Interview with songster/poet Dom Flemons - pulling from traditions of old-time folk to create new sounds

"You can think of the blues as a series of proverbs that when you place them together you get an emotion."

Dom Flemons: American Folk Heritage

Dom Flemons is the "American Songster," pulling from traditions of old-time folk music to create new sounds. Having performed music professionally since 2005, he has played live for over one million people just within the past three years. As part of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which he co-founded with Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, he has played at a variety of festivals spanning from the Newport Folk Festival to Bonnaroo, in addition to renowned venues such as the Grand Ole Opry. Raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Dom’s involvement with music began by playing percussion in his high school band. After picking up the guitar and harmonica as a teenager, he began to play in local coffee houses and became a regular performer on the Arizona folk music scene.

Dom wrote his own songs and produced 25 albums of singer-songwriters and slam poets in the Phoenix area, including six albums of his own, during this time. He took a brief break from playing music in order to pursue slam poetry (he majored in English at Northern Arizona University) and performed in two national poetry slams in 2002 and 2003. Aside from exploring slam poetry, he spent his early adulthood listening to records and discovering a love of folk music, blues, jazz, jug band music, country music and ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll. Dom became interested in folk musicians such as Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk and Mike Seeger, as well as musicians such as Mississippi John Hurt, Howlin’ Wolf, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins. After stepping away from the slam poetry scene, he rekindled his interest in music, this time focusing on the old-time blues music of the pre-WWII era.

A multi-instrumentalist, Dom plays banjo, guitar, harmonica, fife, bones, bass drum, snare drum and quills, in addition to singing. He says that he incorporates his background in percussion to his banjo playing. Dom’s banjo repertoire includes not only clawhammer but also tenor and three-finger styles of playing. He first picked up the instrument when he borrowed a five-string banjo from a friend who had removed the instrument’s fifth string. As a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African-American string band, Dom was able to explore his interest in bringing traditional music to new audiences. The band won a GRAMMY for its 2011 album Genuine Negro Jig and was nominated for its most recent album, Leaving Eden, in 2012. Dom's new solo album, moves from ragtime to Piedmont blues, and from New Orleans-style jazz to fife and drum music, "Prospect Hill" covers it all.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

What I have learned about myself from the blues is that I am not a blues singer by trade but a songster. A songster is a musician who sings AND plays a variety of different styles of music. I play blues as well as folk, old-time, jazz, ragtime, country, fife and drum, ‘40s R&B and ‘50s rock 'n' roll.

To me, the blues is a type of music that allows you to express things that you would not express directly to a single person to an audience that has felt that feeling before. Blues is a feeling you get when you are mad, sad or happy about a situation that you cannot change yet you find joy in the little spaces you have to have your fun. When you tell an audience, "I have the blues," everyone who has had the blues will respond to it. It doesn't have to be an immediate reaction either.

You can think of the blues as a series of proverbs that when you place them together you get an emotion.

It’s like in Greek tragedies—when the ending hits it leaves an impression on your heart because of the way that the audience has been told "look out for this" and "look out for that" and the characters in the play don't follow the rules and they lose out because of it.

Here are a few examples of what I mean. You could place these three lines in any order and it would tell a different story to each person who hears it:

"I'm going away and it won't be long"

"A train left this town, there's a woman that's on that train"

"I got a letter this morning, the woman I love was dead"

"Take my pistol, honey, we gonna have a time"

"Woke up this morning with the blues wrapped around my head"

That's the way a lot of the older songsters put their blues songs together and that drew me into it. It is a powerful way to tell a story.

How do you describe Dom Flemons sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

The Dom Flemons sound is a combination of the styles I mentioned before. I try my best to resist labels. Since I'm writing this out in an interview, I'm taking the time explain what I mean. If we talked on the street briefly, I would say that I play "old-timey music and folk" because people are interested in that style of music. While it doesn't describe everything I do, I am perfectly happy to have people look me up and figure out what my music is about instead of me trying to describe it narrowly.

I think that characterizes my philosophy the most. While in some ways I try to be extremely particular about the "traditional" sound of different types of American folk music, I am not afraid to show that I have many other influences. I played in coffeehouses in my hometown for several years before I ever had any notion of playing professionally. In doing that, I learned a lot of styles of music for my own pleasure. This informs my way of thinking about music. I am also a big enough fan of the music that I enjoy that when I perform it there are certain things I will not do because I don't think it fits to my personal style. I'm willing to sacrifice some historical accuracy for my own personal artistic stamp.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and highlight moment of your career?

I can't tell you one highlight moment of my career. I feel so blessed to have played so many great gigs and shows over the past decade that it is hard to just pick one. I got to play Bonnaroo, the Grand Ole Opry, and I just recently played the Cecil Sharpe House in London with Martin Simpson, which was a treat. I got to be in a movie with Denzel Washington. I've met many of my idols—Mike and Pete Seeger, Guy Davis, Patrick Sky, Odetta and worked with lesser-known traditional artists—Joe Thompson (whose music was the basis of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which I founded with Rhiannon Giddens Laffan and Justin Robinson in 2005), John Dee Holeman and Boo Hanks. I work with a wonderful non-profit, Music Maker Relief Foundation. Meeting the founder, Tim Duffy, was a highlight of my career. The list goes on and on. It has been a treat. It has also been a constantly humbling experience.

Why did you think that the Folk and Blues roots music continues to generate such a devoted following?

The music is made to last. There is a reason that songs that are hundreds of years old last. It’s because they have endured the test of time. Also, in a post-digital revolution, folk and roots music has found a new outlet for people to present music that at one point was not considered suitable for the big mass-media TV world. At the same time, people are posting a lot of useless crap on the media outlets. Nevertheless, in that freedom, old footage from the beginning of film and music history has been available to people. What have been needed now are the advocates that can drive the new audience, both young and old, to the source of information. 

For years folk music has been an insular community by nature. It is the preservation of old culture. In documenting, it is a fine line to walk to present "authentic" or "pure" music and also to keep it in real perspective. I feel in the 21st Century, there has been a big jump in the younger demographic based on more performers doing acoustic music. For example, if you place a group like Old Crow Medicine Show in the context of a group like the Kingston Trio. Both had a huge hit song on the pop charts, “Wagon Wheel” and “Tom Dooley,” respectively. Over a number of years, kids that grew up with that music from their parents or older siblings will have a taste for the music that was not there 10 years previously. I feel it’s just the harvesting of a lot of seeds that have been planted by a lot of dedicated folks, myself being one of them.

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing?

I have always loved poetry. That's why I have a B.A. in English. I love poetry, songwriting, prose, short story, silent film and history. I started writing poetry when I was young, maybe 12 or 13. When I got a guitar at 16 I started writing songs. Did that for a while. When I got to college I started doing slam poetry. I started playing banjo. Got into the ‘20s and ‘30s music. Started blowing the jug. I've always written during the whole time.

I hadn't tried to seriously write anything for quite a few years because I just loved learning new styles of music. Nowadays, when I'm writing, I think of it as making a portrait. I take characters and people who I have met and turn them into characters in my songs. I stopped writing autobiographical songs a long time ago. It’s just too much stress to do that every night. Play your soul out every night hoping that it catches on—no way! I wrote all of the songs on the record doing the best I could to create believable stories that will move people.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

One of the most important pieces of advice I ever got was from John Dee Holeman, a blues singer out of Durham, North Carolina. He always told me that the most important thing to any song is the beat. If you can't keep your beat the songs can't go. When you have the beat you know where the notes go and why you are playing them. If you don't have a good lock on the beat, it’s just technically proficient music that won't move anyone except the folks who want to keep their music on an intellectual level. This is cool too. I love listening to a lot of intellectually challenging music. It’s sometimes nice to just have to sit and take in a masterfully complex piece of music. But that's not really the music I do on stage. The music I carry is music that has the beat, which can be fast or slow, rough or soft.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams and recording time which you’d like to share with us?

My most recent record, Prospect Hill, was a combination of a recording session and a jam. While some songs on the album feature a great band of jazz session musicians about 60 percent of it features the work of the great songster Guy Davis. On songs like, "But They Got It Fixed Right On", Guy worked off of the arrangement I had worked out for the song while "Marching On Prospect Hill" was a harmonica and bones jam that I wanted to have with Guy. I told Guy what I was looking for and he delivered a stunning performance! Same thing with my track "Georgia Drumbeat." I asked Guy to play amplified harp, which is not his main way of playing harmonica in his shows but he tore it up!

That was a fun memory!

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

What I miss most about music from the past are these three things:

1. Musicians putting out more records

Since folks can't sell records anymore based on all the research evidence, artists have to hit the road more often. In this way, it would be nice to have musicians putting out more records. Only problem with that is that the audience has to show the manufacturers and the labels that they are willing to buy a physical product. It doesn't have to be "Yes, physical" or "No, physical" products. There can be a balance. The most popular groups of the entire industry became that way by putting out tons of records and singles. Even though we think of a group like The Beatles as a brilliant band with a brilliant catalog the main thing is they have a catalog. The Beatles had big fame from 1963-1970. Seven years of strong releases and now they can repackage it as many times as they want. People take too long to make records nowadays.

2. Musicians need to do their homework before putting out records

While there are many musicians who can write, record, and produce their own records, not everyone should do that. Some people need time to develop and do their homework. As an interpreter of folk songs, I do my homework. This informs my arrangement of old songs as well as my writing of new songs. It’s like learning a language and I feel that so many people are putting out albums that are just artsy garbage and because people don't know better they just accept that it’s good music. When I make my music, I try to put references that I know into the music but that don't require me to explain it for it to trigger a response from the audience. I've always been a fan of Shakespeare quote from Hamlet, "More Matter, Less Art." What is an artist saying and can they get it across in a concise period of time. I am a meticulous listener where if a record doesn't move me the first time it’s in the trash and I move on. I like a record to move me and I feel a lot of modern music does not do that. With that being said, I am a fan of Janelle Monae so don't think I'm just going to dump on anything that is new or anything not traditional.

3. It all boils down to economy

Points 1 and 2 can only happen when there is a market to sell music. We've gotten so spoiled just getting music for free that the musicians are getting the short end of the stick. Think of it like if you were a waiter in a restaurant. If the cook just gave the patrons the food for free without using you, you'd be out of a job. The waiter is supposed to be a third party that delvers the meal that is delicious. If you take that out of the picture then why did you come to eat at a restaurant? You could do that at home.

It works the same way for music. Musicians love to make their music. It’s their heart and their soul. But they need to get paid like everyone else. People don't realize that that is very important. If you are a part-time musician then it’s cool. You do your music on the weekend and then go back to work. With professional musicians, you don't have that option—this is your day job.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I hope that in the new wave for acoustic music more venues that can handle solo performers, duos and small ensembles will become prominent. That is what will create a more healthy economy for everyone but that's a hard road to hoe. Proprietors have to put up the money and the audience has to be there. If a business knows that they can bring in money, they will be more likely to have more nights of music. They also might have more money for a proper sound system, a stage and a lot of things that make for an awesome venue.

Which memory from John Hammond, Odetta, Jools Holland, and Alvin "Youngblood" Hart makes you smile?

John Hammond... hmmm.  I got to work with John Hammond on the Mississippi Sheiks tribute album. What I loved about John Hammond is that he talked like he played. For being a legend, he was such a humble guy and his voice was smooth like his slide playing. Even though, the track we did with him didn't end up on the record, it was a treat to watch him work.

Odetta I got to meet on three different occasions before she passed away. The Carolina Chocolate Drops opened for her in 2007. I got her to sign my copy of her first album Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues. She was so gracious each time we met. I wish I had gotten to know her better but you get what you get and I got a little bit of magic from her in the few moments we met. She was one of the greatest black females vocalists of all time. I couldn't help but feel blessed to be in her presence.

Jools Holland- Jools is such a masterful host. I don't know him well since my only experiences with him were in the studio, but he was a great person and is really a well-researched brilliant musician. I also love that his show is probably the closest thing that the world for an all-encompassing music-only program. You have other shows but Jools Holland always brings class acts that are from EVERY genre. Each time I appeared on his show I met great musicians. First time, I met Eli Paperboy Reed, Solange Knowles, Dengue Fever and the Stereophonics. What a lineup! The second time the Carolina Chocolate Drops were guests of the Chieftains along with the Secret Sisters. Jack White, The Alabama Shakes, Norah Jones and Grimes were on the program! I mean, that is amazing and Jools Holland is the guy that makes it happen every season. I cannot throw enough compliments his way. Also, as a hit making musician, right on!

What are the lines that connect the blues with folk, country, rock n’ roll and continue to Jazz and jug music?

It’s all American music. That's the connecting line. That's why I named myself "The American Songster." All of these types of music you've mentioned come from the same country and have a shared cultural knowledge. Music is also the main way in America that people were able to step over the racial barriers that were placed in the country at that time. In that way, each of these styles of music can be informed and modified with elements of the other styles. Again, it’s like a language. Think how Muddy Waters would sound if he played in Bob Wills’ band. Remember that the two would have to compromise to make musical sense out of it. If done successfully, it would be a glorious sound. But since neither of these two giants of music performed together, a new generation can interpret and try it out and be thoughtful of how to honor the music of both sides while avoiding making FUSION music. I find FUSION music to be horrible but a true fusion of different types of music to be brilliant.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day?

To tell you the honest truth, I am perfectly happy to be living in the present. As a mixed-race man in America now, things are better than they have been before because the idea of race in the country is progressing slowly yet steadily. Strict segregation is hard because everyone has a little bit of this and that in their heritage. Give me 2014, Year of the Folksinger, over anything else right now!

Dom Flemons - official website

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