When Pete Seeger died in January of 2014, Dom Flemons, folk music enthusiast and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, was interested to see who would fill the void. When no one did, he stepped up.
“I know a lot of the history of the music, and I perform it, as well,” he says. “It would be ambitious for me to say I’m along the line of Pete … but I’m throwing my hat in the ring and seeing how that could develop and continue to grow.”
An ambassador for American roots music, Flemons doesn’t just play it, he lives it. From the way he dresses—checkered shirts, suspenders, wire rimmed glasses and a throwback hat are his go-to look—to his playing style, his passion for sharing stories and his focus on educating people about the importance of folk music, the 34-year-old is doing the work to which Seeger devoted his life.
“Pete became the guy who said, ‘Hey, everybody, let’s sing these old songs and make sure people remember them,’” says Flemons.
OK, dressing in old-timey clothes and playing roots music is kind of trendy these days, but Flemons wants people to look deeper into the meaning and significance of the music. His own stripped-down and raw sound spans folk traditions from a variety of cultures as he finger picks and strums age-old tunes on both guitar and banjo. He understands that people just want to have fun playing older styles, but he’d like them to know the history, as well.
“There’s a deeper story,” he says. “If you take a little bit of time, you can find it.”
Flemons is particularly interested in the music that tells the stories “between the cracks of the history books.” He focuses on the music that’s come out of the African-American experience, but points out that everyone can find musical roots. He recently launched American Songster Radio, a podcast to talk about music and “discuss the deeper issues.”
“I’m not just interested in hearing about who was the best person,” he says, “I’m interested in hearing about who was the second best and third best, so that I can understand a bigger context of why it was. There’s so much history that hasn’t been talked about.”
Flemons is no longer with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group that generated widespread awareness of black string band traditions. His solo career allows him to get the sound he wants and explore whatever direction his folk journey takes him on. He’s taken to describing what he does as “American Songster,” asserting that the word songster—which simply means someone who sings and plays songs in a variety of styles—is “so old that it’s new again.” For Flemons, it describes what he does without being too genre specific.
Flemons recently collaborated with English singer-songwriter Martin Simpson, who he calls a kindred spirit, to explore British and American folkways and how they intersect. His current project is an exploration of the history of black cowboys and their contributions to folk music for Smithsonian Folkways. He explains that black cowboys are behind several well-known cowboy songs, including “Home On the Range,” a tune that John Lomax recorded from a black cook working out on the range.
“The bigger story of why the black cowboys were how they were is really something that’s fascinating,” Flemons says. “At a time when we have so much social upheaval in the United States, these stories need to be told more than ever.”
Sharing the knowledge and stories found within folk traditions is something Flemons is passionate about. He considers his role to connect people with the music and inspire them to learn more.
“I’m just trying to be a conduit for all that sort of stuff,” he says. “Just like Pete or Jim Kweskin, or folks like that, they were the conduit for people like me to understand the music of Mississippi John Hurt or Dock Boggs. There has to be a living conduit whose enthusiasm creates enthusiasm in other people.”
Update 10/18/2016 : Headline corrected to reflect that Dom Flemons will play at Don Quixote’s.
Dom Flemons will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $15/adv, $18/door. 335-2800.