The magical sound of Dom Flemons. . . and the grand old lady of gospel, Sister Rosetta Tharpe

The magical sound of Dom Flemons. . . and the grand old lady of gospel, Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Listening to music can be an emotional experience that stirs you to sadness, joy or exhilaration. Music can also take you on a stimulating intellectual journey that has you appreciating form, structure, history and cultural idioms. However, music is perhaps most magical when it is both emotionally engaging and intellectually provocative. Dom Flemons’s brand of old-timey folk music falls into this more magical realm.

Raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Dom grew up listening to his parents’ R&B albums, playing percussion in his high school band, and by his teens, discovered the guitar and harmonica. He started playing local coffee houses and became a regular performer on the Arizona folk music scene. Through much of this time, Dom listened to recordings of folk music, blues, jazz, jug band music, country music and ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll. He developed an interest in folk musicians like Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk and Mike Seeger, as well as musicians like Mississippi John Hurt, Howlin’ Wolf, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins. Gradually, his interest in these musicians led him to the old-time blues music of the pre-WWII era.

In 2005, he formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the first Black Banjo Gathering, held in Boone, North Carolina. The band included Dom on bones, jug, guitar, and four-string banjo; Rhiannon Giddens on banjo and fiddle; and Sule Greg Wilson on bodhran, brushes, tambourine, banjo and ukulele; with Justin Robinson as guest artist. Beyond the joy of playing, there seemed to be a political quest to introduce large swathes of people who have either never heard traditional Americana music or assumed it was only associated with white American culture. Even the band members themselves admit that they too never knew at first that the banjo was initially an African American music instrument.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops went on to release six albums between 2006 and 2012, won a Grammy award in 2011 (Best Traditional Folk Album, “Genuine Negro Jig”) and a nomination the following year for their album “Leaving Eden”.

Dom left the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2013 and has pursued a solo career that has seen him “creating music that is rooted in history but taking a contemporary approach” in an attempt to “reexamine what traditional music can become.”

It’s really hard to single out a favorite Dom Flemons song. But if pushed, I say “Too Long (I’ve been gone)” from his most recent “Prospect Hill” album.


NYGF: What does the phrase “American Songster” mean to you, and how did it come to be associated with your talents?

Dom Flemons: The moniker “The American Songster” came to me when I was looking for a way to describe the music I made. I started out wanting to be a “folk singer” but found that the term implied things that didn’t fully encompass what I was doing. It was around this time that I came across a book by blues scholar Paul Oliver called Songsters and Saints, which was Oliver’s dissertation on pre-blues black vernacular music. Songsters were musicians who played a variety of songs to serve the needs of the community. It being a time before radio and records, the songster had to know folk songs, pop songs, blues, and ethnic numbers of different sorts.

I named my second solo record American Songster, because I have always emphasized songs from the United States in my shows and felt that the title fit the album. Shortly afterward, I decided to take it on as my moniker.



When did you know music was your calling, passion, and ultimately full time occupation?

I began playing music professionally in 2005. I had been playing shows since 1999, but I had never tried to make it my profession. When I went to the Black Banjo Gathering, a conference dedicated to the study and dissemination of information on the black and African roots of the banjo, in 2005, I found a true calling to take the music I had learned as a fan and put it to use in a professional setting by co-founding the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Yet even as I worked with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, I always made sure to keep up my individual studies, which included the songsters and their role in the development of popular roots music. I have advocated for many of the old-time songsters in documentaries, and I feature several of their numbers in my shows. I try to replicate styles when necessary, but I’ve picked up my own style of playing, as well, incorporating the skills I learned from my experiences with legacy artists as well as living practitioners of the music.



What attracted you to the varied music genres that would ultimately define your sound — i.e. folk music, blues, early jazz, jug band music, country, and ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll?

My first real exposure came through documentaries. That gave me the information I needed to make my choices in searching for more. Having come of age before the Internet, I went to record stores, libraries and reached out to people if I wanted to know more. All the genres mentioned in your question are connected by culture, and once you begin to listen to it all, you find the connections. You find that people passed each other on the street and traded songs, or they heard a record of someone who inspired them. That’s what drove me, and each time I hear a song that suits me to learn, I learn it and then bring it on stage.


As the founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, you garnered much critical acclaim, which earned you a Grammy in 2011 and a nomination the following year. Why did you then choose to go solo?

It was time to move on. We had a great run from 2005-2013. Also, the emphasis in the group kept shifting, and I found that I wasn’t able to relate to the music we were creating. It had become more about playing pop, when the reason the group was started was to promote and focus on older styles of music.



As a curator of songs, in addition to being a songwriter, how do you decide which song is ideal for you to record? What factors do you consider?

I try to look at the record as a whole, with individual parts that work together, to create that feel. I usually record all the songs of interest to me and figure out the final product later. The main point in song choice is to create a statement in each individual song and then decide how they all fit together, so that the listener takes a journey through the record.

For example, on Prospect Hill, I tried to create a record that would appeal to listeners who were familiar with my previous work AND ones who were not familiar with it. You never can tell when a person might listen to your record, and you want it to stand on its own as a statement without being able to rely on someone’s previous knowledge of your past work to fuel interest. On Prospect Hill, it was important to create a “greatest hits” album while still keeping the vibe of the record as a singular statement. Although it is my third solo record, it was the first one on which I got to experiment with studio musicians of different sorts; I worked up arrangements that showed off the range of material I had ready to go. 

Finally, when it comes to which songs work best, it’s always important to have a full belief in the material you’re presenting. Each one of the songs on my last record (as well as my EP What Got Over) has a history. That history is my love for the song: it is the history surrounding the song; and it is the story the song tells in the context of the other songs. When I think of original songs and interpretations, I try to make sure the original material is as good as any of the older songs I might choose. 


What’s your favorite guitar that you own?

My favorite custom-made is my Fraulini guitar built by Madison, WI guitar-maker Todd Cambio. We talked over specs on the guitar, and it is fitted to my style. It has a medium parlor body with a regular-sized parlor neck.  

My favorite one from my career is the Original Hound Dog Round Neck Dobro I played for many years. It just has a great tone.  



As a multi-instrumentalist who plays bones, harmonica, fife, quills, guitar, jugs, and voice, what music instrument can you not play, but wish you could? Why?

Fiddle. I never have learned how to play it. Wish I could play it but…I’ll try the Cajun accordion.



As an artist whose music and choice of instruments are strongly rooted in history — Americana, Piedmont blues, spirituals, etc. — what, in your view, does Sister Rosetta Tharpe add to the history of music in America? 

Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a pioneer and a foundational artist. She connects us to the transitionary world of the 1930s and 1940s where blues and jazz evolve into rhythm & blues. This is the era when spiritual music combined with secular blues to become gospel. She emerges from the holiness church with her guitar shredding and exuberant style, creating a vibe and a presence that has reverberated from the first time she stood in front of a microphone.

As a business entity, she connects the pre-war blues world to the post-war world through her secular recordings. Working with J. Mayo Williams, the single black record executive of the early recording industry, she connects with Papa Charlie Jackson and Big Bill Broonzy and even Louis Jordan. She was a contemporary of Mahalia Jackson and a mentor to Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers. She influenced the British Invasion by appearing at the legendary American Folk Blues Festivals of the ‘60s. Not enough can be said about Sister Rosetta's influence on popular music. Yet Sister Rosetta Tharpe, like many of the foundational artists of that era, was left on the sidelines of history as R&B switched into Rock 'n' Roll, spawning scores of musicians who never knew that their heavy guitar style owes a debt to this grand lady of gospel.



What can we expect to hear you perform at the tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe?

The selection I’ve made is “Strange Things Everyday,” which was Sister Rosetta’s first major R&B crossover hit. I loved the lyrics and the melody to the song. I feel like it links to a lot of the rock ‘n’ roll that I love, particularly Chuck Berry. Also for a performer who shifted from sacred to secular back to sacred music, this song talks about how Jesus is the true light, and that no matter what others think, religious devotion is the thing that will see you through. Though the song has a strong religious overtone, the message itself is far more universal: be good to others and follow your own path.



If there’s one under-appreciated guitarist (or rising star) audiences should discover, who would you recommend and why?

Someone I’d recommend would be the guitarist Jontavious Willis. He’s a young man from Georgia who has embraced acoustic blues music in a big way. He has a great style of playing as well as singing that has just blown me away. He has a lot of potential, and I can’t wait to see where he goes with it.


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By Zingi Mkefa

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