CD of the Month

DOM FLEMONS: Black Cowboy Songs

Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40224 (59:00)

Black Woman/ Texas Easy Street/ One Dollar Bill/ Going Down The Road Feelin’ Bad/ Tyin’ Knots In The Devil’s Tail/ Home On The Range/ Ol’ Proc/ John Henry Y Los Vaqueros/ Po’ Howard/ Gwine Dig A Hole To Put The Devil In/ Knox County Stomp/ He’s A Lone Rang-er/ Steel Pony Blues/ Little Joe The Wrangler/ Charmin’ Betsy/ Goodbye Old Paint/ Lonesome Old River Blues/ The March Of Red River Valley/ Old Chisholm Trail

Dom Flemons was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose dynamic take on African-American string band music made them one of the most exciting things to happen on the U.S. folk scene in the first decade of the twenty-first century. He has subsequently enjoyed a very active recording and touring career as a solo artist, and in various combinations. This new project is ‘the first of its kind’ according to the press release, and indeed I can’t think of anything quite like it. Flemons has cast his net widely to put together a highly entertaining, beautifully performed, set of songs, tunes and poems that paints a colourful landscape, the foreground of which is bustling with a lively crowd of black cowboys of the old West.

‘He’s A Lone Ranger’ tells the tale of Bass Reeves, the first African-American west of the Mississippi to be appointed Deputy U.S. Marshall, and ‘Steel Pony Blues’ is about Nat ‘Deadwood Dick’ Dove, a black ranch hand in Arizona (who can be seen in a great photo in the booklet, decked out in full cowboy gear). Both are self-written songs. The former is given a fine, bluesy, swinging arrangement, which puts me in mind of the recordings of James Tisdom, and while the latter’s fingerpicking recalls players like Frank Stokes, Flemons adds some delightful solo touches of his own. Early twentieth-century songwriter and compiler of ‘Songs Of The Cowboys’, Nathan Thorp wrote an account of meeting black cowboys and hearing them improvise songs about events from their lives; he also wrote ‘Little Joe The Wrangler’ which tells such a tale, and if it doesn’t seem, particularly, to be about a black cowboy, it might as well be. 

There’s a range of songs from early sources, including ‘Old Paint’ and ‘Home On The Range’. We might not tend to think of these familiar tunes as having a black connection, but in fact, the latter was recorded by John Lomax from a black bartender in San Antonio – apparently, according to the booklet notes, the source of the version we all know – while he collected the former from Jess Morris, a white singer who had learned to play jaw harp from a former slave, one of the many black cowboys employed by Morris’s trail boss father. Lomax also collected ‘Old Chisholm Trail’ from a black inmate of Sugar Land penitentiary in Texas in 1934. Flemons’ boisterous unaccompanied reading captures very effectively the spirit of old Clear Rock, the singer recorded by Lomax. 

Henry Thomas was no cowboy, but his repertoire spoke of the wide open western spaces and ‘Texas Easy Street’ and ‘Charmin’ Betsy’ are two spirited examples, the latter enhanced by Flemons’s expertise on Thomas’s trademark pan-pipes or quills. Lead Belly is the source of ‘Po’ Howard’. There’s a couple of traditional tunes, including ‘Red River Valley’, given a martial treatment in tribute to the ‘buffalo soldiers’ who fought for the U.S. Army … despite the obstacles they faced socially, politically and economically’, as Flemons notes in the booklet.

Clearly, Flemons has allowed himself a fair bit of flexibility in painting his picture. We have a mixture of songs (and one poem) about cowboys, songs sung by cowboys, cowboy songs associated with black singers and tunes associated with the African-American tradition. Sometimes the connections to black cowboys, as such, might seem a little loose, but Flemons’s presentation and engagement with the material gives it a coherence that for this listener, is thoroughly satisfying. He handles some of the songs by himself, while others benefit from the talents of some excellent accompanying musicians. The fat little booklet which adds much in the way of supporting information is also full of terrific photos, a mixture of authentic vintage shots of black cowboys and nicely fabricated ‘vintage’ shots of Flemons and fellow musicians. 

Ray Templeton

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