Sounds of the black west
A conversation with Dom Flemons
Grammy-winning folk musician Dom Flemons with his trusty guitar.
Folk multi-instrumentalist and Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder Dom Flemons knows the historical black cowboy because he has painstakingly resurrected his existence through the narrative of song. Now in the midst of a successful solo career, Flemons converses with these ghosts of the past through his newest endeavor, Black Cowboys, a thematic album dedicated to the history of African American cowboys and the interchange between frontier expansion and changing city dynamics.
Flemons will appear at Gilcrease Museum on Jan. 30, in conjunction with the exhibit “The Chisholm Kid: Lone Fighter for Justice for All,” highlighting the first black cowboy ever featured in a comic strip.
Jake Cornwell: We are excited to have you come to Tulsa.
Dom Flemons: It is wonderful to be able to come back to Tulsa at such a prestigious museum and also with the [Black Cowboys] project. This is the second phase for the project, to get into western museums and be able to showcase the history, which is just a beautiful thing.
Cornwell: You partnered with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to produce Black Cowboys, right?
Flemons: That’s correct. When I thought to do the project, I had the materials together. At first I just searched out where would I want to try to put this project out. Because I played at the opening ceremonies for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I realized that their African American Legacy Series on Smithsonian Folkways would be a perfect place for the Black Cowboys record. Because of the historical relevance of black cowboys, I felt like it makes a great piece of musical literature for people to be able to take in if they wanted to learn a little bit about the black West.
Cornwell: Black Cowboys seems to provide a background soundtrack for that history.
Flemons: That was the idea. I wanted to try to figure out how to stylistically get something that would be as memorable as another Arizona native’s album, Marty Robbins’, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. I wanted to get that classic quality of the Marty Robbins album, but I wanted it to be folksier. I didn’t want the arrangements to be too “singing cowboy” because I felt like that story has been told so much that I wanted really pull it back to the idea of the folk cowboy. Black Cowboys reaches back into just regular cowboys out on the range. I really wanted to have that sort of quality with that stripped-down feel.
Cornwell: On this new album was your Arizonan native Gail Gardner’s song, “Tie a Knot in the Devil’s Tail.” What draws you to those songs of old, and how did you select those songs to go into this thematic style album?
Flemons: I went to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada around the same time that I began developing the album. Working with them, I was reminded of my formative years in Arizona watching cowboy singers and cowboy poets perform and the power of that material. I didn’t want to assume that people knew what cowboy music was in the first place, so I decided to put a couple of songs like “Tie a Knot into the Devil’s Tail.” Of course, Gail Gardner was a poet from Prescott, Arizona. I wanted to pay tribute to my own home state. And that’s part of why I kind of do the Burl Ives-y sort of “Well, this is a song from my part of the country.” It evokes that feeling of the Burl Ives vibe, but it also is truly a song from my native state. “Little Joe The Wrangler” was another one that was like that. And “Little Joe” is a chestnut of the cowboy music and poetry world.
As I went to Elko, I then learned that Jack Thorpe began to collect cowboy songs in 1908 after seeing a group of black cowboys singing around the campfire. I thought that was intriguing. It came back to black cowboys yet again, thematically. I was just drawn to that. Also with working with the Smithsonian, I had a good feeling that there would be a lot of material about black cowboys within their network.
Cornwell: I couldn’t help but think about the Oklahoma connection whenever you mention Bass Reeves in your song “He’s A Lone Ranger.” That ties into you coming to Tulsa in conjunction with the exhibit at Gilcrease featuring The Chisholm Kid, the black lawman in the Sunday Funnies.
Flemons: Absolutely. You want to hear a funny story? I had heard about The Chisholm Kid, right when I started the project, from Taj Mahal. I mentioned black cowboys to Taj ... because in Taj’s early imagery, he did black cowboys for many years. Especially in the late ‘60s. I asked him about it and he said, “When I was growing up there was this comic book that was called The Chisholm Kid. And it had a black cowboy!” He read the comic every week when it was coming out. When the Gilcrease called and I saw that they were doing an exhibit [about the fictional lawman], I thought “Wow, isn’t that sort of interesting serendipity?” Taj Mahal took me down this particular rabbit hole that has led me now to meet up with the Chisholm Kid himself.
Cornwell: I am encouraged to see the inclusion of previously marginalized people and fringe culture in museum exhibitions. Like seeing a black cowboy in the Sunday comics as part of an institutional exhibit at a renowned museum.
Flemons: I think in the post-digital revolution this is the positive part of it. ... We’re in an age where people want to hear multiple stories. In terms of representation, I think that it’s a time that’s extremely prime for new people that are coming through and being educated either through technology or [through personal research] to be able to get them to these museums. I feel like there is a lot of potential in that.
Cornwell: The Black Cowboys song aggregate seems to cover a great deal of geography from the southwest to the Rocky Mountains to Oklahoma Territory to Appalachia and abroad. Was that intentional in the song selection?
Flemons: Absolutely. At first I researched and I found a lot of material and got kind of a big meta view of it. Kind of a bird’s eye view of all the history. ... I realized from the get-go I was going to have aim for a broad overview of black cowboys as a subject. I was able to go into a little bit of the story of the Exodusters that came out to Kansas. There are people like Bass Reeves who, just the notion that he has a connection to this character, the Lone Ranger, is enough to create and interesting conversation about history. Nat Love and his story of becoming a Pullman porter after being a cowboy. That ended up becoming a big focus because I wanted to make sure to connect it to where people would see the relevance in black cowboys.
I tried to really point out the parts of the westward expansion that included parts of the Deep South, but mostly Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, and their westward expansion out to places like L.A., Denver, Arizona, Las Vegas, and places like that. I feel like there are a lot of people who would understand that story. And that’s what donned on me very early on, was that if I as able to do an overview of that story, there would be a lot of people who would be able to see that story and be able to reflect. And, hopefully, can spark some cultural memory.
Cornwell: The purpose of this album appears to expand that narrative beyond one person or one region. The black cowboy is more than just Nat Love or bulldogging Bill Pickett, right? There are the nuances of the people who come from the geography where they are. And a cowboy can be so many different definitions.
Flemons: That was part of the reason I broke the album down into different sections. There was first the section of black cowboy stories like “Home on the Range” and “Goodbye Old Paint,” were some of the specifically black cowboy stories. The second part was familiar cowboy material. The third part was bringing in Southern vernacular music, and put it into the context of black cowboy music because as people moved out west they brought with them their musical traditions. That included the pop songs of the day, also the minstrel songs and ragtime, the string band music, early versions of the blues, Irish melodies and whatnot. All that stuff came over as people moved out west for one reason or another.
Cornwell: Were there any songs that you wish had been included?
Flemons: There were a couple of songs that I had thought about but they didn’t make it. ... I needed to really pull the narrative into a certain direction. Which is why songs like “Steel Pony Blues” ended up being a strong part, as an original song, to put into the record because ... it seemed like these black cowboys just disappeared. Like right into thin air: “Phew! Black cowboys disappeared.” But if you think of cowboy work as being a job, an occupation, and then there was a mass exodus to go to work on the train lines. That tells a lot about the story and the transition of black cowboys going into urban America as a predecessor to the civil rights movement. I thought that that was a very powerful story to tell.
Then again, it is for the African American museum, so I really wanted to make sure to connect with the things they have because they have a Pullman porter train car in the African American museum in [Washington] D.C. And just to associate those two things together. Thinking of Nat Love cleaning up and then putting on a Pullman porter’s suit, and the way his life changed profoundly after that. Then all of a sudden he’s in the world of technology, compared to just being in the world of the physical. I mean, that alone, “Wow. What a concept.” That’s part of the reason there’s a subtitle: Songs from the Trails to the Rails. What an amazing image to see of African American culture changing as America itself was changing.
Cornwell: You’re giving up one horse-power for another horsepower—that changing technology from one mode of singular, organic transportation to this mass transit. But along with that comes the Great Migration.
Flemons: Exactly. It’s something that is very logical and is very easy to connect once you see it. ... It brought me full circle, in a certain way. To be able to go to Oklahoma and go to Tulsa where a whole other chapter of this particular story sits. People always bring up Black Wall Street. There is more [to African American history] than Black Wall Street. It is the fact that that the place even existed is fascinating and amazing in and of itself. There are the all-black towns that are just east [and west] of Tulsa. There is a lot of history that is there. It is pretty amazing to be able to make it down to Tulsa and be able to tell a little bit of that story.
Cornwell: The Chisholm Kid, the comic, and your song “Old Chisholm Trail,” share this notion that the West was expansive, tough, but also mythical. What is your opinion of the mythical West?
Flemons: There is a nostalgia of the old west that I think is where the mythical West comes in. The actual work that people did back in that time was real. But the sort of the human inclination to exaggerate, to expand, to tell a big yarn and a big tale about what they did and what they are going to do, I think that is part of western culture in and of itself. I feel like over time that has just become the standard. But it’s like spinning a good yarn; why tell the truth when you can just spin a good yarn about what you did or what you thought people might want to hear? So there is a little bit of that sort of tongue-in-cheek attitude within the west.
For me, the mythical West is that people think it’s just one type of thing. The West can be ranchers, it can be farmers, it can be city slickers, it can be people that are half way between the country and the city, and it can be people that are from the United States and not from the United States. It’s just a big mixture of cultures out in the west. The myth is that it is just one type of thing or that is monolithic. It is really different every five miles in the west, why people are there, and why they thought that they could make it out in the desert. (chuckles)
Cornwell: What can people expect to see and hear when you come to Gilcrease Museum on January 30th?
Flemons: I will do stuff from the Black Cowboys, but I will do a little bit of the old-time material to give people a little extra context. I will have my banjo and I will also play a couple of different guitar styles, some early country blues. Kind of give people a primer of what sort of stuff I do. And then I will bring in the Black Cowboys material. It will be a great time.