Q&A with Dom Flemons, one of the most accomplished artists of America’s musical past, particularly Black musical traditions

"American Folk Music has always had a pulse on the social consciousness of the people listening to it. Music is an essential staple of most people’s lives and the effect it has on their thoughts and experiences. Sometimes the music is used for a political or social cause and other times the cause is just to move and release energy from the day’s work. I think music has different roles based on the person and their particular interests."

Dom Flemons: The American Songster

Dr. Dom Flemons “The American Songster" received an Honorary Doctorate from Northern Arizona University and he's a GRAMMY Award Winner with four GRAMMY nominations, Two-Time EMMY Nominee, International Acoustic Music Award Grand Prize Winner, and was a United States Artists Fellow. He is a musician based in the Chicago area and he is famously known as "The American Songster®" since his repertoire covers over one hundred years of American roots music; including country, folk, bluegrass, Americana, and the blues. Flemons is a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, music scholar, historian, actor, slam poet, record collector, podcaster, and the creator, host, and producer of the American Songster Radio Show on WSM in Nashville, TN. He is considered an expert player on the banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug, percussion, quills, fife and rhythm bones. He is the Co-Founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Founder of American Songster Productions. Flemons recently released his highly anticipated solo album “Traveling Wildfire” (2023) on the Smithsonian Folkways label. The album included original songs, a 50-page liner notes booklet designed with custom artwork, tin-type photos, and images by world-renowned photographers. The critically acclaimed album produced by Ted Hutt earned him a GRAMMY Nomination for “Best Folk Album” in the same category as Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Old Crow Medicine Show, Milk Carton Kids, Nickel Creek, and Rufus Wainwright.

(Dom Flemons / Photo © by Nate Kinard Jr.)

In 2023, Dom Flemons premiered his new four-part documentary series “The Real Wild West” on CuriosityStream. As the Narrator and a commentator on the series, Flemons guides viewers through this definitive story of the American West, where a diverse group of pioneers shaped a country and built the foundation for modern America. “The Real Wild West” was created by Roller Coaster Road Productions and the opening theme song for the entire series is Flemons’ original song “Traveling Wildfire”. FUN FACT: Dom Flemons competed and WON a Merengue Dance Competition in the Dominican Republic during an Artist Excursion on the Cayamo Cruise.

Interview by Michael Limnios                  Archive: Dom Flemons, 2014 Interview  

Special Thanks: Dom Flemons & Vania Kinard

How has the American Folk/Roots Music influenced your views of the world? Where does your creative drive come from?

When I began to playing folk music I was impressed by the way it told a direct message. The themes of the songs were not doctored up and polished like a pop songs. Also, the philosophies of many folk songs created a space for human compassion and empathy that was very different than other types of music. While it was first a process of learning songs slowly yet steadily the language of folk songs began to be a part of my vocabulary as an interpreter and a songwriter. I am always driven by the power of a song to change someone’s life. There are times when people are needing to hear something that will take them to a higher level of consciousness or awareness of the world around them.

How do you describe your songbook and music philosophy? Is there a message you are trying to convey with your songs?

The songs I play are a combination of musical styles. I was always following my own interests, and this led me to a path of learning not only folk songs but blues, ragtime, New Orleans Jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and string band music. After a certain point, I begin to see that there were places where all of these styles overlapped and told a multifaceted story of American roots music. When I started to play shows I made a point to explore these cross sections with the audience.  In many ways, that is the core of my musical philosophy. When I juxtapose the songs, I choose to play next to each other it is my hope that the audience will walk away with a better understanding of the people and places that I am talking about as well as my experiences as a world traveling cultural historian. I’ve never tried to impose a message on the audience per se, but I have always tried to create a space for intellectual growth no matter who is listening.

"While it was first a process of learning songs slowly yet steadily the language of folk songs began to be a part of my vocabulary as an interpreter and a songwriter. I am always driven by the power of a song to change someone’s life. There are times when people are needing to hear something that will take them to a higher level of consciousness or awareness of the world around them." (Dom Flemons, famously known as "The American Songster" / Photo © by Steven Holloway)

What moment changed your music life the most?

I would probably point to the year that I won the Grammy with the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2010 as being a moment that changed my musical life. Up to that point, I had been building up the group and working hard on the road to present a style of music that had been underrepresented for decades and the Grammys themselves was a pinnacle to that journey.  It elevated the music I was producing past the normal bounds of the old-time and folk music community allowing me to enjoy the prestige of the broader music industry.  

What’s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

When it comes to the highlights of my career there have been many so I have to answer this part of the question accordingly. I began my musical career taking the music I loved from the small coffeehouses of Arizona to the streets as a busker. I would watch people pass me by and drop a dollar in my hat and I would dream of the day that I would leave my home state and have my own adventures out in the world. In many ways, just to take a trip out of my own backyard was a highlight so when I think about being about to play shows all over the country and the world that takes that notion to a much higher level.

Why do you think that Slam Poetry continues to generate such a devoted following?

Slam Poetry is a special type of performance art because it balances its strength on both the power of poetry as well as the approval of the audience who is voting. Whatever the quality of poetry being written is presented, there is a randomly selected set of judges from the audience that has to give their honest opinion of what they feel is the best poetry.  This creates an interesting give and take where a writer has to be subjected to the whim of the audience and in it’s own way the audience has control over the art. I think this format makes slam poetry a constantly appealing form.

"My hope for music is that artists and musicians will continue to create but my fear is the way that music is being distributed in an age without physical products. In a world built on paid social media advertising and algorithms I worry that this type of music distribution will only give a small number of musicians the power in the industry while all others are left on the fringes struggling just to be heard." (Dom Flemons, a musician based in the Chicago area / Photo © by Steven Holloway)

How does poetry affect your mood and inspiration?

When it comes to poetry itself like music it can elevate the reader’s consciousness. As poetry is written word, it must also serve a different purpose because it is an art form that you read. Word and sentence structure must convey a story like a song’s melody must and when it is done well it can create new thought processes that can shift the mindsets of the people who read it.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past?

One of things that I miss from the music of the past is the use of instruments. I also miss the structure of songs from the past as well. Many of the songs that are considered classics have great melodies, chord progressions and words that create the foundation of a great recording. In traditional music, these elements are usually passed down over generations so that the songs are built on the strength of regional tradition which makes for a solid foundation to build new songs. Many times, contemporary music is built on the rhythmic pulse and relies less on a melodic structure which is not my preference.  Even a blues song built on a single riff catches more my interest than just a bunch of beats and samples.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

My hope for music is that artists and musicians will continue to create but my fear is the way that music is being distributed in an age without physical products. In a world built on paid social media advertising and algorithms I worry that this type of music distribution will only give a small number of musicians the power in the industry while all others are left on the fringes struggling just to be heard. And then there is also the distribution of money. The structure as it is now allows the bigger record labels and musical acts to stay in the most advantageous positions while boxing out newcomers from gaining any of the benefits. At least in a world where music is primarily sold in physical form, each musician had the opportunity to sell their own product and collect their own money based on those sales. Now they are all reliant on the digital streaming platforms who dictate who moves ahead and who is left behind.

"The main things I have learned from playing music is to stay true to your own path. In playing traditional music, I am opening people’s eyes up to a new way to experience the musical traditions of the past. This allows them to see the music not only as a time capsule but also as an expression of contemporary life." (Photo: Dom Flemons with Vania Kinard and their daughter Cheyanne)

What is the impact of American Folk Music on the socio-cultural implications? What is the role of music in today’s society?

American Folk Music has always had a pulse on the social consciousness of the people listening to it. Music is an essential staple of most people’s lives and the effect it has on their thoughts and experiences. Sometimes the music is used for a political or social cause and other times the cause is just to move and release energy from the day’s work. I think music has different roles based on the person and their particular interests.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

The main things I have learned from playing music is to stay true to your own path. In playing traditional music, I am opening people’s eyes up to a new way to experience the musical traditions of the past. This allows them to see the music not only as a time capsule but also as an expression of contemporary life. 

A second lesson I have learned is to always give credit where it is due. My musical journey was shaped by many people who are friends and who have served as mentors for my musical development. In every show, I make a point to give credit to the people who have contributed to my artistic journey. In the liner notes to my albums, it is of the upmost importance that I cite my sources when necessary.  This allows the listener an opportunity to be inspired not only by me but the people and places that have guided me to the present.

A final lesson is to keep my ears open to new sounds. You can never tell what is going to pass by your desk. When you think you have heard everything there is a chance that there will be something else that will come along that will change your whole outlook on things. Music must be written and played but no matter what it is listened to as a rule of life.

Dom Flemons “The American Songster - Home

(Dom Flemons, famously known as "The American Songster" / Photo © by Nate Kinard, Jr.)

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