Musician Dom Flemons Appreciates History, Libraries And Fine Songs
Dom Flemons grew up in Arizona and almost from the start was fascinated by folk music. And, very often, the music he loved best wasn't widely available and so, in those pre-Internet days, Flemons would have to seek out the music armed only with a phone book and a library card.
"You would hear about a recording and then you would have to try to find where someone had that recording, so you'd have to hit up all the record shops and ask if they had it," Flemons says. "The library was always important for me. In Phoenix, Arizona, where I'm originally from, the library happened to be a big library. They had just put some extra funding into it to make it a huge library. So they had a big amount of CDs when I was growing up."
Flemons educated himself on the music of the past by watching documentaries on public television. Each documentary led to a search for more music.
"Every time that I would watch a documentary I would try to find CDs by the people that I heard about," he says. "You just get names and you get stories to associate with those names. At that time, I used to find as much historical footage as I could of different musicians. Nowadays, we have YouTube and stuff like that. It's not quite as arduous of a task to go into the library, find every video that they have and see if you can find that little clip. But it's still a search that can be quite fulfilling if you're looking for that special little footage that you hear on record. Just to see them visually, you're able to take in the music in a whole different way."
Flemons’ passion for music was matched by his passion for the written word. He studied English in college and became involved in slam poetry. After some success in that medium, Flemons found that his interest in music was growing. In 2005 he attended the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. It was an opportunity for scholars and musicians to explore the black and African roots of the instrument, and it was there that he met several people who would be central to his future, including the fiddler Joe Thompson.
"I had been interested in musicians that I had read about in books called 'songsters' who were generally referred to as older musicians that were the influences that led to the early country blues," Flemons recalls. "I was into people that were defined by this term. People like Leadbelly, Papa Charlie Jackson, and Henry Thomas. While the songsters have always been described on the fringes of blues scholarship, when I heard Joe Thompson’s old time music, I saw how that connected together and I saw how string band music, and black string band music, fit to be a source for where the blues developed. That was a huge idea for me."
It was at the Black Banjo Gathering that Flemons met the other members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. He recorded several albums with the group before leaving in 2013. Since his departure, Flemons has been touring the U.S. and Europe extensively. He's also recently finished work on an album that will come out in 2017 that examines the role of black cowboys in the west. He says the new record will do something that he and his bandmates did with the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
"Putting the music into context so that people who weren't familiar with it—or people who were familiar with it but didn't know about this part of it or that part of—could understand and, also, have their mind blown by the idea. When you hear about this stuff it really fills in the tapestry, if you will, and makes the music more vibrant and a lot more diverse than you might think from reading the books."
In the end, Flemons says, his current musical journey can largely be traced back to the public library. Libraries, he says, are one of humanities’ greatest treasures.
"It baffles my mind that people have forgotten that libraries are one of the most important things we have," Flemons says. "I'm a little fatalistic about technology. If someone hits the wrong button and all this stuff on the Internet goes, physical books and physical artifacts from our culture are the things that will remain. Libraries are essential. [I] always have thought that and I believe I always will."
Flemons opens for Old Crow Medicine Show at The Cotillion Ballroom on Thursday, Aug. 25.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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