So, What’s Going On?
With a banjo on his lap and harmonica by his side, Dom Flemons tells the story of America through the songs of the Old West. Exploring the music of the early American Songsters, Flemons is an expert in the roots of American folk music. In his performance and demonstration, you’ll hear music and instruments stretching from the late-1800s on, nearly a century of tunes and styles that include ragtime, blues, country western, bluegrass, and string band. Flemons shares not only his impressive musical knowledge, but entertaining tales about the songster tradition and its place in the history of American music and culture. In fact, he may just be the Lone Ranger of historic American music.
What Are Songsters, Anyhow?
Early American songsters were wandering black musicians who played and sang folk music on street corners. Songsters came into existence in the 1870s as freedmen searched for livelihood. With few jobs available to them, these emancipated men with musical talent were able to make a living as street musicians, some traveling long distances as they performed. Because they were primarily concerned with entertaining their audience and, in turn, earning money, songsters didn’t specialize in one type of music. They played whatever their particular audience would appreciate most. It wasn’t until the music recording industry became widespread after the turn of the century that musicians really began to specialize their music by focusing on blues, jazz, country, or other musical genres.
Early songsters, including famous ones like Big Bill Broonzy and Mississippi John Hunt, sang and played music common in Black society, including square dance and vaudeville songs. Though blues were sometimes a part of their repertoire, it wasn’t until the 1950s that blues became the primary musical expression of the Black community. Today blues are much more well-known and performed, but the music of songsters remains an important part of Black cultural heritage.
Photo by Tim Duffy.
Dom Flemons is an award-winning American musician. Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, he grew up attending folk festivals while cultivating skills in guitar, banjo, and harmonica. After a stint in North Carolina, Flemons now makes his home in the Washington, D.C. area, and is considered an expert instrumentalist who plays banjo, fife, guitar, harmonica, jug, percussion, quills, and rhythm bones.
Watch Dom Flemons demonstrate how to play the quills, and instrument made from hollow tubes:
Flemons is also called “The American Songster” because he has dedicated his career to sharing music from more than a hundred years of American folklore, ballads, and tunes. In addition to performing, Flemons is a music scholar and historian who spends time sharing his knowledge about America’s musical past. Before he became a soloist, he founded and played folk music with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group committed to playing great music and sharing the story of the diversity of American music.
Flemons’s solo debut came in 2018 when he shared the stage with Carrie Underwood at the Grand Ole Opry. He achieved recording success that same year with his album "
Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys", for which he received a GRAMMY® Nomination and won “Best Folk Album” at the 2019 Wammie Awards. The record explores the history of music and culture in the American Wild West, which Flemons considers an important part of the American identity.
Much of Flemons’s career has been spent as an educator, both formally and informally. He was the first Artist-In-Residence at the “Making American Music Internship Program” at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. He speaks to groups, both students and adults, about diverse types of music that represent American historical musical heritage. Flemons also produces a monthly podcast,
Radio Podcast, whose goal is to introduce listeners to new forms of music. He loves to use primary resources, historic and modern, to tell the remarkable true stories of the musicians who shaped America.
Catch Dom Flemons in action playing his original tune “He’s A Lone Ranger”:
Who Were the Black Cowboys?
Though Dom Flemons performs music spanning more than a century of American history, one area he focuses on is the music of Black cowboys of the Old West. While cowboys are iconic in literature and art depicting the American West, Black cowboys—who made up about 25 percent of the workforce—are largely unrepresented in popular culture.
After the Civil War, freedmen and their children had few opportunities for employment beyond working as delivery boys or elevator operators. Though some became songsters, others worked as cowboys, wrangling cows on horseback and caring for livestock. The cowboy life wasn’t easy. Cowboys of different ethnicities often found themselves in conflict with American Indians as they herded cattle through the treacherous terrain outside the reach of the railroad.
Flemons’s connection to these men came years ago when he was inspired by the book
Negro Cowboys and a field recording of music written and performed by Black cowboys. The album “ Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys” features songs and poems from the trails and rails of the old Wild West through the lens of Black cowboys. The music on this album chronicles the story of the Black pioneers who helped build the United States, both physically and culturally.
Take a look at the official video for "Steel Pony Blues" from "
Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys": VIDEO
What to Look and Listen for
One of the most unique aspects of Flemons’s music is his use of genuine, and sometimes little-known instruments like the rhythm bones, quills, fife, and jug, as well as instruments with African influences like the banjo. Look and listen for these instruments which are critical to his mission because they form an important part of the early American music that Flemons explores:
Rhythm bones, also known as bones, are bones, wood, or other materials that are played by allowing the momentum of the bones to make a clicking sound. Image source.
Quills, also known as panpipes, are a folk instrument made of hollow tubes of
various lengths. The musician blows across or into the top. Quills were originally played in America by enslaved persons, but have been made and used throughout the world. Image Source.
fife is a small, flute-like instrument played by blowing across the mouthpiece while holding the body of the instrument parallel to the ground. Image Source.
jug may look like an ordinary container for holding liquid, but it’s also an instrument. Playing the jug involved buzzing one’s lips into an empty jug, somewhat like playing into the mouthpiece of a trombone. Image Source.
banjo is a string instrument that can be plucked or strummed. Early versions were made by Black Americans, based on the design of African instruments. Banjos are commonly used in folk and modern country music.
Though Flemons plays a variety of music, his interest lies is the history of the music of the Black experience. Listen for elements of different types of early American music that you may be familiar with such as:
North American folk music
Music passed down orally; often using acoustic instruments like fiddle, guitar, and banjo; often accompanied by dances
Music from the southern United States with roots in African musical traditions; features a strong bass line, call-and-response format, and “blue notes” that are sung or played at a slightly flat pitch Early jazz
Music originating in the Black communities of New Orleans; developed from blues and ragtime; features improvisation, a bass line that “walks,” and syncopated or “swung” rhythms
Photo by Tim Duffy.
Flemons’s music is played on acoustic instruments—that is, instruments that don’t rely on electronics to produce sound. Acoustic instruments are staples of folk music, including the guitar and banjo. What is the experience of listening to an acoustic performance like, compared to what you’ve heard from electric instruments? Think about the differences (and similarities) between an acoustic guitar and an electric one. Sure, they sound different, but how do they “feel” different?
Experience the difference between acoustic and electric guitars in this side-by-side comparison:
Think About This…
Did you know that in the nineteenth-century, one in four cowboys were black? Yet, Black cowboys have almost no representation in popular culture. And like Black cowboys, the music and legacy of Black songsters is similarly a little-known part of American cultural history.
Dom Flemons describes how he first came to learn about the deeper and darker meaning behind America’s musical past: “When I went to North Carolina, I learned music a different way. I [begin] to meet elder blues singers and musicians who taught me something beyond just recordings. They shared with me their culture and their upbringing and showed me how that can influence the way one creates music.”
Why do you think representation and knowledge of all parts of society and culture are important to understanding our collective past? Do you think that music and culture is reciprocal? Think of it this way: How do culture and history impact music, and how does music impact culture? Think of your own relationship with music. How is your past represented in the music you listen to or make? How is music impacting you now?
After seeing Dom Flemons’s performance and demonstration, consider how he addresses representation of cultural history in his musical and educational endeavors.
Take Action: Make Them Think
Dom Flemons spends much of his time and energy delving into the past and present music of fellow performers. He’s committed to going beyond (and behind) the music and understanding the richer meaning sometimes hidden deep within the music.
According to Flemons, musicians are especially good at infusing deeper meaning into their work. “In casual conversation, musicians will constantly surprise and amaze you with the things they think about when they put their songs together,” Flemons explains. “After all, that’s what musicians do… they make people think.”
Are you an artist who makes people think? What meaning do you pour into your music or art that invites the observer to dip beneath the surface? Share your thoughts with friends and family.
Photo by Tim Duffy.
Alright, you're ready to hear
Teachers, Guardians, and Caregivers: We’ve Got You Covered
Hey there, adults. You’ve probably heard your fair share of folk music, but if you want to dive a bit deeper into the world of early American music, here are some musical tidbits for you. World-renown folk musician, singer, and composer Dom Flemons is a self-proclaimed American Songster. In U.S. history, songsters were itinerant musicians, frequently of Black American origin, who traveled around and played on street corners to make a living. Like the original songsters, Flemons sings and plays a mix of historical American music, largely predating the blues tunes that became more popular in the 1950s.
Flemons has mastered many instruments including banjo, fife, guitar, harmonica, jug, percussion, quills, and rhythm bones. These instruments and others represent those that have held a unique place in American musical history, especially in Black communities. Bones and banjo both have roots in Africa, and were used in communities of enslaved persons and freedmen as the Black American musical story evolved over time. Flemons’s presentation is designed to be as educational as it is enjoyable.
Want to Explore More?
Here are a few links to help you understand more about early American songsters and Dom Flemons: