom Flemons, also known as “The American Songster,” is a wildly talented musician. A founding member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, he plays the banjo, the bones, the quills, the guitar, you name it. He has a versatile, shape-shifting voice. (Listen to his 2014 interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross for proof). He and I met fifteen years ago (ahem, I’m feeling old), at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. Back then, he was a slam poet, an English major, and an enthusiastic troubadour. He was obliging, and he would smilingly play “Tangled Up in Blue” at the drop of a hat if you asked him.

Dom has been on the road for most of the past decade, playing everywhere, but especially in places where he can pay homage to the artists he’s researched, listened to, and loved for so many years. He recently played at Carnegie Hall as part of an illustrious tribute to Lead Belly, 67 years after Lead Belly’s last performance at the legendary venue. Dom is a rare kind of musician, a musician-historian. He studies music, with a focus that approaches obsession. He studies the music of the past, sure, but he’s looking to do more than merely preserve the traditions he works in. He is pushing himself to figure out how the sounds, stories, and methods he wants to preserve can be relevant to the future. It’s this insatiable interest in music that makes it possible for him to call himself a “songster.” A songster is unbound by genre or style, committed to the craft and the art of performing more than anything else.

When you see him performing live, you can see that he performs. You see him in his métier, his zone: pulling faces, switching voices, putting on and turning off various Southern accents, stomping and jumping, smiling all the while. He looks like he’s having fun. The audience has fun with him, and they listen, carefully. When he’s tuning his banjo that’s gone wonky due to the Richmond springtime humidity, you can hear a pin drop.

Recently, we sat down to talk about folk and protest music, the state of the music industry today, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and poetry. Dom being Dom, the whole thing is filled with references to his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of music. He isn’t rattling off names just to impress you, however; listen to his music, see him perform, and it becomes clear that he lives his relationship to the history of music in ways that are today uncommon.

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Lindsay Lerman: OK, so let’s start with Pete Seeger. As you began recording your latest album [Prospect Hill], Pete was leaving this earth, and you’ve talked about how significant that was for you. What is the significance of Pete Seeger?

Dom Flemons: For me, Pete was definitely one of the foundational people that got me started playing banjo and being interested in folk music in general, as he was for a lot of people. I started playing the banjo after listening to him. A particular version of “If I Had a Hammer” made me really want to learn the banjo, so that’s what got me started. As I was going along [working on the album], I was finding, especially when Pete passed (we were getting ready to record the album and Guy Davis, who played on the session, had just been with Pete the night before and then he had flown down to be a part of the session), there were a lot of people who didn’t know the basics. Pete was one of the guys who was holding that down.

So, with him passing away, I was very much inspired to change my trajectory so that it was twofold: I would be doing my own things, but I would also be trying my best to be a storyteller, a tradition-bearer, a gate-keeper to the genre. I’ve found that in the post-digital revolution, everything has to be redone again. At one point, everything came from the same source–all the information–for good or bad. Now that everyone has access to so much information, to every bit of history, I’ve found that it’s important to raise little flags up for this part of it or that part of it, to serve the needs of the bigger picture, and also to serve my own needs. This is the music that interests me and brought me in.

LL: So when you say “bigger picture,” do you mean the tradition of social protest and agitation that Pete Seeger was a part of?”

DF: All of it. And there was something I didn’t see coming. At first I was just advocating for folk music, but then I saw the gigantic protest movements growing from the end 2014, and they’ve continued to come in waves. I had never really considered myself a topical singer–not since I left Arizona–and I just kind of left it at that. But I think there are lots of factions of the country that could benefit from the lessons that Pete Seeger and others left behind about using music as a way to get people thinking and moving, bringing change on.

LL: What is it, then, about music that makes it possible to create change?

DF: Music is appealing to the ears. That’s one thing. And it gets people thinking. Instead of music changing the world in and of itself, it at least gets people thinking. Especially if it’s put out there with the intention of getting people to listen and change things. Music has gotten to a place where it’s such a commodity, that topical songs have trouble finding a spot. Topical songs often come with an expiration date–especially if they’re really specific–and there’s just no money in that. We hear Bob Dylan’s story of being a protest singer and growing into pop music, but that’s not a normal case of what usually happens when you get into folk music. You get out there and you please a small audience that you hope will grow, and they will tell other people, and then it grows unto itself. But it’s not a money-making machine. That’s an interesting conflict I’ve seen come up. Most people are used to music being a commodity. You can enjoy a drink and sit and talk with your friends while it’s going on, instead of listening.”

LL: That’s interesting. I think if you were to ask most people today what protest music sounds like–what’s the sound of protest?–they wouldn’t say folk. They would say, maybe, hip-hop.

DF: Or punk rock. But yeah, it wouldn’t be folk music. There used to be a folk genre, but now it’s Americana or roots. There’s still not much of a space for topical stuff. But it’s been interesting to see how that has changed, even in the amount of time I’ve been in the industry. I’ve been in it for about 10 years, and I’ve changed my own trajectory. I’ve leaned toward an educational slant harder than I was thinking about doing, when I was originally getting into it [the industry].

LL: Your sound is really steeped in the past, but it sounds to me like you do want it to shape the future.

DF: Oh yes.

LL: So then, how does the sound of the past play a role in creating the future?

DF: I’m very selective about what I put on stage. I make sure that whatever song I’m playing, there’s a point to it. The audience doesn’t necessarily have to know what that point is, but it’s there. I like to get a variety of music styles out there, so that people can connect dots they didn’t know existed. That’s the point of my show. That’s how I make it more modern. I don’t have to do anything to change the music; I just connect the dots with all the music I’m using, and that creates something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. I’m trying to keep a variety of sounds out there. A lot of times, people haven’t even heard half the stuff I perform. So for them it is brand new. […] I’ll play some country music next to some blues stuff, next to jazz, next to string band music, all in one show.”

LL: You’re taking your audience on a journey through the history of music, educating them.

DF: Oh, yeah.

LL: You’re touring all the time, and you do lots of live performances. Obviously you’re on the road right now. When I think back to when I first knew you, in the aughts, you performed anywhere and everywhere. You performed in all these different ways. As a poet, a sort of troubadour, at parties, on the street. So when I think of you, I think of someone who’s really a live performer. I have to wonder what it is that live performances do for you.

DF: In live performances you get to see if your music actually does anything, on a visceral level. You see if they’re enjoying it or hating it. That’s something that knocked me out back in the days of playing in Flagstaff. I’d play in coffeehouses, I’d play on the street, in little food places, anywhere I could find. At that time there wasn’t really any interest in acoustic performance. But I just kept on with it. On my most recent album, Prospect Hill, I decided to include more of my original songs, but that comes from my early experiences performing poetry and thinking about how to tell a story.

LL: So poetry is still a part of your act, then? Your musicianship, I mean.

DF: Yes. The big thing that slam poetry did for me is it got me to drop the guitar and perform without it. When I eventually brought the guitar back in, I was able to use my body in a whole different way on stage. Before, I was hiding behind the guitar all the time.”

LL: As I recall, one of our very first conversations was about Bob Dylan.

DF: Yeah, I remember.

LL: He’s a musician who’s always been open about calling himself a poet before calling himself a musician, saying things like deep down he’s just a poet and he’s an incidental musician. You work in the vein of Bob Dylan–protest music, calling on the past, playing in and around lots of different genres–so hopefully you’ll always have that root of poetry, something that makes you similar to him.

DF: Absolutely. I’ve been experimenting with writing more and more. For about 10 years, though, I dropped it. I lost the notion to write original material. It just wasn’t of interest to me, especially compared to learning as many styles of music as I could. But I still think a lot about Dylan. I think about the fact that now people don’t have as many hang-ups as they did back then. Someone playing the electric guitar in an acoustic setting, for example, is not going to turn heads like it did before. But people still tell the same Dylan stories like they’re relevant. […] It’s funny to see Bob Dylan giving the secrets away now. I don’t know how he’s doing it, or if it’s his people doing it, but they are–how should I say it–reintroducing his legacy. In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot: Old Crow Medicine Show did a Blonde on Blonde 50th anniversary tribute at the Ryman, there were the new Basement Tapes, and of course the Bootleg Series albums keep coming out, the Chronicles Book, and I guess at the Woody Guthrie Center, Dylan recently put up the secret trove of all the crap he had in his house. I wonder about the industry though, because there isn’t an apprenticeship system now like there was in the 60s. Today we have all these great new artists who have to do covers of the legacy artists that everybody has already covered to death. They have to go through this system of, like, “Can you do the Rolling Stones tribute? Can you do the Jimi Hendrix tribute?” because the industry has no idea how to sell music to an audience anymore. It’s a weird world. That’s why I’ve leaned back into academia in a way. I’m not a full-on scholar-musician, but I know that schools will always be there, even if the funding goes up and down. I always hope that I can do what Pete [Seeger] did, influencing the young people, knowing that 10-15 years later, the work I’ve done will hopefully be reflected back to me.

LL: That seems smart. There will always be people who care about the arts, and who fight to keep them alive. We know the arts and humanities are struggling, but there will always be some small place for people who are desperately passionate about music, and all art. I have to believe that.

DF: Yeah. I’m finding myself in the position of being a go-to person for discussions about some of these things. Some instruments I’ve picked up since I left Arizona–the bones, the quills, the five-string banjo (I was playing the four-string banjo before)–have led to calls about being in documentaries about this or that thing. I was recently on TV too, playing a one-man band. Somehow I’ve got stuff that’s always coming in. And of course the tour dates just keep on.

LL: That’s a lot. That’s exciting. Do you feel like, at the beginning, you were in the right place at the right time?

DF: Definitely. When I was getting ready to graduate in 2005, I had no idea what I was going to do. I happened to go to North Carolina for the black banjo gathering. That’s where I started the Carolina Chocolate Drops later, but when I first got over there, I saw that there was a definite generational gap between the people who knew the information and the people who were learning the information. A lot of the older people just knew their stuff and they had been there forever, but they were very aggressive and curt [with the younger generation]. I saw a lot of the younger folks get balled out for doing things the way they wanted to, or for not having any expertise. There was a big divide. But me, being a person of color who was educated and could talk about it, but was unlike other performers who had been brought into the genre through some other expert or professor, I was in a unique position. I had the knowledge, could show the knowledge, could play the knowledge at the same time. It was just being there at the right time. If it had been 10 years before, people wouldn’t have been as receptive. Or 10 years later, now, post-digital revolution. It’s really something to be here now and have a career as we’re entering this wave of people wondering again what culture means. I’ve been very fortunate.

LL: What are you listening to right now? What’s caught your ears and has you excited?

DF: I’m always listening. I go through about 10, 15 new albums a day. Anything from Sun Records, Million Dollar Quartet, Jerry Lee Lewis, and a lot of the black artists that Sam Phillips recorded first. He recorded Ike Turner early on. And Howlin’ Wolf, James Cotton, and Little Milton, Rosco Gordon–all these guys eventually had careers later. But he recorded a ton of different people. I’ve been into that stuff. The 50s records from Sun link back to the homegrown-music-as-records idea that goes back to the 20s and 30s, so you find an interesting continuity between those two eras. And going back farther, pre-1920s, I’ve been listening to people like Bert Williams and W.C. Handy, or James Reece Europe. That’s stuff that’s been on my mind recently. I see a lot of artists out there doing twenties and thirties stuff, but I’ve found that when I can supplement with stuff that came after and before, fully acknowledging that it’s all so far from my lifetime and my experience, there’s a lot of room for analyzing it and performing it. And there’s a lot of room for using it to come up with new stuff. Pop music has pushed itself into a corner where everything sounds the same. When I first heard Bob Dylan, or even Hendrix or the Stones or the Beatles, it just broke open my whole reality, because I’d grown up in a time when all the music sounded so similar. I just like hearing different sounds, different voices.

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If you missed Dom’s performance at the Tin Pan in Richmond, never fear. He’s on the road a lot, and he lives not too far from us, in North Carolina. If you keep your ear to the ground (or go to his website) you’re bound to find him playing somewhere near you, not too long from now. Or maybe you’ll find him busking, or searching through the stacks at a record store. I suspect he can’t help himself.

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Lindsay Lerman

Lindsay Lerman is finishing a novel, just finished a dissertation, and will finish any meal you place in front of her. She lives in Richmond with her husband and daughter.

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