Dom Flemons’ songs have been described in lots of ways: Old-timey, Piedmont blues, Black cowboy country. They’re all accurate, he says.
Dom Flemons’ songs have been described in lots of ways you probably haven’t heard music described before. Old-timey music, Piedmont blues, Black cowboy country. They’re all accurate, Flemons told the Local in a phone call last week. And that’s what led to his moniker “The American Songster.”
“It was a way to describe the multifaceted approach to the music,” he said. “It’s all about creating awareness. A lot of this music has been traditionally marginalized and kept on the sidelines.”
For that reason, Flemons, who is slated to play the next edition of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s summer concert series in Pastorius Park, is essentially a music academic just as much as he is a musician. The performance starts at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday July 12, and the presenting sponsor is Temple Health – Chestnut Hill Hospital.
Flemons’ music is more than just his own personal art. It’s also a way of preserving history and creating awareness about an underappreciated style of music that originated in the American South and Southwest.
“I want to lift up the music and put it in the forefront so people can hear it and see it and understand,” he said. “That’s how I think about it.”
And he accomplishes that by more than just playing music. Flemons ran an internship program, called Making American Music, for the Library of Congress in which he and four interns studied archived music from places like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He’s also the narrator of “The Real Wild West,” a documentary series that highlights the unsung heroes of the American West, including Black cowboys and Native American cowboys who helped settle that land. The documentary came out last week.
“It’s a documentary focused on reframing the history of the West by showing the different diverse cultures and stories that bring it together in a brand new way,” he said.
About one in four cowboys who settled the land were Black, Flemons said. Many of their stories have been suppressed since that time, but, he added, the documentary helps make sure those cowboys’ stories are told.
“There’s a lot to learn,” he said.
Flemons, a Phoenix native, first gained popularity throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. He’s one of two members - the other being Rhiannon Giddens - to see success as solo artists in the wake of the band’s dissolution. Flemons says he doesn’t expect the Chocolate Drops to be resurrected, but he’s perfectly capable of carrying the mantle for old-time music himself. His shows, including next week’s in Chestnut Hill, are also solo shows. He plays an array of instruments including the guitar, the banjo, harmonica and the quills.
“When it comes to my concerts, I try to really take an easygoing approach,” he said. “The atmosphere is like sitting down with me on the porch while I tell a few stories and play a few songs.”
He came to the music first by studying older rock music from the 1950s and 60s. But then he kept going further back and found the likes of Charley Patton, Henry Thomas, Papa Charlie Jackson and other pioneers of blues and bluegrass from the 1920s and 30s.
“I just got stuck on that type of music,” he said.
Flemons is confident that if Chestnut Hill residents come out to next week’s show, they’ll get stuck on that music too.
“It’ll be a great education for the music,” he said. “Also it’ll just be a fun time. The stories will get people excited about the songs.”