Dom Flemons brings Grammy-nominated black cowboy music to St. Petersburg

The Carolina Chocolate Drops principal plays the James Museum.

click to enlarge Dom Flemons, who brings his Grammy-nominated 'Black Cowboys' to St. Petersburg’s James Museum on March 2, 2019. - TIMOTHY DUFF
Timothy Duff
Dom Flemons, who brings his Grammy-nominated 'Black Cowboys' to St. Petersburg’s James Museum on March 2, 2019.

It’s been just three months since Dom Flemons was at Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts, but the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder is already on his way back for a March 2 gig at St. Petersburg’s James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art. The 36-year-old songster (who also appears at Bananas Records the next day) will have some company, too.

“I’m gonna be bringing Big Head Joe with me, I believe, because I’ll be driving down. Unfortunately he can’t fly. He’s afraid of the air traffic, but Big Head Joe is still kicking about with me a whole bunch,” Flemons told CL. Big Head Joe can’t exactly talk to Flemons, but the fifth-generation Arizonan knows a lot about his travel companion, which is actually a banjo that dates back to the days of an early 20th century musicians' hangout.

“I just found out who the maker of Big Head Joe was. He was a fella that did work for the Clef Club in Harlem with James Reese Europe,” Flemons said. “This fellow who made Big Head Joe, his name was Robert McGinnis. He patented the Clef Club brand, and then he moved to Philadelphia where he was part of the Philadelphia jazz and ragtime community after James Reese Europe died in 1919.”

Anyone remotely familiar with the musical mining of history that the Chocolate Drops did on their seven-album discography shouldn’t be surprised to hear Flemons talk about a vintage instrument as if it was one of his buddies, but it’s still a joy to hear him bound back and forth about all the knowledge he’s accrued over the years. The latest iteration of the wisdom, Black Cowboys (released last year via the nonprofit Smithsonian Folkways label), sounds like the long-lost music and stories about the role that African Americans played in settling the West after the Civil War. The tunes — some recognizable, others completely obscure and derived from old field recordings — could be used to teach kids about early Western history, or just played on the stereo at home if you like good folk music.

The impetus to write the album — which lost to the Punch Brothers’ All Ashore in the Best Folk Album category at the 2019 Grammys — arrived after Flemons, an Arizonan who is half-African-American and half Mexican-American, came across a book called The Negro Cowboys. The narratives talked about how one in four cowboys who helped settle the West were African-American; the tales fascinated Flemons.

“It was amazing that the actual stories that some of these cowboys were telling — like Nat Love, and there’s another fella named Matthew ‘Bones’ Hooks,” Flemons excitedly said. “They got disgusted with being cowboys, especially as the West began to be fenced off. They became pullman porters working on the railroad line.”

Flemons and his wife worked extensively on the liner notes, and the long look back all the way to the days when Christopher Columbus brought African ranchers over to Hispaniola forced him to focus Black Cowboys’ scope on stories from post-slavery, Reconstruction-era America and what would eventually become the Civil Rights era. At its core, what Black Cowboys gives listeners is the story of enslaved people — their emancipation, hard work and perseverance. It sings about the obstacles those people endured and the new social order that still influences them to this day.

Black Cowboys’ most important function, however, is to splash some color on a chronicling of history that in many ways has been whitewashed by those who overlooked the rich history of black music in the American West. On the front of the album is a portrait of Flemons painted by Willie Matthews, a pre-eminent artist of the American West.

The second phase of the album, aside from the actual product itself, is the visits Flemons makes to Western museums around the country. Naturally, Flemons is drawn to them, and over the years he's accrued many books from their gift shops. In them are stories about Buffalo Soldiers (and Flemons honors them with a fife-and-drum instrumental) and the occasional ode to The Dusky Demon (aka late-19th century, early 20th-century cowboy and rodeo hero Bill Pickett), but Flemons has taken it a step further on Black Cowboys by opening the idea of cowboys up to Western pioneers. In doing so, Flemons sheds even more light on forgotten facets of African-American history.

“I wanted to touch upon everything, and be as broad as I could while still keeping in a reasonable amount of information,” Flemons said. There’s even some Tex-Mex flavor in there thanks to Daniel Sheehy, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, whose guitarron sings on “Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” “Lonesome Old River Blues” and “Knox County Stomp.”

“Once you recognize black cowboys you recognize Mexican vaqueros, you recognize that there is a very diverse crew of people out West. Even white people are broken down into different Europeans,” Flemons said. “Based on where you go in American history, you find very different types of people.”

Flemons — who’s performed a Thomas A. Dorsey and Tampa Red “hoke em” song called “Honey It’s Tight Like That” — also expects to share some Floridian black cowboy stories about people like the aforementioned Pickett, who worked with Jacksonville’s Norman Film Company to popularize bulldogging (the skill of grabbing cattle by the horns and wrestling them to the ground). The African-American community used to travel between Jacksonville and Boley, Oklahoma via the train, according to Flemons. Florida’s history of so having many different types of African-American people — as well as people of Afro-Latin descent and Native American tribes moved out to what was essentially black sections of Indian territory — captivates him, too.

“That’s a pretty deep story,” he said. Indeed, and we can’t wait to dive in.

Dom Flemons. Sat. March 2, 6 p.m. $15-$20. James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art, 150 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.

Stay on top of Tampa Bay news and views. Sign up for our weekly newsletters and follow @CL_music on Twitter. Read our full Q&A below.

You’re no stranger to the Grammy awards, but does this 2019 nom for best folk album feel any different?

It does, mostly because this project ended up taking me back full circle all the way to Arizona in a way that it had not necessarily thought of beforehand. Of course I wanted to reference my home state and to tell a bit about western culture, but I was able to go to a depth within the image of cowboy music and also cowboy poetry. For me, it's the first comprehensive overview of black cowboys in the music form. For me, it took me to this very deep place just by researching, and people really enjoyed it. It got the nomination, and that makes it even better. It's a great compliment and a great honor to be acknowledged in that way.

You and your wife worked extensively on the liner notes for this album, but you have the poem “Ol’ Proc,” written by contemporary Cowboy Poet Wallace McRae, on here. He based the story on his childhood meeting of the cowboy Joe Proctor and being shocked to learn he was black — did the process behind making this album and the liner notes shock you at all or teach you about yourself as you synthesized your thoughts with your research?

Some of the things that really surprised me as I researched was how far back the history of the North American continent — especially within western culture — goes back. In the course of researching I ended up going all the way back to Christopher Columbus bringing African ranchers over to Hispaniola. People like Estevanico, who was one of the first Africans on the North American continent — he traveled with the Spanish. It really took me to this really deep place, and that surprised me a lot. And as I started writing the narrative for this particular album I had to really focus it on post-slavery, reconstruction era America leading into what would become the civil rights era.

It was amazing that the actual stories that some of these cowboys were telling — like Nat Love, and there's another fella named Matthew "Bones" Hooks — they both became pullman porters later on. They got disgusted with being cowboys, especially as the west began to be fenced off. They became pullman porters working on the railroad line.

Bones Hooks, for example, started in Amarillo, Texas where he created the first black community. He hosted every African-American person who would come into this particular community out in Amarillo. That was everybody from Duke Ellington to Langston Hughes, people like that. This guy Bones Hooks had the drive to connect his people to the settlements that he himself traveled out to. He was a guy that could walk through the front door of any building. He was one of the original pioneers. No one would say anything to Bones Hooks about anything like that. If you were second generation, then that was a whole different story.

So to see these exceptions to the social segregation and racism that was a part of that time, I just found that the stories of the black cowboys were so broad and diverse. I was really encouraged by how idiosyncratic every story was. The diversity of African-American culture is always something we could use a little bit more of when we're telling a collective story.

So that was the idea with Black Cowboys. While it's an old-fashioned story, it's also a very modern story at the same time. The idea of technology coming in and changing the world around you.

You reference people like A. Philip Randolph, who started the first all-black working union for Pullman porters…there are stories of black peoples’ role in westward expansion and the search for independent wages — this project is obviously a way for you to tell stories and advance the telling of black history, a certain struggle. It’s also so hard to get noticed in today’s musical landscape. Obviously, to you and I, these stories are interesting, but does it ever frustrate you to know that there's a wide part of the population who will never get to dive into this just because of the way music distribution goes?

I've been fortunate that I've been an independent musician for most of my years. I've had a little label support, here and there, as I've gone along, but for the most part I haven't ever really tried to be part of the popular music field. So in that way I am OK with being in a marginalized and specialized group. This is also why I pitched the Black Cowboys to Smithsonian Folkways. I just knew that this particular type of educational project was going to need to be in a place where it would be appreciated, especially because as I researched the archives I found that there weren't that many albums that referenced black cowboys. So for me, with my own research and experiences working in Southern vernacular music — and also many of the songsters that I've studied, field recordings as well as 78 rpm recordings — I found a collective sound that kind of made sense for the Black Cowboys. These are things that I've looked into, and I've found a lot of connection together.

For me, it was, one, Smithsonian Folkways was a good place to put the album, and to present it in that way. But then, also, to make it part of the African-American legacy series. Around the time I was doing the album, I was asked to be part of the opening ceremonies for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. That was something that I felt was another home for this particular story. That was the other part, trying to make sure that the story was told and could be told in an educational and entertainment format. It could be used to teach kids about early western history or if you just like good music, then it could work that way, too.

Yeah, it is such a cool record, and it is cool to hear some of these songs recorded in a more pristine way instead of these old field recordings. We talk about representation, things like that, and you used to do a hoke em song Thomas A. Dorsey and Tampa Red song called “Honey It’s Tight Like That” — will you be telling region specific stories when you come back to Tampa Bay?

Yeah, definitely. One of the things that is interesting about Florida history when it comes to black cowboys is Bill Pickett, the rodeo rider who invented bulldogging, he did the very first silent film that starred a black cowboy in the lead role, and it was with a company called the Norman Film Company in Jacksonville, Florida. I called the company — it's still around — and they told me that the African-American community used to travel between Jacksonville and Boley, Oklahoma via the train. That was a big conduit for people moving from Florida out west going to Oklahoma. I thought that was really interesting, especially considering Florida's history of so many different types of African-American people as well as people of Afro-Latin descent as well as the Native American tribes of Florida moving out to what's essentially black sections of Indian territory. That's a pretty deep story. I have things like that that I mention to people.

And really quick, is Big Head Joe the Clef Club banjo coming with you to the James Museum?

I am gonna be bringing Big Head Joe with me, I believe, because I'll be driving down. Unfortunately he can't fly. He's afraid of the air traffic. Big Head Joe is still kicking about with me a whole bunch. It's been interesting. I just found out who the maker of Big Head Joe was. He was a fella that did work for the Clef Club in Harlem with James Reese Europe. This fellow who made Big Head Joe, his name was Robert McGinnis. He patented the Clef Club brand, and then he moved to Philadelphia where he was part of the Philadelphia jazz and ragtime community after James Reese Europe died in 1919.

Whoa. That's awesome. Like, I'm not surprised that you know that. Like, you're the guy who would know that about his instrument.

Funny enough, I just learned that last year. There's always a new story to be told because I was telling a friend of mine about it, and he said, "What was the name? Robert McGinnis?" And he sends me an article from the New York Times talking about this guy who made Big Head Joe. It's funny. That's how historical music works sometimes. There's always a new adventure around the corner.

Yeah, it creates this excitement and energy, which you definitely possess. For you, however, was there every any anxious about whether or not Black Cowboy accomplishes the Smithonian’s ask of you to create something that could last 50 or 100 years?

Well, thankfully I've been a diehard fan of cowboy music from the beginning. Even though I never played cowboy music, that was part of my formative years in the Arizona folk festival scene. There was a lot of cowboy music and a lot of cowboy poetry that was read amongst the different performers every year, so I was very familiar with the style. That was one part of it. The second part came when I was invited to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko [Nevada]. At that point, I had a lot of information. But I wasn't sure how I was going to craft the whole thing into a single album concept. Through meeting Andy Hedges as well as Don Edwards and all of the wonderful people over at Elko, I really got the concept of how I wanted to do Black Cowboys. Everybody's enthusiasm for this project — including Willie Matthews, who painted the cover of Black Cowboys — it was overwhelming. They all knew the stories that I knew, and there was never anybody that had decided to take up the charge of doing a black cowboys album. It was 100-percent encouragement. Waddie Mitchell was another guy who was very encouraging — all of these people are very legendary people in the cowboy poetry world.

Andy Hedges and I did a workshop. He read the poem, "Ol' Proc," as the introduction to the workshop. I was so moved by it. I talked to Andy about it. He got me in touch with Wally McRae, and I interviewed Wally briefly about "Ol' Proc," and he told me it was a semi autobiographical and about his experience leading the black cowboy named Joe Proctor. To be able to reach back into that story, and that poem was the final catalyst to bring the whole album together. Sequencing-wise it's in the center of the record. After presenting cowboy music in the general sense — because I also didn't want to assume that people knew anything about cowboy music — I tried to think of ideas that would include "Tying Knots in the Devil's Tail," which is a classic Arizona cowboy song.

But then again, Django is out now. The Magnificent Seven. People are familiar with cowboys, so I didn't have to do too much to convince people on it. Before that it was Blazing Saddles or Buck and the Preacher or Posse if you're from the early-'90s. I thought about all those things, too. What are the representations that people have seen? "Ol' Proc" ended up being in the perfect spot to give people an impression — back to what I mentioned before — this sort of breakdown of the social climate of that time, and the separation between the races. I talks about people, when they were working together. There' a certain work ethic, the pioneer spirit, that hold them together, and it goes beyond all that other stuff. I think the romance and intrigue of the west... part of the whole story is that. There's that extra, next frontier, that's free for everybody. There's really that American Dream idea. And "Ol' Proc" really sets the mood to then go to the next part of the record.

Well that was one of my questions. You mentioned "One Dollar Bill,” which is quite the hollywood cowboy tale — after the release of the album, tour, etc., what happens to all these characters your write out of your head and into a song?

Yeah, well, I've always tried to take a method of songwriting that's really, somewhat, made to order. I think about what's in front of me; the elements of the song. By this point, I've listened and performed enough traditional music. I can find the song that can fit for the idea I'd like to present. I'll sit, and I'll tinker with the song a little bit. After that, it's pretty much set in place.

So a song like "Steel Pony Blues," there are western verses. I end up subconsciously telling stories about four generations of my own family while making it something broad enough that's generally about cowboys and pullman porters, you know. The human mind is funny in that way. I look back at the lyrics to that one, and I'm like, "Oh interesting." I even see different things that I didn't even know that I wrote when I wrote it. In that way, I try to be a little bit open ended with it.

Other times I do song forms. "He's A Lone Ranger" is in the Lightning Hopkins sort of vein. Knowing Bass Reeves's story, he was such an amazing character. Larger than life, but still very true and realistic. I thought that Lightnin’ Hopkins would've written a song about this guy. I went with that notion. It's really set up like a Lightnin’ Hopkins number, but with these amazing historical facts about Bass Reeves.

I feel like you've said that this is a nice lane for you. Does your new work still lean on telling the story of African-Americans’ Western Migration from the Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana or Texarkana region? If not, what is it about?

When it comes to my writing, I tend to be very compartmentalized by songs. If I write a bunch of songs about the west, then I'll end up just sitting down and writing the songs. I read a great story about the Pendleton Roundup of 1916. Pendleton in the state of Oregon. There was a fella named George Fletcher, who was a black cowboy. He was a finalist, along with two other men — a white guy by the name of John Spain, and there was a Nez-Perce Indian by the name of Jackson Sundown who had been run off the land with his family as a boy, over the years he had come back as a rodeo cowboy — this is an epic moment in all of their lives. Basically George Fletcher ended up winning, but since he was black, they have it to the other guy, and the crowd got so mad that they were threatening to tear up the whole stadium. They actually had George Fletcher come back and take the prize. I thought that was such a cool story.

I started writing a song about it, and I got about 60-percent of the way done with it, and I didn't have time to finish it. One day that song might come out, but you never can tell. It's like being in art studio. Some paintings get finished and other ones don't.

You mentioned Willie Matthews, the western artist who did the cover for the record, and you’ll be at a new museum of western art in Tampa Bay. Do you frequent these museums and collections, and if you do, then do you feel like black cowboys are well represented at these western art museums?

Well it's funny that you mention that. That's the second phase to the Black Cowboys album. Aside from the actual product itself, I go to western museums quite a bit, and over the years, as I've toured and been away from Arizona, I found myself drawn to western-themed museums as I've been touring. I frequent museums of history and whatnot. I tend to get a lot of books from the gift shops. That was something I realized with Black Cowboys. I would find, maybe a book on Buffalo Soldiers, or there might be a book on Bill Pickett, or maybe one or two things, but there wasn't a comprehensive "Black Cowboys." That's why it was also important not to just do songs about cowboys, but to open the idea of cowboys up to western pioneers, and to be able to open it up to all of these facets of African-American history. Of course, I mentioned the Buffalo Soldiers in the album as well for a fife and drum instrumental. But I wanted to touch upon everything, and be as broad as I could while still keeping in a reasonable amount of information.

I read in John Lomax's songbook, Cowboy Songs and [Other] Frontier Ballads, he says, "It's my hope that this will be a popular volume," even though he is almost kind of apologizing, like, "I know that everything isn't completely the folk-iest of folk cowboy, but you just have to understand that there's a variety of material, and I'm just picking the stuff that, collectively, people have given me."

And that's kind of how I approached the Black Cowboys record as well. To collect a bunch of stories, especially in African-American culture, but once you recognize black cowboys you recognize Mexican vaqueros, you recognize that there is a very diverse crew of people out west. I even tell people that even white people are broken down into different Europeans. Are you an entrepreneur? Are you English, are you German are you French? Based on where you go in American history, you find very different types of people.

And the culture developed quite differently because of the different strains of cultures, and the different Native American tribes. That's the sort of stuff I noticed. Black Cowboys will be the first, and I hope others will follow behind it.

This is a solo show, you mentioned Mexican influences, but I guess there's no guitarron from Daniel Sheey, right?

Oh no, not this time. I wish I could have Daniel with me every time. That was one of the final elements of the actual recording that came in at the last minute. Dan is an amazing, highly decorated mariachi player, and he was getting ready to do a benefit for Smithsonian Folkways because he was still director at that time. He was like, "Oh yeah, I've got the guitarron in the car if you ever want it, but you know, whatever." And I said, "Oh man, get the guitarron." Those three tracks we put the guitarron on — "Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad," "Lonesome Old River Blues" and "Knox County Stomp" — the flavor of Tex-Mex that those three tracks bring really brought all the music together. For me, I'm half African-American half Mexican-American, and for me, I felt like I was missing a little something. I'm also that generation that didn't learn Spanish — next album, haha. I wanted to at least have some of that flavor in it. Of course that's also why "John Henry y los vaqueros" is there, to give it that, sort of, castanet feel. That guitarron, I wish I could have that, but it'll be just little old me. I'll have some of the regular arsenal of the cowboy material, but I'll also bring some banjos, some variety for everybody.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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