It all started at an unheralded event called the Black Banjo Gathering, held in 2005 at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. That four-day conclave of young African American musicians explored the African and African American roots of American vernacular styles–a knife’s edge if there ever was one, for the banjo was the icon of the racist minstrel shows of the nineteenth century. The gathering spawned the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops trio, who went out to learn from one of the few living black old-time country fiddlers, Joe Thompson, and built on his repertoire in fascinating and often challenging ways. Dom Flemons, who comes to the Ark on January 16, was that band’s virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, and his growing solo career has produced traditional music of an unusual sort.
In contrast to the increasingly eclectic music of the Drops’ lead vocalist, Rhiannon Giddens, Flemons has cultivated the repertoire of old-time music along with its look and feel. He takes the stage in the classic folk uniform of suspenders and checked flannel shirt, and his 2014 album Prospect Hill contained traditional tunes from both black and white traditions as well as jug band music and originals in classic molds. Old-time country music and its distinctive African American twist continue to be present in his work, and he says that his background in percussion has influenced his banjo playing–an African American outlook with deep resonances. A fluent player of the banjo, guitar, harmonica, fife, bones, bass drum, snare drum, and quills, Flemons is well equipped to explore a wide variety of forgotten sounds, and his generously long show takes you to a lot of corners of American music you may not know.
He calls himself simply the American Songster, and he lives up to that ambitious name. But the music he has made since Prospect Hill shows hints of new directions. Flemons’ website contains this statement of his aims: he “would like to use the traditional forms of music he has heard and immersed himself in over the years to create new soundscapes that generate interest in old-time folk music. Focusing very much on creating music that is rooted in history but taking a contemporary approach, Dom hopes to reexamine what traditional music can become.”
That aim showed up on Prospect Hill with a novel original called “Grotto Beat” that took off from the Southern African American fife-and-drum genre (which has roots as far back as the Revolutionary War) but added rap-like spoken-word elements to it. A recent EP, What Got Over, shows further experiments in the same vein; the title track adds electric guitar to contemporary but blues-like vocal lines (“You tried to murder my soul, but you only lost me”) and a big bass drum.
Lots of people are doing old-time music right now, of various kinds, and Flemons does it all well. But he also seems to be trying to create music that’s rooted in American tradition in whole new ways. And, given the impressive history of this unique musician, that’s an exciting prospect indeed.