Exploring American Music With Dom Flemons
inArtist Storyon April 20, 2021
As it did for every touring musician, the pandemic changed everything for Dom Flemons, a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a 15-year friend of the Music Maker Foundation, and a member of our board of directors for almost 12 years.
For all of those 15 years, Flemons’ live shows and education programs have kept him on the road for an average of 200 days a year. Then, about a year ago, the gigs and the traveling stopped.
“It’s just changed the whole rhythm of life itself,” he says. “I’ve got my family that travels with me, so it’s also required us to stay at a single location for more than my wife, my daughter, and I ever have.”
Since he first came to public attention with the Chocolate Drops, Flemons has built a repertoire that covers over a full century of American music, making a reputation for himself as “The American Songster.” He is a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, actor, music scholar, and historian. He is considered an expert player on the banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug, percussion, quills, fife, and rhythm bones.
Bottom line: There might be no one alive who could teach you more about the vast sweep of American music than Dom Flemons. And all of that began with his teenage hobby of collecting records in his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.
“I used to watch a lot of documentaries as a kid,” he says. “And at one point, I saw a documentary series on the history of rock and roll, and that really turned me on to just a whole swath of music. One of the episodes was on the folk music revival of the ’60s. And I was so drawn to the bohemian lifestyle. At that time, I was drawn to poetry in general, so I was already by that point reading the beat poets Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And when I started to see that people like Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk were connected to them, then music started to sweep into that.”
Going backward into the folk music of the 1960s wound up pushing his musical explorations into even deeper roots — first the country blues and then into the Delta blues of Charley Patton, then into the roots of early country music. And along the way, he learned, as do all serious students of America’s musical roots, how musical traditions were passed in ways that superseded our nation’s racial barriers. He talks about the relationship between A.P. Carter of the Carter Family and Lesley Riddle, the African American musician who traveled throughout Appalachia with Carter, searching for mountain songs the Carter Family could record.
“It says a lot about where the Carter Family’s head was at when it came to recording material, especially if they were working with Lesley Riddle, who’s connected to a Piedmont blues tradition that runs parallel, but is something that is still happening in the same community,” Dom says. “Then think of a song like ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken.’ It’s no less of a song rooted in the black church whether it’s sung by white or black people. Also, think about how the Carter Family recorded ‘Jealous Hearted Me,’ which is a song that Ma Rainey also recorded. But I’ve never heard the scholars reference that there’s a song that the Carter Family and Ma Rainey both recorded. I could go all day with examples.”
Normally, of course, Dom would be on the road 200 nights a year telling these stories and playing this music for his audiences. But stuck at home, he turned that energy in a different direction, building Spotify playlists to teach listeners all over the world how to see the entire panorama of American music.
“At first, it was a way to kind of ease my mind as I was not working,” Dom says. “Then it became a meditative exercise into my favorite listening. And then it turned into a structured thematic series.”
For example, there is one playlist called “Blues-Inflected Country Music,” and another called “Country-Inflected Blues.” He’s created a dozen or so such lists as the last year passed, most of which can be found on his Spotify page.
Dom credits Music Maker with helping him explore the musical paths he first became interested in. He remembers first learning of Music Maker’s existence in 2001, when he was still a teenager prowling the Phoenix Public Library for blues records and found Music Maker releases by Algia Mae Hinton and John Dee Holeman.
But we didn’t meet Dom in person until 2006. He had moved to North Carolina and wanted to talk to us about the possibilities of our foundation working with the newly formed Carolina Chocolate Drops. During that visit, Dom told our co-founder Tim Duffy about his teenage discovery of John Dee Holeman.
“I told him my story, and he picked up the phone and called John Dee Holeman,” Dom says. “And about 20 minutes later, John Dee drove right down. John Dee was so excited to hear there was a young African American man that wanted to play the blues. He shook my hand and he must have held my hand for 10 minutes just talking with me, just so glad to see that I had come down. And that was the type of encouragement I got right off the bat when I started working with Music Maker. So I met John Dee and then slowly afterward, I got to meet Captain Luke and Macavine Hayes and Whistling Britches.”
Dom continued to meet and then perform with a variety of Music Maker partner artists, including Adolphus Bell, Alabama Slim, Little Freddie King, and Boo Hanks, with whom Dom recorded the 2013 album “Buffalo Junction.” Dom later recorded versions of Hanks’ “Keep On Truckin’” and James Davis’ “Georgia Drumbeat” on his own “Prospect Hill” album, recently re-released on Omnivore Records.
“That was a big education for me, spending some time with folks down at Music Maker, and really getting a time to go out to their places, spend time with them, see what they’re about,” Dom says. “And then also start to figure out how to make music that was reflective of my own musical experience as well as theirs.”
Dom’s 15-year musical journey, which began here with us in Hillsborough, has made him a beloved figure on stages around the world, and a tremendous educator to anyone who wants to understand how the roots of American music are woven together.
Spend some time with Dom’s Spotify playlists, and you’ll learn more about the beautiful tapestry of our nation’s music than you could imagine.