I had the pleasure of interviewing multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons a couple years back, and in honor of his upcoming solo debut, I wanted to present it here in its entirety. Flemons is a former and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which he left late 2013 to pursue a solo career. His new album Prospect Hill (Amazon, iTunes) was just released.
J7: How did you get introduced to the kind of music you play?
DF: It was all just step-by-step. I’m the sort of person that when I particularly get interested and I listen to a lot of music, if I like something, I’ll listen to everything I can find on this particular artist, and then after doing that, I say, okay, let’s see what influenced them and also see what was contemporary to them and see who they might have influenced, if they happened to be one of the cornerstones of popular music, like when I got into Dylan and the Beatles at the same time.
When I looked at who influenced them, I found Hank Williams, I found Muddy Waters, I found Chuck Berry, I found Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, a lot of that sort of stuff, as well as what was contemporary to both of them, so I got into the ‘60s folk music scene, like Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk, The Zombies, The Rascals, The Searchers, even, and Gerry and the Pacemakers. I got into that sort of stuff and then heard who they might have influenced, so it was a natural progression in that sort of way.
I did performance poetry for a while, so I got into be-bop, and from be-bop I got into a lot of early New Orleans jazz, and then as I stopped doing performance poetry, that’s when I got into the older recordings from the ‘20s and ‘30s, so then I found a whole other level of influence that went on there.
J7: In Arizona was there much of a community for this music that you were part of?
DF: The community that was out there in Arizona didn’t particularly have to do with music that I was hearing on a record, per say. There were a lot of folks playing very different styles, it’s like John Prine singer-songwriter style music, there was a lot of bluegrass, and so I played a lot of bluegrass, and little bits of blues and Dylan and stuff like that, and a lot of good jamming, and also just a very vibrant community and very friendly people, so as I was starting to play guitar I got involved with that community and started going to the folk festivals in Flagstaff, Phoenix, and that was how I learned to play a lot of different types of music, and then, also, I learned how to back people up with all the instruments I was playing. When I was still out there in Arizona, I was playing the guitar, the banjo, the harmonica and the jug, so I just learned to listen to it in the jam and say, okay, this needs harmonica or this needs jug or this needs banjo or this needs guitar and I learned how to grab the right instrument and start playing and trying to make parts that fill them with sound without messing up what the lead instrument is doing, trying to figure out how to enhance the sound.
J7: It seems like your musical journey was also a historical journey moving backwards.
DF: Oh, yeah. I always loved history, and also trying to connect the dots on where does one type of music. A lot of times, particularly with rock music, jazz music, blues, or hillbilly music or country music, these types of music aren’t usually talked about together, about being in a single parallel line. So, for example, you have stuff like in 1965, Mississippi John Hurt is touring, you have Bob Dylan creating his electric sound, while at the same time the Beatles are starting to do Revolver and Rubber Soul, they’re starting to get into that sort of sound, while at the same time in country music, you have the Nashville sound going on, jazz in 1965 you’re having be-boppers starting to make room for hard bop — Art Blakey and Charles Mingus are out there — and Louis Armstrong, just the year before, had one of the last top hits of jazz with “Hello, Dolly.”
That’s the way I’ve always looked at music, especially with the history, how does it all fit together, and then as I was delving into that, I also got into the music of Mike Seeger and especially his later career, when he was doing solo records where he was taking different types of traditional music and mixing them together and creating these new sounds, and so I started experimenting with that, where I would take a traditional tune and say, well, okay, if I take the vocal style of this guy and I take the guitar playing style of this guy and add it to a particular number, what sort of things can I pull out of that? And also with all those elements, how can I try to experiment and recreate some of the older sounds, while it may not exactly be the strict, traditional way that something sounded, it has all the elements to make an interesting type of music in itself, and when I went to the Black Banjo Gathering and we started the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Sankofa Strings, the things that I brought into it, trying to experiment with music and take it somewhere and bring some excitement.
But when I went to the Black Banjo Gathering, I wasn’t as much into fiddle and banjo music, but when I met Joe Thompson and saw some of the early black banjo songster stuff, it really clicked for me that this was a type of music that I really needed to start delving into.
J7: It seems like the music you do in CCD is kind of like the common ancestor to all the offshoots through history that you’ve been talking about?.
DF: Absolutely. That’s one of the things, too, that, a lot of times especially with black string band music in particular, we’ll talk about right now, even though there wasn’t a ton of documentation that was done about this particular style of music, if you take all the different people who have researched music over time and then also in the digital era, more stuff is becoming available to people in terms of field recordings and commercial recordings. You can find quite a sizable amount of stuff that people have picked up over time, and also you can find retentions of that in different types of music, particularly with old time country blues and some of the older songsters, you tend to hear some of the retention of the older fiddle and banjo music, so that’s something that I’m consciously looking at finding new pieces of the puzzle to inform the music that I perform onstage like when I started playing guitar with and Justin Robinson, one of the things I thought about was Leadbelly and how would Leadbelly play along with fiddle and banjo without trying to disrupt what the fiddle and the banjo were particularly doing. I would try and find a part that would encase itself within the fiddle and banjo set-up, so that showed us stuff there.
Old Corn Liquor, that was a thing that Joe Thompson had in his music tradition so when I tried to take what I knew about the Memphis Jug Band or Cannon’s Jug Stompers and I apply that to this particular traditional style of music, it ended up bringing a whole different element to it, which was just one, fascinating, and two, people really enjoyed it, as well, so it ended up being artistically fulfilling and also it was helping to create something new and different even with the music that we were doing ourselves.
J7: There always must be some challenge for you in any given song you do – the dance between traditional and modern.
DF: The main thing is trying to find out what song and then also trying to figure out with the materials that you have, how do you use a certain vocabulary of musical styles with them and apply that to different types of music, so I’ll use, like for “Hit Em Up Style” in particular, a very modern tune, Rhiannon brought that one in, and she was playing fiddle and singing on it, and one of the things that we did, people don’t even notice that we took out 60 percent of the song. She took out a bridge that was there originally and there was a little bit more, more verses and stuff, but all that stuff got cut out for the most part just to find the essence of what fit within, what would make a really powerful number, and when I started doing the banjo, I was thinking of several things at one time. I was thinking particularly of the Taj Mahal song Leaving Trunk, there’s a particular guitar part that I thought about there. Thought about funk guitar and also thinking about hip hop and trying to think about how they have a rhythm that fits in with all those different types of things while she was singing and playing the fiddle.
The things are contextualized in music as a modern person and we can’t help but be modern ourselves. If we can find our own fulfillment artistically within doing the music, like, you do Shakespeare plays or something like that, each actor that handles that sort of material has to feel it and internalize it but at the same time you have certain materials that you can’t stray away from. People who know the material will say, oh my god, that’s sacrilegious. You’re not using this, that or the other materials. It’s like doing Shakespeare without the iambic pentameter, everybody notices when you don’t have that. It’s the same thing with traditional music. There are certain elements like speech and certain ways that you handle the melody that has to be there or else it just doesn’t sound right. It’s always a juggling experience doing that, but some of those abstract ideas are what would apply to it, and with that we make some good music out there.
We’re just fortunate that people have really caught onto it at the same time. That’s been such an important element, that we’ve had an audience that has wanted to listen to the music at the same time.
J7: Reclaiming the banjo, should you be doing minstrel songs – how do you look at your music politically? does it even matter to you?
DF: Something that has really made it less difficult to handle the political aspects of the music, like the minstrelsy stuff, it’s like the music in itself is phenomenal, but to present that music with dignity – that’s the thing too, as a black performers, we do not negate that we’re modern people, we’re modern black performers. We make a point of saying that in the show, like Rhiannon saying we’re going to do a tune from 1855, we’re going back to 1855 musically, but we’re not physically going back there or trying to take anybody back there because it’s very important to let people know that that’s not a nostalgia trip that we need to go down, but we can listen and learn from these types of old music, and also see where we’ve come and where we still have to work on things. That’s the thing, too. Just having a black string band and picking up a banjo as a black person, that in itself has a political statement wrapped up in it. We try to leave all the information for people to research more about the music, and then they become anecdotes. Even just saying ‘did you know that the banjo is an African derived instrument?’ and that it’s an African American instrument. That in itself is a statement that people who don’t know will say ‘really, I didn’t know about that’ and then they go for a history book and boom you’ve got the rest of your life to research different aspects of this very complex, very fascinating and also very liberating knowledge of the history of our country. Especially stuff like minstrelsy and that racial, social and political discourse, you can really learn a lot about our country and also feel a lot better to have learned more about how our country’s history has gone. For ourselves, knowing all this stuff and trying to bring music that’s good and entertaining in a way that people enjoy it — and that will hopefully make them pick up a book and research more about it — that’s the sort of stuff that we’re trying to get out.
J7: History part isn’t mandatory, but an important part to be grabbed onto if you want.
DF: The historical aspect is all good and fine, but the music has to be good enough for people to just listen to and say I like this before we bring all the history stuff into it. If people can’t enjoy the music, that’s when it becomes a museum piece, when it’s more important to say all the history stuff compared to the actual performance of the music. That’s always an important thing too, which I think is the unique thing with our group, that we’ve tried to be both historically-minded but also we’re very aware that we’re entertainers on stage and we’re presenting music to entertain people so that they walk away feeling good about being entertained and at least hope that they learned something in the process, as well.