For Dom Flemons, 2014 was the Year of the Folksinger. So was 2015 and now 2016. You see, Dom believes that every year we must work to refresh and renew the well of American folk song. As a founding member of the wildly popular Carolina Chocolate Drops and now running a successful solo career, Dom knows the ins and outs of American roots music better than just about anyone. He listens to American roots music, studies it, writes about it, interviews elders, and is constantly searching to understand these traditions. It was with great pleasure that I got a chance to sit down with him at the Folk Alliance International Conference to talk about his views on folk music, race in America, and just what is it with those Mumford and Sons? Big thanks to Dom for being so open to this conversation and for radically rebooting what I knew about folk music.
A Conversation with Dom Flemons at the Folk Alliance International Conference
Why don’t we start off and you tell me about “Year of the Folksinger” because I love this idea you were talking about. Maybe it’s a nice way to start.
Dom Flemons: Okay. One of the things with “Year of the Folksinger,” is it's my own personal journey as a musician on a professional level… I’ve played old-time music which, for me, the definition of a true old-time musician is someone who’s gone down South and learned the old-time music from somebody, at the foot of a master. That’s usually what old-time music means, but being a folksinger is a lot more folk. The folksinging genre was something I started out with when I started playing guitar when I was 16 or 17. I spent a lot of my professional career, not downplaying, but keeping the folksinger aspect in the background because that wasn’t something that was a viable area of interest to the general public. When I got into the Carolina Chocolate Drops, we were an old-time group and came in with that...
“The Year of the Folksinger” came to me in a dream. I was in Australia at the beginning of 2014. It just hit me. “Wow, this is the year of the folksinger.” Between that and the definitions of what is real folk music compared to faux folk music... To me, when I think of pop-folk, I think of the Limeliters, Kingston Trio, those type of people, and Peter, Paul and Mary but even the definitions of what pop-folk is compared to what folk song is, compared to old-time music. All that stuff is all jumbled up because, for the past 50 years, no one except for the community of people who have been involved, have really had definitions for any of that stuff. The Year of the Folksinger grew out of an idea, first, it was getting the older people to tell the stories because a lot of them can be very curmudgeonly.
Do you feel that the Folk Revival Generation is controlling their own narrative? I think that a lot of people of our generation who learned from the Folk Revival Generation, we didn’t feel it was inauthentic, we just wanted to learn the music, we wanted to learn more about what we enjoyed, but it seems they’re controlling their own narrative and limiting their own authenticity themselves. Do you find that?
DF: Absolutely. That was also part of the idea of the Year of the Folksinger. Industry wide, I saw that there was a big re-definition of folk music that was making its way forward. Again, spending most of my career not talking about folk singing I could see that there was interest. There are younger people that are interested in the music as well, little bits by little bits. The generation gap of interest in folk music is shrinking with each successive amount of people. Then, that older generation is dying. They’re getting old or they’re passing it off to the next generation of people who’ve been around. That’s a good thing in one way because they took so much time to document their narrative.
When does that narrative change?
DF: When [the baby boomers] go and who picks up the story? Who takes it? Who adapts it? Who changes it? Who pushes it forward again? I don’t want to change the story but I do want to throw out everything I possibly can so that the misconceptions can be dealt with....
Then, we can say, “This is how we can improve on things. This is how we can change things. This is how we can make a new way so that we can teach the stories to the younger people.” Because now, at one point there was one book, there was one history book [on folk music] that everybody followed and now, there’s not one history book that everybody follows. There’s every history available at one time potentially. With music, if you have everything sitting right there, how do you decipher what’s important and what’s not? You just have to have people that are saying, “Check this out or look at this.”
DF: Curators. Yes, that’s it. Year of the Folksinger was trying to curate oral histories from the elder generation, especially, because there’s a lot of them on Facebook. I found a lot of stuff like Israeli folk dance groups. That was something that was really big.
Yeah, I’ve worked with some of those people; it’s interesting.
DF: Yeah, but if you read any book about the folk revival that’s not the first thing anybody’s talking about.
Folk dance revivals don’t get written up very much. There are a lot of them.
DF: No, not at all. Why? Or black folksingers, for example. I picked up a lot of interesting albums of black folksingers that came after Odetta and Belafonte. Some of them are good; others are cheesy.
In the folk revival, folk singers? Were they inspired by Leadbelly or some model? Where did they come in?
DF: No, they’re classy black nightclub singers doing folk songs à la Harry Belafonte, Odetta or Paul Robeson.
What was the audience for that?
DF: I think it was elder, upper-class, black elite society. I think that or middle class whites decided, “These are the people that would be at the Gate of Horn in Chicago. Albert Grossman managed a bunch of those people. Until he had Peter, Paul and Mary, he managed a bunch of black folk singing acts.
Were they Gospel acts?
DF: No. They do the “Ox Driving Song,” “Fare Thee Well” from Bob Dylan which was on “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a lot of calypso numbers, in the Harry Belafonte vein... Between Motown and the blues revival, this genre completely gets cut out. Like Jackie Washington–he’s Puerto Rican, but Jackie Washington is the one guy you hear about and that’s because he was linked with Club 47. As I searched through the records, I find Brock Peters, the very famous Broadway actor, he came up behind Sidney Poitier, he had a folk record. It was a novelty, “Oh, folk music. Hey, let’s do ‘Go Down Old Hannah’ again.” Alan Lomax was working this angle too.He has publishing on “Go Down Old Hannah” working with Leadbelly. After Pete Seeger and the Weavers make a hit with “Good Night, Irene,” he’s still placing these songs. But that’s a part of the commercial aspect of folk music, that is not talked about a lot. Now people spend so much time talking about the folkieness of the folk music, that the idea of doing it as a business is just … everybody gets caught up in the “Oh, you’re selling out.”
Could Mumford and Sons be seen as that? I’m a fan. I wrote a whole article on why we shouldn’t bash on Mumford and Sons. I’m a fan of what they do and I believe that they have a really strong knowledge of the tradition. Couldn’t they be seen as something of what you’re talking about? They’re crafting a sound that’s appealing to a much more mainstream audience. That seems to be a periodic thing in folk music as it bubbles up into the mainstream and becomes something different and then dies down. There’s always an undercurrent of the real, hard-core folkies.
Dom: Absolutely. The thing that I don’t care for with groups like Mumford and Sons, is that they all do four on the floor with rhythm. As a rhythm guy, everybody does that now. It’s four on the floor and to me, none of this music is like that. It’s a lot more jagged in terms of its rhythm… I started as a drummer, being very specific about how music is subdivided and how you can make a cool, interesting rhythm that doesn’t break up the jagged edges of the melody, in the folk instruments and the melody instruments. But that comes from a lot of study... Until something else comes along that changes that, that can continue to be the gateway for a lot of people.
You’re okay with that Mumford & Sons gateway for people to get them in?
DF: I can’t judge people for getting into it whatever way they can.
You came from a group that had massive mainstream success.
DF: The thing with the Carolina Chocolate Drops that was unique was it was a part of folk music that had not been discussed nor played live in the way that we had been doing it at that point in time. That was something that was very unique. Like me, I was a founding member of the group but I was also the documentarian. Black String Band music had not been discussed fully at that time. It was one of the things that was relegated to the pre-chapter in the beginning of most histories of folk music. A very specific fringe genre within that. With the Carolina Chocolate Drops, that’s what Rhiannon, Justin and I did with that. We tried to take all those things that were there already and apply that to the music. On my end, I was aware of Johnny Cash’s American recordings, Tom Waits' Real Gone and Mule Variations and Old Crow Medicine Show but also, Koerner, Ray and Glover. Koerner, Ray and Glover was the way that I formatted the group: where each individual was a powerful part and then we all worked together as a whole group. But it was always based on, “Hey, these strong individuals are a great group together.” That’s something that changed when Justin left and we changed our personnel; it became more of just a band which I thought was not nearly as interesting.
You guys are one of the very few groups that made mainstream success without specifically crafting a sound designed to appeal to mainstream audiences. You guys weren’t changing the music, you were just playing really traditional music.
DF: No, I can’t agree with you on that. There were a lot of the elements of being very traditional but there was always the experimentation of new sounds. I incorporated jug band music, Tuvan throat singing, fife and drum music, early ragtime jazz.
That was something that was unique about the Carolina Chocolate Drops, was being young, black, acoustic performers doing early vernacular music. All those elements were very important. It was one of the things I was always so proud of: I made a big point of never using superlatives in any of our write-ups. We didn’t have to hype it and say, “Oh, this is so good. This is so good.” It was just a straight basic history of string band music. Then, the music was appealing to people, in a way that it was a bit rough and rowdy but it was clean at the same time. We tried to get that balance between cleanliness and ragged qualities. Again, Rhiannon tends to be on the clean side; I would tend to be on the ragged side. We had a good balance going with that.
That was something that was coming together. I think it was very important that we were young black people talking about the history of the music and also the black involvement in the history of the banjo. It fits in the narrative... It was one step at a time, of black performers that are informed about the history, talking about that history. Because, again, folk music has never been a black genre because it was made by leftist white people that were union organizers and were people that were interested in the academic half of folkloric music or proprietors like Albert Grossman, who were interested in getting it to a more mainstream audience.
That’s a pretty big statement you just made! Because so much of folk music has black origins, a huge amount of it. How did it go from music that was from a very black origin to becoming a controlled narrative of a vast majority white population, to the point where you can count the number of black performers in folk music almost on 2 hands?
DF: There are 2 things that we’re talking about: the history, the actual history, compared to the genre. A lot of time, the black performers in the genre, traditionally, in the first wave, they are on the model of John Lomax and Leadbelly where there’s an academic and the black performer is the presented performer of this academic. Mississippi John Hurt, the same thing. Dick Waterman was the guy presenting this elder black performer at the folk club. That’s always been the case. You have people like Jackie Washington, who was his own independent guy, but he was also an actor. He got fed up with the whole thing; he just went back to his acting. Again, like I mentioned, Motown and also the blues revival, that took out the mainstream black folk acts. After Motown, that was where the young black people went. It only takes one generation to (whoosh) take out a genre completely. If the whole set of young people don’t follow in the genre, that genre is done.
But, for music, that’s so tied to black tradition and black experience. It’s as if black people were written out of that genre.
DF: It works on both sides. This is secular music and the church people won the war in the black community. If you think about the Civil Rights era, those people are all church people. They’re not talking about the blues; that’s the Devil’s music. The people that are being presented doing the blues, some performers go into that, “the church music to the devil’s music” thing but, in terms of the black community as a whole, the leaders of the black community have all been church people... Black folk music, in the secular sense, doesn’t fit well in that narrative.
It was not progressive enough?
DF: Yeah, exactly. I just did an interview with somebody about Alan Lomax where they said he was advertising negative black stereotypes because he was going out into the streets and meeting people that weren’t the most reputable people.
Working with prisoners?
DF: Yeah, working with prisoners and working with hobos, people that are less than reputable in terms of society. That was part of Alan Lomax’s journey saying, “Look. This guy isn’t just some homeless guy on the street; he’s a repository of folk culture.” A lot of his informants, many of them were from the South, many were illiterate because of the oral tradition that comes out of: if you don’t know how to read, you can be a smart and educated person but in a different way. That’s something that is a philosophical discussion. You don’t want to emphasize not educating people but, at the same time, people don’t even want to talk about that there’s abject poverty in the United States that most of us don’t see on a day-to-day basis. They don’t want to talk about that. That conflict has always been there...
My point being, as educated young black people in our group, that was something that we were able to talk about in a way that I don’t think had been discussed in depth at all. We did it in the form of great sounding music that people could enjoy. People could listen to it and say, “Oh man, this is great music and let me look at the liner notes. Wow! This is an amazing history. Let me look deeper into that.” That was always the goal. “Here’s the liner notes. Here’s the story. If you want to know more about the song, the story is very interesting too.” But we didn’t make the story the full emphasis. It was the enjoyment and entertainment of the music.
Yeah, I understand. What do you think the steps forward should be? How can the tradition accommodate different voices?
DF: I think, with different people coming into it. People like yourself and me, people that are straddling both lines where… there are certain rules to the music. Society has gotten to the spot where everybody is okay, everybody can do anything they want and everybody has their own opinion and artistic statement which inherently is true because it’s music. But in terms of tradition, tradition is not based on that. Tradition is based on: this is how it goes. Everybody agrees; this is how it’s supposed to go. If you don’t do it right, you get criticized by the people who are adhering to that tradition. If you go into a rural place where there’s a strong tradition of music, they’ll be nice to you about music that you do but they’re not going to be picking up your song per se if they’re adhering to traditional music. That’s something that modern society, especially with post-digital revolution, everything is instant gratification and tradition is not instant gratification. Tradition is years and years of building. This is the way that we do things.
What drew you to that? Is that part of your personality, drawn to the difficultness of it, the constraints of it?
DF: What drew me into it was the uniqueness of voices. That’s the thing that always drew me into folk music. That was even before I got into the deeper ethnic recordings of folk music. When I heard Bob Dylan or Jim Croce or Van Morrison. Very unique voices: Joni Mitchell has a very unique voice compared to other singers. That drew me in first . When I got into college and I started hearing Alan Lomax’s and Peter Kennedy’s recordings of Folk Songs of Britain, hearing a person like Jeannie Robertson or Davey Stewart or Harry Cox, the different British folk singers, they all had very unique voices and that was what drew me into it. Also, the literature. There’s beautiful literature within folk music that always drew me in. I’m also a record collector, so I’m always searching.
78s and LPs?
DF: Mostly LPs but 78s: that’s a rich man’s game. I got a couple of obscure ones that I got for cheap. I’m okay with the digital re-issues or an LP version of the 78 stuff myself. I’ve got a nice little box of some good stuff in there. Record collectors: that’s a whole other area of folk music and folk dissemination. On my end, I came in as a performer, but I’m also a record collector, so, when I meet someone like Chris Strachwitz, I know who he is. Most people my age might not know who a guy like Chris Strachwitz would be. They meet him and, “Oh, this is a nice old man.”
You clearly have a curiosity that is driving you back, in increments, to understand where the music came from. Everything that you’ve said in this interview shows that you have a specific taste for understanding for where things are coming from. Tracing paths.
DF: I’ve always been interested in history and trying to connect the stream of, “Oh, this is how things led into this.” I’ve always been interested in that in general. My degree was in English and I spent most of my time reading classic literature like Chaucer and Shakespeare. Reading Chaucer helped me reading a book like I Say Me for a Parable which is an autobiography of Mance Lipscomb written phonemically to Mance’s thick Texas accent. Most people can’t read it because there’s no standard nomenclature. The words don’t sound the same but if you read it like you’re talking it, it makes sense. That’s something I learned from reading Chaucer. Chaucer’s the same way. Middle English, if you look at, you’re like, “Ooh, I don’t know what that is.” But if you were to read it out loud, you could make more sense of it than just trying to read it with your eyes. That sort of stuff has always been interesting to me.
Last time I saw you perform, there was a really interesting moment where you did the “Pick a Bale of Cotton” song and sang some of the harsher lyrics that I hadn't heard before. That’s a song that’s so stereotypical, has so many origins in the happy plantation bull-shit of Stephen Foster. Personally, for me, it was really powerful to get everyone singing along on this really typical song and then, show the other side of it, to show the reality behind it. There’s a sense that, if you miss the context, you miss the codes in the music that keep it from being just a stereotype.
DF: I try to make sure that what I’m saying is at least interesting. Sometimes I take it to that deeper, subversive area but I never want it to be super-politically charged in my actual performance. But the songs that I pick are very evocative with the messages that they tell. That’s why the first major album out of the Carolina Chocolate Drops was called Genuine Negro Jig. We had a song, the instrumental number that we changed the title to “Snowden’s Jig,” trying to give some claim to the family that it may have come from. It hit me that “Genuine Negro Jig” would be a great title because, at that time, “Negro” is not a politically correct word but, at the same time, if you look at the history “Negro”: “Negro” is the “good” word, that was the uplifting word. Even with race records, the origins of that, the race was the uplifting title. Just like “colored” was the uplifting title at the beginning of the turn of the century. Nowadays, people using their modern context of what they think race should be, especially, they’ve been feeding everybody the line that we’re in a post-racial society because Obama got elected to president. I think, in one way, it eased the tension of what people thought about race, but at the same time, it’s gotten people to let their guards down, as the new social upheaval has happened. There’s something strange going on in terms of a white power struggle or adversity towards the black and the white races, or if it’s being manufactured. I’m not sure what it is but events including Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and over in Ferguson…. When I thought of the Year of the Folksinger, I didn’t want to make it political because I thought that was something that makes it hard about getting folk music as a genre to go forward. One of the things that Pete Seeger did was he completely immersed his music into the social struggle at the same time. I didn’t want to go down that path because I felt that that could be limiting. He came from a time when he got blacklisted, so, he had to do that because that was the only way that he could break through to the other side. With that sort of social upheaval happening, now, it’s got people thinking, “We should raise some songs that talk about social issues.”
Most people have no idea how a protest song works. I started writing, “People, get the Best of Broadside set from Folkways.” People want to write songs about things but there’s not a template for it. Just saying, “Here, these are some songs that come from the past, you can analyze them any way you want and come up with new songs.” I did a workshop at Gettysburg University in Pennsylvania. It was a workshop on social change and it was 2 days after Ferguson happened, I was telling the students there, that in writing songs you can go a lot of different ways. You don’t have to everything in the same way. I used the song, “Only a Pawn in their Game” by Bob Dylan and “The Ballad of Medgar Evers: Too Many Martyrs” by Phil Ochs, just to show them that 2 different songs, their completely different perspectives on the death of civil rights leader, Medgar Evers and showed that that’s something that can be done. Just those little things, those little seeds and kernels, are what get people thinking. Folk music is about getting people thinking. People are taught not to think anymore. [laughing] Folk music’s all about thinking about stuff. That’s the sort of stuff I try to put out there, so people can make their own conclusions. I don’t like pushing a full agenda. That’s not really my bag.
But you’re slipping that in. You’re breaking down some of the codes. The songs that you had last night that had sexual codes. You’re doing more than just presenting the songs. You’re also starting to show some of the keys that have unlocked what’s really happening behind there.
DF: Totally. That’s the way that I try to push things forward, is through the selection of songs and the way that I present the songs instead of the other way around. Instead of explaining all those things first. In an interview, we’ll talk about it. In a concert, I’m not going to talk about it nearly as much. I’ll just go ahead and let the music speak for itself, knowing that I can have a conversation with somebody later about it, if they want to know more.
When I got into the Deep River of Song collection, especially the Black Texican album. My grandfather, on my dad’s side; he was from a place called Pineland, Texas which is about 20 miles from Caddo Parish which is where Leadbelly was from. When I first heard Leadbelly, my granddad talked exactly like that but he was a preacher. He was a country preacher and my dad didn’t want to do the church thing, so he took off and played basketball for a lot of years and lived a different, secular life with my mom. We were brought up outside of the church. He got shunned from the church community, because he didn’t go to church and follow in his father’s footsteps to become a preacher.
You weren’t raised in those traditions but it could echo back to your own history. That’s a powerful thing to hear.
DF: For example, Chris Strachwitz has a great album of a preacher named Reverend Louis Overstreet. He was a guy that did Church of God and Christ; he made a church in Phoenix. I was watching a film of Overstreet’s preaching, seeing that it was in Phoenix. My granddad was in Flagstaff, they know each other, same church. I asked him about it. He said, “I know Overstreet. He used to…” What happened with Louis Overstreet was: he was part of the other Great Migration. Most times you talk about Mississippi and Alabama moving up to Chicago and Missouri. Louisiana and Georgia and Arkansas, they would come over I-10, or what would become I-10 now, take it to Texas, into Tucson, Arizona. Go up to Phoenix, to Flagstaff, and then, take it to L.A.
My grandpa and my grandmother, they were the main church people in Flagstaff. Whenever someone would come across the way, they would stay at their place. It was during segregation; you had to stay with people and you had to make connections because you couldn’t just go to a hotel at that time. There was a strong connection in every Black community. Even with doing gigs, think of a guy like Paul Robeson, when he got blacklisted, how did he keep his career going? He went to the AME churches; he knew all the barbershops; he knew all the morticians, people that you wouldn’t particularly think of being the cultural leaders of the Black community. Those are the people who are running the show. You had to come into town; you got your hair cut, you said, “What venues are around? What places can I find a gig?” “Oh, I’ll go and see. My sister knows a guy that does this and they can rent a hall out.” That’s how things used to get done. That was both in the religious and the secular world. The “Chitlin’ Circuit” is based on the same idea. That’s the way that people used to do gigs back then.
Getting back to stringbands… I got into code switching and all that stuff with professional musicians. Stringband is a home-based music. Learning from Joe Thompson who had a family tradition in Mebane, North Carolina where his father and his father before him played string band music. That was music that was just, “Oh, that’s my family’s music.” That’s all he’d say about it. He wasn’t elaborate about talking about it. It was just what they did. Being young, educated, black people, being able to contextualize what Joe would tell us which wasn’t a lot. He would just say, “That’s my family’s music.” Being able to take that and put that in an academic setting, that was a way that we were able to make a name for ourselves as a group. Me individually, I opened it up to old-time music. It was something I learned once I moved to North Carolina, but, before then, I was interested in Leadbelly, Henry Thomas, jug band music, New Orleans jazz, but also rock and roll. I think about the connections between Henry Thomas and Chuck Berry or Fats Domino next to Blind Willie McTell. The song forms are really similar even though the styles are vastly different.
That was making connections.
DF: I got into it through the Beatles and the Beatles were into Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry. In folk music, there was a definite divide between adult music and kid music. Kid music was rock and roll, bubble gum stuff and adult music was academic, folk music. That came into conflict and that hasn’t resolved itself since. That’s the power, that we, as younger people, getting into the music now, can tell that new story by saying, “No. Everybody’s cool. It’s alright. Dude, do your thing but make sure you know what you’re talking about when you’re doing it.” We’re coming up in an era when people are taught to be dumb and be okay with that. There’s no point in that. [laughing]
Me, coming up before phones was the main way of doing things. I’m okay with reading a book. I’m okay with picking a record up. I’m okay with supporting an artist and buying a CD or buying a record. The mainstream media of how music is supposed to be disseminated, I come from a genre that that’s never been the case, it’s never followed any of those rules. It also has never been a big money-maker either (laughing). But to me, there’s no need to dilute the music more, in my case. It can be different for somebody else. For me, I like the raw stuff. I like the heavy sound and messages.