Dom Flemons & banjo

Dom Flemons

Dom Flemons is hard to describe in just a few words.

For the singer, songwriter, folklorist, musicians’ advocate and podcast host, however, “The American Songster” is just fine. Since co-founding the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005, Dom has kept countless folk tunes and styles vibrant and in the present by performing throughout the country and on many solo and collaborative recordings.

In late 2013 Dom left the Chocolate Drops to focus on his solo career, releasing the acclaimed Prospect Hill the following year. Earlier this year he kicked off the American Songster Radio Podcast, where he’s already interviewed the likes of Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, Taj Mahal, and more.

We recently caught up with Dom via email ahead of his concert in Daniels Hall on Sunday, October 9.

Do you see a a greater understanding about the African roots of the banjo in audiences than when you attended the Black Banjo Gathering, held in Boone, North Carolina, in April 2005?

I would say yes for sure. One of the things that have changed since the Gathering in 2005 is that people have a lot more references to the banjo in general culture than they did in 2005. The sound of the banjo has been embraced by a whole new generation of people who are intrigued by the sound of this amazing instrument.

If one were to inquire about the African roots of the banjo they would have so many more resources at their fingertips. People I met at the Gathering have now released their research into the world and those pieces of research are the pioneering statements of banjo scholarship going back to its earliest roots. One of the participants, Bela Fleck had just returned from Africa on a trip that he would turn into his documentary, Throw Down Your Heart. Musician Tony Trischka and documentarian Marc Fields released Give Me The Banjo, the first full length documentary on the history of the banjo.

I had the great fortune to meet some wonderful musicians at the Gathering and we created a group called the Carolina Chocolate Drops which was my first entry into playing music for a living. It was also a mission to tell the story of a long forgotten American traditional music. We played black folk music and that was a novel idea at the time though it was borne out of a long history.

When did you get a sense the Chocolate Drops were going to take off?

When we formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the other half of the group Sankofa Strings we wanted to carry on the spirit of the original Black Banjo Gathering. I noticed how both groups got standing ovations for not only the music but what the music represented. When I saw that we could do something for the common good by getting the history out there, I was on board.

Do you think the original Carolina Chocolate Drops – Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and you – will ever formally reunite?

Hard to say.

You’re very comfortable promoting your music and educating audiences about traditional music forms via new technologies – social media, digital downloads and more. Does the fusing of the old and the new like that ever strike you as odd?

Not at all. When people documented most of this music originally it was based on the same premise. John Lomax went out West to record cowboys on the range with a brand new cylinder recorder. Later, his son Alan was cutting records with an acetate cutter fashioned out of the back seat of their car. Even though the recordings are old, the people are present tense. It’s the same as posting on YouTube but imagine that there was only ONE YouTube for each person who had the technology. That’s how I tend think of it. Social media is such a powerful tool but most times people use it for nonsense. I post a few stories here and there and I do my shows as well.

I noticed that in the post-digital revolution which has swept the world I wanted to do my part to make sure that the stories of the old-time folk songs of the United States continued to be told. I am following in the path of my predecessors Mike Seeger, James “Boo” Hanks and of course Huddie Ledbetter better known as Lead Belly.

How is the American Songster Radio Podcast doing? I believe you are on episode 3 right now.

Its been great! I’ve enjoyed getting the chance to take a trip into the interviewer’s seat. As I’ve traveled all over this country and the world I’ve met a lot of wonderful people from many different walks of life. Though we are all very different people our common bond is a love of music. Music takes us into a place where barriers break down. We can learn a lot from one another by knowing what types of music we like and why? The “why” is always the best part because everyone has their own specific tastes. I love hearing the stories of why. That’s what folk culture is built on, stories.

On a related note, with more and more musical archives being placed online, how do you keep up with new discoveries of old time and roots music? Do you actively seek it out? Rely on friends or word of mouth? Or a little of all of the above?

I’ll tell you the truth I have been digging into my own archives again and finding some gems. If I hear about a new archive I check it out and keep it in my back pocket for later. That’s the only way to try to keep up. But here’s the thing. Its okay to never know it all. All you can do is try your best to learn what you can and be happy with that. Taj Mahal once told me, “You can dig into the music for the next hundred years and you’ll find that you haven’t even scratched the surface.” I believe that truly. If someone recommends something I check it out. I hear about a new act, I listen. When a new pop record comes out, I check it out. I don’t necessarily have to discuss it but I’m always looking for the next new sound. Old or new.

We live in politically charged and polarized times, some would say it’s always been politically charged and polarized. In divisive times, what can the music of the past tell us about where we are now as a nation, and where we might be headed?

The one thing I always try to tell people is that if you are reading about it in a history book instead of living in it, you will see that it is a step up from the people who had to suffer through the atrocities we have seen in this country. When performing and honoring history of the past, I always try to remember that they are ghosts of the past. I am okay with evoking certain styles of music to present something that I feel is very new and relevant and at times innovative because it is so old. Some of this old music is rooted in a deep history and I feel in polarizing times we need to take a step back and analyze why they are polarizing.

No need to repeat the mistakes of the past.

This Q&A was conducted via email with Swallow Hill Music Marketing Manager Barry Osborne.