Dom Flemons on ‘Black Cowboys’, Train Songs & The Power of Folk Music

America’s highways have long been part of the country’s mythology, taking on starring roles in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Chuck Berry’s motorvated mini-dramas, and films like Easy Rider and Paris, Texas. Prior to the proliferation of roads, thanks to legislation like the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the train was a primary means of travel and interstate commerce– and yet an appreciation for the locomotive’s vital role in history is slipping from our collective consciousness. Enter Americana Railroad (Renew Records), a double-LP set that commemorates America’s almost-forgotten relationship with trains and the freedoms and possibilities they promised to a people who knew only confinement and limitations.

Modern-day troubadour Dom Flemons— The American Songster– is perhaps the album’s most likely and qualified contributor. His discography reads like a curriculum vitae belonging to someone with a Ph.D. in folklore. With each record and performance, Flemons approaches traditional American music with the heart of a devotee and the eye of a scholar, striking an almost-impossible balance between passion and scholasticism. The GRAMMY award-winner and two-time EMMY-nominee began his career with the groundbreaking and beloved Carolina Chocolate Drops before finding success as a solo artist, demonstrating his talents and love of history on records like Prospect Hill and Buffalo Junction. Black Cowboys, his most ambitious and perhaps most important work, chronicles the neglected history of the African American cowboys who helped pioneer the American West. This set is essential listening for anyone looking for an understanding of United States history beyond the standard textbook or Hollywood blockbuster.

I spoke with Dom about “Steel Pony Blues”, his offering to the record, as well as his approach to scholarship, proto-hip-hop, and his dream conversation with Alan Lomax.

Don Flemons will perform LIVE at Capricorn Sound Studios on Thursday, October 6th! Advance tickets are available HERE!

CF- Could you talk about how you got involved with the project?

DF- I got an email from my manager Jeff that David Hirshland was putting together the album and had asked if I had any railroad songs. “Steel Pony Blues” is a song I specifically wrote about the railroad and its long history in the African American community. I originally wrote the song for my album Black Cowboys. It’s actually a composite of a couple of different stories that are very personal as well as historical for me. Nat Love, the famous black cowboy, was a Pullman Porter. Around 1907, he wrote his own autobiography about his days when he was a cowboy. His story goes from being born into slavery in Davidson County, Tennessee. After emancipation, he moved out to Northern Arizona, which is where my father grew up. My grandfather was a preacher in the same town that Nat Love did his ranching– again, decades down the road, so we’re talking about Love there in the 1880s, but my grandpa was there in the 1950s. I’m reading this autobiography, and I’m like, “Wow!” Again, Holbrook is a really small desert town, and back in those days, even when I was growing up, there wasn’t much. It was an old desert town, and I never really understood why my grandfather had a church out there. It was just a real remote place, but he was well-loved out there and preached for many years.

I read about that with Nat Love, and it got me thinking about my grandfather. After being a cowboy for many years, Nat Love became a Pullman Porter, working on the Denver and Rio Grande railroad line. In his autobiography, as he speaks of this part of his life, he gives a very detailed description of his entire route as a Pullman Porter going all over the entire country. Part of his big manifesto is inquiring for Americans to go see America and really experience all of the grandeur of every part of the United States of America. It’s really epic. He has a really beautiful way of writing.

I was super inspired by reading this book, but of course, I couldn’t include all the details in the song, so I decided to make it sort of a really dreamy country blues song in the style of someone like Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, as well as Etta Baker. Stylistically, I am referencing a lot of the North Carolina Piedmont blues singers that I got to spend a lot of time with through the Music Maker Relief Foundation. I put that all into a composition, juxtaposing it next to my grandfather’s story and my father’s story because my father was a skycap at the airport in Phoenix where I grew up. The transportation workers’ jobs continued to develop into when my dad was working, so I grew up with that all my life. In a certain way, “Steel Pony Blues” shows a lot of the development of transportation and how it fits within African American history.

Why is the celebration or commemoration of the railroads so important? How do they contribute to our culture today in ways that people might not think about?

One of the things to think about when it comes to train travel that’s not as clear to people in the 21st Century is that before the major highways were built, the train was the main public transportation that connected the Eastern parts of the United States and the western part of the United States. The first time they were able to connect that huge landmass was in 1861. It changed the way that all of the United States was run in terms of not just social transportation, not just leisure time travel, but trade and commerce. All industries changed the way they were doing things because, before that, it was mostly boat travel. When the train came, and all of a sudden you didn’t have to ride a boat through the Gulf of Mexico to get to San Francisco, it made life so much more efficient and industrial than it had ever been before the United States.

As for the celebration of the train, it’s very hard to imagine a world where there weren’t highways and roads, so with the train, you could go thousands of miles away from where you grew up for the first time ever. Of course, the train culture is still prevalent today. It’s not as frequently used as it was back then, but going up into the Civil Rights era when it comes to social justice– not just for African-Americans, but any number of minority communities– there’s just a huge culture that grew around life in the United States, going from Europe and all parts of the world to the United States and North American landmass. To celebrate the trains is to celebrate the birth of the United States as a whole.

Since we’re talking about travel, how essential has traveling been to who you are, who you’ve become as a person and as an artist?

It’s funny because since I’m from Phoenix, Arizona, I’m a Route 66 guy. Compared to trains, the birth of the major highways during the New Deal era and going into the 1950s was a quintessential part of American life, again for the same reasons, but different from the train. The train is a lot of equipment, so you have a whole culture with some of the bigger businessmen that owned the train lines. But the highway, once they were built, allowed people to individually travel, so I grew up with that culture of driving. For me, travel is always essential. Even before I started to tour full-time, I left Arizona on I-40, and I drove all the way from Flagstaff, Arizona, all the way to North Carolina in one swoop. Being 23, it was the most exciting thing I’d ever done, and having done it now hundreds of times, I couldn’t help but be drawn to Nat Love’s sentiment, after having toured as a musician and leisurely, and then, traveling with my family. So we all are experiencing that together. His notion of seeing America– I couldn’t help but be completely moved by this notion of someone 120 years earlier espousing the same notion of the value of traveling and the education of travel in and of itself, going to different parts of the world and parts of the country, just to experience things. It’s such a 21st Century notion in one regard, but to know that this was also a part of the Industrial Revolution of the 20th Century, it’s just like looking into a mirror in some sort of interesting way.

I know the green and responsible choice is moving away from the car and towards public transportation, yet there is something empowering and individualistic about getting in the car and hitting the road with music. Not empowering like “owning” nature, but something adventurous.

I always think about it this way. I do think that we have to be more conscious of what we’re doing with the environment, but no matter how it ends up evolving, human beings will find another way to travel. It’s mostly about how efficient and how fast you’re traveling, and even if travel slows down, people will get out and walk (laughs)! That’s the nature of humankind, but a car is so beautiful, especially when it comes to music. You can ride down the highway and put on your favorite albums. For me, I keep a lot of CDs still in my collection. I keep a big bucket [of CDs] when I go on big trips, and I’m able to emotionally go through so many places in life just through a car ride. It can be as small of a car ride as driving to the store and back. When I make my records, the car is one of my testing grounds. If the sequence moves me where I can just listen to it in the car and let the CD flip over and go again, then I know I’ve gotten somewhere with the album sequence because there’s a power to that– when an album is so good, you put it in, and it works the entire time. Then it flips over, and it starts off again. The last track and the first track need to connect in some type of way– or at least I try to sequence it that way.

That’s how I did Black Cowboys. I dovetailed them with two acapella numbers. Even with “Steel Pony Blues”. Black Cowboys was a double record, so “Steel Pony Blues” was on Side C, and one of the reasons I moved to do that was the story of Nat Love is sort of an expansion of the western narratives past cowboys. I first wanted to show black cowboys as just literally cowboys, some of the songs that represent that tradition. With “Steel Pony Blues”, it opens up this new notion. That notion of the West being built on nostalgia is such an interesting part of American life.

I tell people all the time: There are two Wests that are in the United States. There’s the literal West, which is the West that you can visit to this day. But then the second is the West of the imagination. It’s such a quintessential part of American life as a pop culture phenomenon, as well as a cultural phenomenon for the living ranching traditions. It’s amazing to be able to spend time thinking about that. That’s why the verses are, “When you get to Holbrook/you won’t find me there/because I’ve already caught the train to leave,” and then, “I’m getting far too old to follow this herd,’ which is sort of a notion of giving up the fight to be on the front end of technology, and then, “They called me Mr. Flemons,” because as a person of color, the notion of designation of being Mister was a very important part of the story of the Pullman Porters, even though they were all called George, which was sort of a derogatory term, but it allowed them to gain the financial wealth, which allowed them to be called Mister. Then I have, “They call me Mr. Flemons/because I tore the guitar down”, which is just a reference back to me being two generations off the farm because my grandfather grew up in East Texas and migrated out to Flagstaff, Arizona, and my grandmother came out from Arkansas. So there’s a little bit of a deep history that’s there.

You mentioned the West of the imagination, but you approach history with an even hand. How do you avoid– I’m not sure editorializing is the word– embellishing the history you sing about, the stories you preserve? I ask because I had a conversation with my students the other day about movies that are historical fiction. I argue that the movies do a disservice when they mispresent history for the sake of the story, to provide a narrative arc that wasn’t there to begin with. Some students said that accuracy isn’t a movie’s obligation. How or why do you approach history with an appreciation for the truth?

It’s really interesting with that because it’s all about studying. When I’m writing my songs, I tend to take a character actor’s role at times, especially with “Steel Pony Blues”, particularly. Other songs ebb and flow in terms of how I’m putting them together, but “Steel Pony Blues” and Black Cowboys, specifically as an album, it was really built around the notion of the real working-class cowboys, and I really wanted to write with the straight stuff without going deep into Hollywood cowboys. Because again, the West of the imagination is when you put a cowboy hat on. It’s supposed to be that simple. All of a sudden, everybody’s a cowboy. Gene Autry made a big name off of that, as well as a Buffalo Bill Cody, but then there’s also people like Herb Jeffries who saw the same thing, and he wanted to do an African American sepia-toned version of Gene Autry and created that. I did the album so there would perhaps be a historical place marker, so people could find the real story in one form or another. And with “Steel Pony Blues”, I wanted to be elliptical because I wanted it to be an emotional story of generational growth, culturally in one type of way, but on the other half, when it comes to arranging the songs, when I began to live in the South, I talked to people, and I started to understand the different ways that they handled social situations in earlier generations. When I’m putting together my material, I try to keep that in mind. I try to think about what were the actual events that people were talking about instead of spicing them up too much.

There are little ways to make the truth and the facts of the history exciting for people to hear and listen to. That takes a lot of studying. I had to study a lot of different books and different texts about the West to find small mentions about the types of music people would play and the types of music they liked. That was something that was important to me as well. With the particular style of guitar playing I’m doing– that Piedmont picking– a lot of songs are built around the train, and a lot of songs are named after the train. I do another melody in my concert of “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten, with “Railroad Bill” by Etta Baker, and then “The Cannonball Blues” by Lesley Riddle. When I was putting together Black Cowboys, I found that style made sense for a song like “Steel Pony Blues” because it showcased the guitar, but it also gives you a lot of time to think about the broader and deeper history that the story is telling because a lot of the older generation they didn’t spend a lot of time explaining those things. A lot of them lived the experience. They were okay with telling you a little bit, but it just was a different time– they weren’t concerned with that; they were more concerned about moving forward.

When I think about the late 1800s, and I think about the early turn of the 20th Century, I try to think back on the era how people handled these sort of insurmountable odds against them, with prejudice and racial injustice, but in a way that allowed them to be able to take a step forward. The early Western settlements have very interesting histories about the different ways that people handled the African American people and any other type of minority community within them, within their culture. But Nat Love has some very interesting fights as well in his book that speak about that.

I appreciate how you’re able to incorporate your passion into your music and your scholarship. That’s a difficult balance to strike. In addition to music, I love poetry and read the criticism, but the scholarship is almost impenetrable at times, even when it’s from a critic with the best intentions. It does a disservice to the poems. How do you maintain that balance– being a fan and a scholar?

It’s funny you mention that. I have a B.A. in English…

Right. I read that you focused on ancient texts, but you’re also a fan of The Beats…

I did slam poetry for several years. I got into performance poetry and studied Beat poetry as well. I kind of moonlighted in the university library, listening to records and taking in as much literature as I could because I’ve always been interested in literature. When I started to get into folk music, listen to folk music– people like Leadbelly or Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie or a Big Bill Broonzy, some of the well-documented practitioners of folk music in the rock era– I found that all of them had strong talking points; all of them had very comprehensive knowledge of what they were talking about and what they were singing about, especially with Leadbelly. I remember reading an interview with Alan Lomax and one of the things that Leadbelly does on some of his recordings is that he gives these huge monologues about the context around each of the verses to any songs that he’s singing. Alan Lomax mentioned that those recordings were very special because Alan had asked Leadbelly about it: “What do these songs mean?” Leadbelly’s like, “I can tell you what they all mean, but that kind of be too long of a recording.” And by the nature of having recording equipment that could handle a longer sound recording, Alan said, “Hey, Leadbelly, give me everything you got,” so Leadbelly would tell these huge monologues; give the context of what would be a three-verse blues; talk about the emotions and the feelings of each of the players.

When I started to get into that style of folk music, it intrigued me, so I made sure to model myself after that. When I started to read old ballads and stuff like that, I started to take in the literary context for it because I was also studying ancient literature, and these things are all connected. And of course, the early folk song collectors, like Cecil Sharp and Alan Lomax, did their own versions of collecting songs that they thought were connected to Shakespearean poetry. I started to just recontextualize aspects of the music that I found interesting. Of course, as a person of African American and Mexican American descent, I found stories that I thought were very unique that at times just had not been as prevalent in the scholarship, even though they were all present from the very beginning.

I just started to make my own version of that. Black Cowboys is an easy example for me because I found that there was so much information I began to find after carefully collecting books on the Black West. I could see that there was an album in it; I could see that I had an opportunity to create a comprehensive package on Black Western culture because as I go along, as I travel, I tend to go to a lot of museums and Western museums because there are a lot of regional Western museums around the country. I noticed that a lot of them would only have one or two books on the Black West, if they had any, in the gift shops. I thought to myself that it would be great to have a comprehensive package that talks about the whole history of the Black West, as big as you could get it, and then have a musical component to it. That’s why I pitched the album idea to Smithsonian Folkways, and they accepted it. Then I let them know as well that I had a relationship with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I knew Folkways had their African American Legacy Series. I’ve been in touch with them since before they opened up, and I played the opening ceremony, of course.

I knew that Black Cowboys would be a quintessential project to have within the mainframe of that museum, just because I knew it would allow people to see a part of American history that in some ways is so present in current American history that it almost gets overshadowed by our own sense of moving forward, with progress. To be able to talk about Black cowboys as a general subject opens up over a hundred of history in just a mention, and that’s if you just keep it within the United States history. Now if you open up the history of Black cowboys and ranching on the history of the North American continent, then all of a sudden, it becomes Spanish history and French history and English History, and all these other European-based, African, Afro-European mixed cultures. It opens up the ancient times almost in a way, which is fascinating as a piece of history.

With all that being said, an audience can only take in so much of that history at a time, so I found from the very beginning there was a way to be able to distill the information down into simple songs. Again, that’s what I found that Leadbelly and people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were able to do with their folk songs. That’s what I tried to do specifically with “Steel Pony Blues” because it’s such a simple little song. I wanted to make a really beautiful sounding guitar part to go with those words, so it would it give you a lot to meditate on, and again in the context of Americana Railroad, when David Hirshland asked if I had any railroad songs, I said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got one that’s clearly a nice one that’ll fit with the album.” It was great to be able to contribute a track.

All the tracks on Americana Railroad actually break into their own version of American railroad history, which is one of the things that’s also so beautiful about the entire album– there are a million stories that could be told. “City of New Orleans”, for example, when John Fogerty does that great version, it represents so much to the folk music community, of course, because of Steve Goodman, who wrote it, but the story it’s telling is such a deep part of African American history that’s still very present to this day. The South Side of Chicago, which you hear on the news a lot, their roots are with the City of New Orleans, which connected the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. We tend to think of The Great Migration as being a one-way street, but on the train in “City of New Orleans,” it’s actually a two-way street in a way that has never really gone away. That tells a lot about American history just with a small little song, which is something that I think is just so fascinating about the album.

Americana Railroad focuses on trains, but there are car songs, murder ballads, protest songs, to name a few. Do you have a favorite sub-genre of traditional songs, one that deserves attention?

Oh sure! One that would be fun to discuss is a type of songster material that I have termed “old-time hip-hop”. There are certain songs that are in the songster’s repertoire that have these really beautiful narratives that have a lot of different wordplay. I recorded one song on my album Prospect Hill called “It’s A Good Thing”. It’s this allegory about how women run everything, but it’s really a very male-centric song. But when I first heard the song, I was like, “Wow! This was recorded back in 1928? This is like 1920s hip-hop.” When I looked into the scholarship around a musician like a man named Frank Stokes who originally recorded “It’s a Good Thing” for Paramount Records, I found that was an older version of the blues that preceded the more well-known blues that would come out in the 1930s.

I started to look into that and started to wonder, “Okay, so we have a folk root that has a type of style called toasting that gets adapted into a musical form that becomes ‘It’s a Good Thing’.” I then begin to study early hip-hop, going back to Grandmaster Flash and Kool Moe Dee. Also working with Smithsonian Folkways, I was so glad that they put out the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap just so that people can hear what the early records even sound like because early ’70s rap is so far removed. People might hear “Rappers Delight” but no one really has a comprehensive history of early rap, or you don’t see it often. Now, they’re starting to make documentaries about it. But in 2005 or 2006, none of that scholarship existed, so for me, I was able to study early rap records. I found that rap is a manifestation of an untrained folk vocal with artificial beats connected to it, which is a part of the etymology. If you take out the breakbeats, it’s not really rap; it’s just spoken word or recitation or performance art; it starts to not become rap. Especially if you put instruments with it, it kind of doesn’t become rap either. Nowadays, people are starting to think about things like melodic rap, trying to think of how you change hip hop into something that can be more songster-like.

But when I did Prospect Hill, I wanted to emphasize that. There’s a series of songs. I got another one called “Bye, Bye, Policeman”, which is another from Memphis, from a songster by the name of Jim Jackson, and I just thought it was such an intense lyric about civil disobedience. I was actually shocked to hear that there was a song that was like that. I recorded that one back in 2009, on my very first album featuring the moniker, which is called American Songster.

That’s the type of sub-genre that I’ve discovered, and they’re quite a few different early recordings that feature artists performing in this very special type. It has little remnants of what hip-hop will become 50, 60 years later. A lot of songs are built on sort of a ragtime structure, like the famous song “He’s in the Jailhouse Now”, but there’s a special version that the Memphis Jug Band recorded that has a really particular lyric to it that’s different than the version recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, and both versions of the songs are pretty hardcore. I mean, these are songs about people shooting and cutting each other, fighting each other. It’s like a lot of hip-hop– heavy themes. I’ve always thought, on the collegiate level, this type of music should be studied because people are now having hip-hop study classes, so there should be a study class for the precedents of this type.

As a fellow archivist, what would you like to ask Alan Lomax if you could spend an afternoon with him?

What not to talk with him about? Actually, there’s one particular session– it’s the only album I have on my phone because I’m an analog guy. I have one album on my phone: Rounder Records’ Earliest Times. It’s the Georgia Sea Island Singers, volume 13 of this particular set from the Alan Lomax Collection of the series called Southern Journey. In 1960, Alan Lomax did a recording session at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, and he was hired to do the soundtrack for the very basic tourist guide promotional film that Colonial Williamsburg was producing– you could still buy a copy of it to this day. Again, it’s very generic; it doesn’t have a lot of music. But in the course of doing this filming project, Alan Lomax brought together the Georgia Sea Island Singers, which featured Bessie Jones and John Davis, the really famous African American ring shout group. They have this beautiful harmony, and it’s connected to early island culture off the coast of the state of Georgia. It’s somewhat connected to the Geechee music that comes out of South Carolina, but it’s on its own brand. It’s a lot of handclaps and tambourines. There’s even one type of number they do where they have a broomstick, and they create a polyrhythm, everybody’s clapping. I mean, brilliant-sounding music!

He brought this group together of about six people. He brought them together with a drummer from the Bahamas by the name of Nat Rhamings that he had met when he had recorded back in the mid-1930s. Then he has Ed Young, who was a fife player from the Hill Country, Mississippi. This fellow played a special type of fife and drum music, which is kind of polyphonic bass drum, along with the fife. He brings in a white banjo player from Saltville, Virginia, by the name of Hobart Smith, who’s in old-time circles. He’s very well known, an extremely brilliant banjo player, fiddler, guitar player, and singer. Lomax had met him in the mid-1930s as well.

Lomax brought them all together into a single recording session, asking each of the players if it was okay, and they created what Alan Lomax tried to piece together as early colonial music, as played in Colonial Williamsburg. The 30 or 40 songs that they were able to record in this one session in 1960 are a brilliant document of the type of production that Alan Lomax used to do. We don’t generally think of him as a producer, so much as a folklorist, but in the 1960s, this is the time when Alan Lomax got his very first stereo binaural recording machine. Before that, he’s using acetates; his dad used wax cylinders. Their acetate, they had to plug it into the back of the car. He needed two 100-pound batteries to run this thing. So for the first time, he’d gotten the convenient recording machine that could record in stereo, and he got a commission to go down to the South and start recording people in stereo, compared to the lo-fi recordings he’d used back in the Golden Era of the 1930s.

This project was a part of this series of recordings he was doing. He also was trying to get a high-quality recording of folk sounds because he felt that one of the things that could happen is that when people heard their own stuff back on a speaker, something happened: It transformed them. It turned them into a master of their own art, where before, folk music tends to be just the same people doing it in their neighborhood. It’s not really for commercial gain; it’s not really a stage type of music. But Alan Lomax found very early on that when he recorded people and then played their recordings back to them, it inspired them, and it showed them that they were just as good as anybody that they heard on the radio. This was the case specifically for someone like Muddy Waters, whom Alan Lomax recorded in the early 1940s. When Muddy heard his own voice back, he was like, “Dang, I sound good!” That’s ultimately the reason he went to Chicago.

So there’s a power to that. And the reason I mention all these details is that I’d love to chat with Alan Lomax about some of his later work in Choreometrics and the statistical data that he put together for some of his later projects because he invented the very first computer that could handle algorithmic data when related to music. Like YouTube and Spotify and all these things, The Global Jukebox, which Alan Lomax invented in the 1980s, is now the basis for how most people are hearing music and how it’s disseminated, where you have an algorithm that throws you a bunch of random quasi-related data so that you can go down your own rabbit hole instead of being confined to the definition laid out by the institutions, which is, I think, brilliant. The first time I found that out, I said, “I’d love to just sit for an afternoon with Alan and talk about that.” Of course, then I’d probably throw in some of his famous sessions and ask him about what were people like, what did they do. The guy had such an elaborate career that my recorder would be ready.

Like a lot of folks, I was introduced to folk music through Harry Smith’s The Anthology of Folk Music. It’s fantastic, canonical, and essential; at the same time, it’s an austere, sometimes harsh listen. But I listen to you, and there’s pure joy.

Thank you for saying that as well. One of the things I found very early on when I started performing live is that it was hard for people to listen to the original recordings with me, but I found that they were much more open to listening to me playing them, even if I didn’t even tell them what I was playing. They would just assume I had written a song. I found there was a power in that alone, so when I make my records, I really try to make sure that I get that old-time feel, whatever it is. I try not to be too specific about it, but to have a high-quality recording to really present it in the best light. I used to be a one-microphone type of guy in the studio, but then I noticed that some of my favorite jazz records, that’s all-acoustic music too, but they used great microphones and got high-quality recordings. I thought, “Why can’t folk music and old-time music sound like that?” I’ve crafted my records to be that way ever since.

Americana Railroad is available across all major digital platforms! For more music from Dom Flemons, visit his official store!

Charlie Farmer is a Georgia writer and professor who loves his wife, his daughters, his students, his cats, his books, his LPs, and everything else one should love in life.