Dom Flemons: A Conversation About Music
Introduction and interview by Daniel Coston
Over the last five years, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have helped to bring the music of our past into our present. Sure, there are many that play what is often referred to as old-time music, but very few make it theirs the way that the Drops do, injecting the music with their own heart and spirit. While the band's fanbase has steadily grown, and the group received a Grammy for their 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig, it is this regeneration of the music that puts them ahead of others.
Dom Flemons is possibly the most recognizable member of the group, and has a scholarly knowledge of the music he plays. With this knowledge, I set up this story as a less of a interview, and more of a conversation about the music. Read on, listen and enjoy.
Coston: How did first hear some of the music that you play now?
Flemons: I first heard folk songs in choir in elementary school but I didn't really take any interest in playing the music I play now till I was about 22 years old or so. It was my third year of college and I had been playing guitar, harmonica and banjo for about 6 years and had gone through many musical and artistic phases. I first got into 50's, 60's and 70's rock and from there I got into Bob Dylan and that lead to me getting into the 60's folk revival and the different musicians that formed the whole of that music scene. Also I began going to the local folk festivals in Arizona, and began learning songs from the older players that jammed in the parks. I had also picked up records and songs of various genres and tried my best to play in those styles. I got into singer-songwriters and I wrote my own songs for quite a while but by the time I reached college I had lost most of my inspiration to write songs.
Looking for new means of expressing myself through writing I began to write prose and short stories. As it happened I began to get interested in doing slam poetry and became apart of the local poetry scene in Flagstaff. I helped form the NorAZ poets and performed in two National Poetry Slams. I enjoyed my time performing my poems but I really wanted to play music again. I began to pursue different old-time blues, jazz and country music and began to perform those. I had a few years of playing in those styles until the Black Banjo Gathering where I found a new outlet to explore the music that I loved.
Coston: What instruments did you play first?
Flemons: I started out playing percussion in the school band. I also played the bass drum in the marching band. When I was 16 that was when I began playing guitar and harmonica.
Coston: Early on, which performers did you hear, or see that just blew you away?
Flemons: The first musician that made me want to play was Bob Dylan who I first saw in the documentary The History of Rock 'N' Roll. Also in that documentary I saw two musicians who visually took me to another level. That was Louis Jordan and Muddy Waters who were featured in the first episode. Their exuberent performances in the film footage made me want to look up their music in the library. In an era of 90's rock, I had never seen such dynamic performers before and had to pursue their music.
Coston: Would you say that American music is not a genre per se, but a collection of various sounds and influences, much like America itself?
Flemons: I'd say its both. American music can be very specific in some ways. American music is a collection of various sounds and influences but those various sounds can come out very different from one another. There is always in thread that goes through each of these styles but jazz, blues, country, zydeco, native and chicano musics are all very distinct genres of music even though they all fly under the American music genre banner.
Coston: How did American music change from the era of Stephen Foster and Dan Emmitt, to the jugband music of the '20s and '30s?
Flemons: There was a huge transition that happened between Stephen Foster and Dan Emmett's era (1850's-1860's) to the jug bands of the 20's and 30's. I mean there were big events that changed the way Americans lived in general and the music also reflected those changes. The minstrel show had grown from a small string band creating a caricature of what was perceived to be black life on the plantation to an overblown international phenomenon. Though this institution was known as a white musician's institution blacks all the while were building up ways to express themselves on the popular stage including making their own minstrel troupes. Over the years, blacks found different styles of music to adapt to create new forms of music that would influence American culture. Ragtime and Coon Songs would make way for Jazz, Blues and Black Musical Theater. There is a great book called Stomp and Swerve which talks about this transition.
In the teens, folks like James Reese Europe and WC Handy had established bands and orchestras to play for various events in the communities and this practice was used all over the country. The jug bands were an offshoot of this musical practice. Though they were based more on the novelty of using unconventional instruments, these groups were actually well trained orchestras that were prepared to play at whatever social events were needed for the upper crust of society. These groups were found all over the South in particular but the most famous ones to record were from Louisville, KY and Memphis, TN.
Coston: How much did the mainstream discovery of American and "hillbilly" music in the 1920s and 1930s, via performers such as the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Charlie Poole, change American music itself?
Flemons: It changed everything. One thing that is hard to imagine is that at a certain point human being had no way to preserve their music. Also folks had never heard themselves either so they had no idea to know the way they sounded when they sang or played music. With the invention of the audio recording, people had an infinitely useful way to preserve their culture. Like all technology, the rich and elite were the only ones who had access to this technology. Over time, it made its way into the hands of regular folks but for the first few decades, the records made were records of classical music and elite music. It was only by accident that PR people from the record companies began to find out that there was interest in these musicians that were a little rough around the edges. Nowadays these recordings made in the early part of the century, along with the many field recordings made by scholars over the years, are now the foundation of what we as modern people define as our American folk music.
Coston: It's obvious that while some wanted to separate black and white music, the two shared some similiar influences, and often converged. What are the common bonds in black music (for lack of a better term) and white music?
Flemons: The easier way to approach this question is to make the answer a little broader. Black and white people have had common musical cultures in America just because they have needed to live side-by-side for so long in both hostile and not hostile situations. Because the context of the music making in American society was and is so varied you have different combinations of musical cultural everywhere you go. Before there were definitive musical genres that defined a culture, people played music that reflected their local culture which in many cases were far more varied than we would think today. The common bonds are the cultures that the musicians came from. For example, take a song like "John Henry". The song is found in both black and white culture but the way the song is approached varies based on the function of the musician in their local culture. Dance bands keep the text at a minimum and the dance beat in the forefront while ballad singers do the opposite. Again, its all about the function of the musician and the song. The racial implications are not as important as the broader social implications.
Coston: What is it about Joe Thompson and his collection of songs that makes him so special?
Flemons: Joe Thompson is special because he is a living example of a musical style that is rare in the old-time community and even more rare in the black community. He plays a set of tunes that he learned in his family and played in the square dances in his community of Mebane, NC. He also sings very old Primitive Baptist songs that have nuances in the singing that reflect the church singing in his community growing up. During Joe's lifetime he saw the way that the music in his community changed from the more community-based string band and spiritual styles to the more individualistic blues and gospel styles. The fact that he kept playing the fiddle during that time is a rare and important link to an era that has faded in the black community.
Coston: Dom, what instrument or instruments have been the most fascinating to you, and why?
Flemons: I'll name a few different instruments here because one of my great loves are the unconventional instruments used in American culture:
The jug- Though it is thought of as a novelty instrument, I have been amazed at the versitility of this instrument. With just the right technique and imagination, one can cover a lot of ground in a group setting with a jug.
Bones- The bones have changed the way I approach my music rhythmically. Taking away the melodic pieces of old-time music can be very liberating. I enjoy being able to join a jam and making the music jump up a whole other level by adding the right rhythm to accentuate the melody instead of just doubling it which is very common in old-time music.
Quills- First being inspired by Mike Seeger to play this rare instrument, I love the way this amazing panpipe instrument is just so out there. It has piercing sound but it is pleasing to the ear and the pentaponic scale that I use make for another wonderful sound that changes the sound of any song.
Coston: I saw the Briarhoppers play at my elementary school when I was 11, and I never forgot it. What do you hope that the kids take away from your shows?
Flemons: All I hope for kids to take away from our shows is just the experience of seeing this music played live. There s nothing better than experiencing music live. Also as the teachers are tending to prep the kids for our shows, it is great to be able to give them a history lesson that is accompanied by great music. Also being black musicians playing this music it is also great to be able to give kids a real example of blacks playing the music instead of just talking about it.
Coston: How have your interests in music evolved for the Drops' history?
Flemons: My search for interesting and amazing music has just continued to grow as we've gotten out there more and more. I learn little tidbits that just my knowledge and love of the music. I first got interested in the old-time music through the old-time songsters and that search just continues on and has lead me to more doors than I can open at one time. With each new discovery I make, my interests have grown to share this information with others as well as promote or make people aware of others that are making similar musical discoveries. Our group is not the only one out there and the more people that are playing this music, the better.
Coston: If there were to recommend an artist to someone whom they'd never heard, who would that be and why?
Flemons: I would recommend people to not one but many performers. I would recommend they look up the companies that I loolked up and make the decisions themselves. It has always amazed me what I miss when I go through material and what others pick up on when they look through the same material. I would recommend folks look up Yazoo Records, Old Hat Records, Music Maker Relief Foundation and Sun Records and that will give anyone plenty to start with and hopefully will lead people to many more discoveries.