Wax-O-Holics Musical Artist Spotlight- Dom Flemons The American Songster May 19 2014, 1 Comment

by DeadWeatherDenver
We Wax-O-Holics are so honored to have Dom Flemons as our inaugural EP Wax-O-001 artist. Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist, folklorist, and American Songster Dom Flemons is a self-taught banjoist. He also plays guitar, quills, fife and my personal favorite, bones. His background as an English major opened his observations of how race has been used (and misused) throughout history. In his own unique interpretations, Flemons explores the history of string-band music, often confronting the race behind the genre.


Dom got his start with fellow Carolina Chocolate Drop bandmates after the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering, which was organized to promote awareness of black string band music throughout the African American community in an effort to create cultural unity. I was intrigued to know that prior to that event Dom communicated with many of the attendees via the internet, which draws an interesting correlation to our group of artists (Wax-O-Holics) who primarily met and work via the internet.
In anticipation of his upcoming release Dom has so kindly taken the time to answer a few questions about his past and present.

How did you arrive at the tagline ‘The American Songster’?
I remember reading about the term “songster” in Paul Oliver’s book “Songsters and Saints” and it stuck with me. When I first started I thought of myself as a folksinger. Starting out in the late 1990’s I realized quickly that even the mention of “folk” would have people screaming for the hills. What I liked about songster was that it was open to the performers that wrote their own material and the one who interpreted songs. I have always enjoyed presenting my version of old songs and making my changes here and there to suit me. Some songs I mimic exactly what I heard on the original recording. Those cases are for the songs that don’t need to be improved and tell a statement on their own.

What does that phrase mean to you?

Its important to know that a songster plays music AND sings. I do both and that is my strongest suit. Even though I can get by with one or the other, both parts have always been my focus from the beginning. As for the “American”, I am proud of my country. There are more than enough things I am not proud about it but I try to do my part. I try to present music that is not only entertaining but also educational because I feel that there is so much to be gained by knowing one’s history. I just tell stories. I try to let people fill in the blanks on how it applies to their life. I focus on the American experience and that is why I am “The American Songster”.

I’ve read that you initially got into folk music around the age of 16 and that attending the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering was a major turning point for you as a musician. For a kid born & raised in the burbs of Phoenix, what is it about string band music that resonated so much with you?

I wasn’t particularly interested in string band music at all when I was in Phoenix. That wasn’t until I went to NC and began playing with Rhiannon and Justin. The two of them knew more about string band music than me. My knowledge base included folk music from the 40’s to the 70’s, New Orleans Jazz, Jug Band Music, rock ‘n’ roll, doo wop, 60’s pop, country blues, honky-tonk, hillbilly, ragtime and variety of other types of music that were of interest to me. Mike Seeger was a stepping stone for me in terms of thinking about traditional music as a language that I could learn not only how to replicated and but how to create new ways of using it. I did this by understanding several styles of music all at once and being very conscious of the way that I adapted it.

I have always been attracted to voices. If someone has an interesting vocal quality I am drawn to that. This can be sweet and rough it doesn’t matter. When I hear the quality I like I try my best to understand why it appeals to me. In folk music and old-time music there are a lot of interesting voices so its always a treat to listen for that new voice that will move me.

Last year you made the decision to leave the Carolina Chocolate Drops, of which you are a founding member, to pursue your solo aspirations. How do you feel that move has/ will change your musical story or what you are able to communicate to your audience?
When you play in a group, one always has to submerge a part of their own musical personality for the benefit of the group. A group is a team effort and everyone has to work together to make that happen. With that being said, I have played solo for a total of 15 years all learning many things along the way with the group but I have always had a separate repertoire that suited the things that I pursue. Because I never felt comfortable adding my original material to the Carolina Chocolate Drops show knowing that the historical material was the focus of the group, my solo show features a few original numbers that I have written over the past few years.

My style also leads itself more toward country blues, early jazz and country music. While I have added old-time music into my repertoire over the course of the past ten years, most people are not as familiar with the other parts of my repertoire. I am always working on new ideas and I am continuing on my journey as a musician and performer I am really showing my audience my journey so far and letting them know that it is just the beginning.

It seems that your personal interest in American history has been a driving force behind your style. I imagine that must influence your choice of songs to cover but begs the question- what comes first? The Song or The Story? Do you pick your songs or do they pick you?

I always pick the song first. I don’t have to know anything about it. If a song moves me then I try to learn it and play it. I worry about the story afterwards. A long time ago, I decided that the material I perform MUST be material I personally enjoy. I feel this gives me the freedom to perform my material without the any feeling that I am obligated to do it and the audience benefits because they are can see that I am passionate about what I am performing and they can enjoy my performance because of that and also, I would hope, the material itself.

The thing about talking about American is that the history has to mean something to the performer and the audience at the same time and they both need to be able to transcend the history. While the facts are interesting, if they don’t have an impact on the modern world at the time they are shown, who cares? The history never goes anywhere. For example, let’s take a song like Polly Put The Kettle On from my new record Prospect Hill. The fact that Sonny Boy Williamson I the first recorded this number with the pianist Blind John Davis in Chicago and that Sonny Boy Williamson I was a transitional figure in the development of blues harmonica means only that if I can’t play the harmonica at least convincing in that style. The history is interesting and will get people’s attention but if I am not delivering it then I lose the one thing I am trying to do as an interpreter which is make the music feels relevant. If folks walk away saying, “Oh that music is just old” then I really haven’t transcended as a performer on that song. Once you transcend the idea that history is stagnant, you can actually get perspective on it.

You left music for a while in your early twenties to do performance-based art. How did your experience performing slam poetry influence your overall musical style?
It gave me two major things artistically. It made me put my instrument down and perform without hiding behind it. When you have a guitar or any instrument it is so easy to hide behind it as a wall between you are the audience. When I was doing slam poetry, I was talking with an audience directly and saw a different way to interact with them. The other thing that slam helped me with was writing. In my community of writers, we had weekly writing and critiquing session, there was a slam every week, there was a role I played in the community with everyone pushing each other forward. With that, you couldn’t hold back. You had to “Bring It!” every time. Also in slam the judge at each performance all the way up the judges are 5 random people from the bar so you that the judging had no regular criteria just what people in the audience felt.

I learned how to write prose and began performing that and it helped me understand the power of the words when you sing. Many folks tend to sing too much in my opinion and they forget that they are saying a message with words. This also doesn’t particular have to mean that you have to sing any less beautifully to do so. Just understand that you are in front of an audience and you are speaking a message to them. Own that message. I learned that when I was doing slam poetry. I had a lot of wonderful people teach me so much during that time.

I’ve read that your guiding philosophy is to make music you would listen to... which I think is a great philosophy to have! What inspires your writing or creative process?
That is actually my philosophy about recording. When recording, I feel that you must be able to remove yourself from your recording so much that you should listen to it as if you were given an unlabeled CD and knew nothing about the artist. Once you do that, ask yourself, “do I like this?” It is amazing how many times people go into the studio and do not do that then afterwards they think, “oh I shouldn’t have played that or that. What was I thinking?”

I actually saw that in a Bob Dylan quote. When talking about his album Highway 61 Revisited, one of his most famous albums, he commented, “Yeah… that’s a good one. I’d listen to it!” Like you, that idea was very powerful. When you are putting out music its important to think about what you are putting out there. Not so much as to cripple your creative spark. When I put material out there I realize it will be reflected by my past and I try to find the best compromise to honor the past but make room for the future.

My writing process is all over the place. Sometimes I write a title and work from there. Sometimes I meet someone and I make them into a model for a song. Its like a painter painting on a canvas. Other times, I take a song I know and write the words with that song in my head and then make a new melody with a different beat pattern. Other times, I just play great material that I didn’t write. These days I keep it pretty open. Haha!

How does instrument selection for each song come into play? I love your song ‘San Francisco Baby’ that you wrote and performed with Pokey LaFarge accompanying you on guitar. How did that Historic Records Kitchen Session come about?
I usually switch the instrumentation around a few times on each song I do just to get a feel. Each instrument has its own feeling and attack and sometimes it takes a little bit to set in.

As for the Kitchen Songs Session, Jake Book, the fellow who does the videos, and I met in Cincinnati when I was doing an opening set for Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band last Fall. The two of us talked a bit and he told me about Kitchen Songs. I was looking to get more videos up on youtube to promote more of my current solo performances and we discussed doing a Kitchen Songs when I was playing with the Chocolate Drops in Knoxville last Dec.

I’ve known Pokey LaFarge since about 2008 when he was solo and the two of us have kept in touch over the years and we had finally gotten to get a double bill together with his group and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. That was a fun tour! Pokey and I have talked about doing something for years and when I mentioned Kitchen Songs to Pokey he was all for it and we recorded one song that I led and one that he led. “San Francisco Baby” was still a very new song at that point and Pokey had heard it at another show we were on so we decided on that one.

This is a perfect example of switching instrumentation on a song. Knowing that guitar is Pokey’s main instrument so I played banjo for that video when I usually play guitar. Its not really a big deal for me to do so but I figured that the combination of guitar and banjo might be better than two guitars. The video turned out well I believe.

How did you get involved with the Music Maker Relief Foundation and can you tell us more about it?
Music Maker Relief Foundation is a non-profit organization that helps out traditional Southern artists with support so that they can continue making the music that makes them a treasure to their community.

I got involved with Music Maker in 2006 when I met Tim Duffy at the Shakori Hills Festival in Silk Hope, NC. The Chocolate Drops had just recorded the songs that would be our first album, Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind and Tim agreed to put it out. I had actually first heard about Music Maker a few years earlier because some of the more prominent records they had out were in my local library. Once I got to got to know Tim and his wife Denise and see the work they do I couldn’t help but be moved to work with them.

Since starting to work with them, I have done shows with many of the artists including record a CD with Boo Hanks from Buffalo Junction, VA. The experiences I have learned being involved with Music Maker have helped me develop as both a musician and a person.

What does the rest of 2014 have in store for Dom Flemons?
I have a new album coming out in July called Prospect Hill. This will be my third solo album. I will continue making concert appearance throughout the summer including WOMAD in the UK doing a collaborative show with folk singer Martin Simpson. We will be going into the Cecil Sharpe archives in London and re-interpreting song of the old ballads. I will continue to write articles and also try my best to spread around articles I have read through social media. It’s a big world there are a lot of things out there and I can’t wait to dive in head first!

Dom expands a bit on the tracklist for the EP~

These songs are a little taste of the work I’ve done between the years of 2004-2009. If you want to hear more of my work from this period please check out my first two Music Maker album, “Dance Tunes, Ballads and Blues” & “American Songster” www.musicmaker.org.
I hope you enjoy this first vinyl release! All the best to you all and keep on spreading the good music around!
Dom Flemons The American Songster

1. Yonder Comes the Blues
This is a song I first heard from Ma Rainey. I thought back on some of the writings I have read in regarding the way that Charlie Patton arranged her piece “Booze & Blues” into his own “Tom Rushen Blues”. With thought in my head, I decided to make a guitar blues that would show off some of my guitar skills in K.C. Tuning or Open D.
2. Viper Mad
I heard Viper Mad on the sountrack to the Woody Allen film “Sweet & Lowdown”. When I first began playing four-string banjo, I developed a slide guitar style after reading about Gus Cannon playing it on his classic ”Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home”. I play bottleneck style on this piece compared to the Hawaiian style that Gus used (I use that style on Tom Dula on the first CCD album “Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind”). This piece has been a staple of my repertoire for many years. In case you're wondering who's playing the jug, that's me too.
3. Night Woman Blues
I wrote this song on slide banjo. I got caught up on the riff and began putting the words together to this song. I was listening to a lot of Son House at that time. The “Night Woman” was a beautiful woman I knew back in Flagstaff, AZ when I was in college. She would come and visit me in my apartment after classes and I could always tell when she was coming because she wore these heeled sandals that would click up the stairs and across my tile floor to my room where I would doing my favorite past times: kicking up my feet and listening to records.
4. Stackolee
This is a composite piece I put together of several versions of Stackalee. I first heard this one from Dave Van Ronk’s version. Van Ronk learned his version from Furry Lewis’ recording. I put a few verses from Mississippi John Hurt as well that made a complete story. This is a quintessential part of Black AND White American folklore. If you want to read more on the subject I would look up Cecil Brown’s book “Stagolee Shot Billy” and The Old Weird America Wordpress Blog exploring Stackalee and old-time songs http://oldweirdamerica.wordpress.com