Dom Flemons


AN AMERICAN REVIVALIST: Dom Flemons and the Return of the African-American String Band

edited from  Geoffrey Clarfield (

Dom Flemons: “So there I was, in the Phoenix folk scene, collecting old 33s of Lomax’s Irish and English ballads in the Camden Folksongs of Britain series, and also a great New World Records release called The Roots of the Blues. That’s where I first heard ‘Buttermilk’ by Bob and Miles Pratcher, which was my first black string-band song, and also the first fife and drum record I ever heard of, Ed and Lonnie Young playing ‘Jim and John.’

In 2004, I discovered that the Lomax Archive, together with Rounder Records, had started publishing CDs, including the “Deep River of Song” series. Sid Hemphill’s fife and drum and string-band music, along with the other recordings from black Appalachia, transfixed me. I was also blown away by the Black Texicans album, which features the wonderful recordings of Pete Harris playing square-dance music.

This opened my eyes to the concept of black cowboys, which I had never, ever heard about before. But this was all still on the edge of my interests until I was invited out to the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005. It included African-American performers, Mike Seeger, and scholars interested in black string-band music and its origins. This was the turning point for me.”

The Gathering was organized to raise awareness of black string-band music in the hopes that African-American musicians young and old could get together and form a community where everyone would know that they weren’t alone in the world. As Lomax might have put it, it was an exercise in cultural equity.

Dom goes on, “This event completely changed my mental outlook. I met Mike Seeger. I got to sit with Joe Thompson and realized that his music was a link to all of the folk music that I had been listening to, and in time I would learn how to play his family’s tune repertoire. I also met Caroling Chocolate Drops singer and instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens there.

In Arizona there was no audience for what I was trying to do, so I went out East and joined up with Rhiannon and fiddler Justin Robinson to start learning Joe’s music, and also to try to pursue a career of my own in music. Lucky for me, I had a wonderful aunt who decided to give me her car to drive across the country, and I moved out East. Dead broke with my degree in hand, I moved to North Carolina and joined the Drops. Seven years, a Grammy, and a storehouse of wonderful experiences so far, the group is on the road about 200 days a year, selling our version of black string–band music, which incorporates elements of blues, jazz, spirituals, minstrel music, and several other styles.”

After his solo albums and his work with the Drops, Dom is a still a record collector and folklorist who uses his academic training not only to reinterpret the music of the past but to make sense of why he is doing it. He says, “There is no doubt in my mind that this music had to wait a long time before it could be rediscovered by the black community. African-Americans such as Rhiannon, Hubby, Leyla, and myself come from a new generation that can take the time to explore these repertoires with a new outlook and a distance from the past, especially when it comes to the minstrel material.

Without a doubt, some minstrelsy repertoire and performance characteristics could still be interpreted as demeaning and racist because in fact they were. But not all of it. There are some mighty fine pieces of music that deserve to be widely heard. Also, as a single group, we can only cover so much ground. It is important to spread the word so that others can take up their own journey of discovery. Sociologically, so much of that world is liminal, weird, and carnivalish, like the circuses and medicine shows that sustained and disseminated the form as it grew and spread all over the country and the world. One other thing to keep in mind about minstrelsy is that it is theater. The show must go on!”

4 Responses to “Dom Flemons”

  1. REED MARTIN Says:

    Interesting banjo set-up in your photo. It looks like three bass strings / a space/ and then two treble strings. In the south where I came from, we set up the 5-string banjo differently. I am assuming that you have discovered that the way your banjo is strung is the official / original banjo arrangement. It would then appear that the clawhammer or “knockdown” style would be rather impossible to play. Pete would never have been able to say “bum-ditty” and turn on an entire generation to the 5-string banjo.
    That’s the great thing about history – always out there for folks to change.

  2. John Says:

    Another young revivalist I highly recommend is Blind Boy Paxton. I saw him recently at the Portland (OR) Waterfront Blues Festival. He was absolutely terrific and judging by the crowd’s response, I wasn’t the only one to think so.

  3. Dena Lee Says:

    Thank you, Dom. You are an inspiration.

  4. Lloyd Says:

    @ Reed: Or it could be a guitjo missing a string. What looks like a 5th string peg is at the 6th fret and sort of looks like a knot in a piece of rope…

    Either way, I look forward to hearing Dom’s album.

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