Black cowboys a focus at the 2020 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, an interview with Dom Flemons

by Will Houk

Dom Flemons - image - Timothy Duffy

Dom Flemons is an American singer/songwriter who has been recording albums and touring for the last 15 years. He rose to prominence with the African-American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Since then he has continued to work on musical and historical projects. His most recent album is the Grammy Award nominated “Black Cowboys.” The album tells the story of lesser known historical figures, people of color who helped settle the West. The album contains a pamphlet written by Dom that tells the background and stories of these prolific figures. I had a chance to chat with Dom Flemons recently about his album and the history he has been uncovering over the last few years.

Black Cowboys will be featured at the 2020 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, January 27 – February 1.

Will Houk (WH): You use the term “Songster” to describe yourself and your music. I’d love it if you could talk about that word and what that means to you?

Dom Flemons (DF): Several years back, I found a book that was written in the mid-80s by a Blues scholar by the name of Paul Oliver. And basically a songster was a musician who played a variety of material for their audiences, in local communities before the turn of the 20th century. And so, when I first heard the term, it was used as more of an anachronism to describe what people were calling themselves before they chose specific genres like Blues or Country or Jazz or what have you.

I found that as I was trying to advertise myself as a musician, I was struggling with figuring out ways to describe my repertoire because it’s sort of a composite of a lot of different parts of American music. So when I came across the term “Songster”, I decided to incorporate that into sort of the moniker of my performance as the American Songster. I do a lot of songs from the United States and I thought that made a really nice title to go along with the type of music I was doing to show people there was a variety, but it also allowed me to have sort of the extra space to be able to play different types of music that I was drawn to.

WH: Your most recent album is called Black Cowboys. One of my favorite songs on that album is “He’s a Lone Ranger” and I was wondering if you could tell us the story behind that song?

DF: When I started working with the album “Black Cowboys” first it came from reading about the history of black cowboys. Being from Phoenix, Arizona originally, I hadn’t heard a lot of information about black cowboys in a historical perspective. Even my own family’s history, there is a family history of migration out west from Texas, as well as Arkansas, and then even on my mom’s side, coming up from Guadalajara, Mexico, up to Arizona. But when I started to look at black cowboys as an historical phenomenon. It really began to open up this far bigger, almost a Pandora’s box of information about the West, because to acknowledge black cowboys is to acknowledge a multifaceted and multi-cultural West.

Just that subject alone was something that I kept in mind that would be an amazing project idea, which I was able to put together. So there was that one aspect. The second aspect was the musical aspect what are black cowboy songs and how are they different from white cowboy songs, and I decided to take the approach of using material that had stories associated with them like “Home on the Range” or “Goodbye Old Paint.” They have stories associated with black cowboys.

In other cases, songs like “He’s a Lone Ranger” where I wrote that song and also “Steel Pony Blues” after reading some of the historical documentation about some of the early black cowboys. I also wanted to bring Texas Blues into the picture because a lot of fans of Texas Country Blues know that there’s a link to the black cowboy story. I wanted to bring that into the umbrella of cowboy music as well.

Reading the great book by RT Burton “Black Gun Silver Star” as well as several other stories of Bass Reeves I composed a song based off of his life story, and I decided to use a blues boogie-woogie in the style of Lightnin’ Hopkins from Centerville, Texas and so meshing those two things together, I wanted to create a much bigger picture of black cowboys as a Blues phenomenon as well as it being a Country and Western or Western music phenomenon as well.

WH: This year you’re going to be out in Elko, and the theme is black cowboys. I’m looking forward to seeing you out there. I was wondering what we could expect from you performing at the event, what  types of different things you’re going to be doing out there?

DF: I’ll tell you that right as I was starting the project (Black Cowboys), Elko and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering has been one of my most tireless supporters for this project. The first year I performed there was in 2015. I was just putting the project together and I was given so much encouragement to bring these stories into one place that Willie Matthews, the great western artist, he painted the cover of “Black Cowboys”, but he heard that I was doing the project and he just, you know, he pretty much pledged himself to just do the cover. He just came up and said, “hey, we’re doing a cover for your album,” and at that time, I didn’t have even an album in place.

So I was like, ‘okay,’ and that was kind of the theme with all of the elders as well as the board members at the Western Folklife Center. They were just all very, very supportive. And they also gave me a lot of information that was within their own cowboy community that I could use with the project as well. I also got to be friends with Don Edwards, the great cowboy singer who’s getting a tribute this year.

He was one of the first guys that began to tell me about his own stories of meeting black cowboys in the ways that they were called Vaqueros Negros. At least from the regions where Don Edwards was spending his time they did not call themselves “Cowhands” or “Cowboys” because that was somewhat of a derogatory term. Vaqueros Negros link them more to the Mexican Cowboys, and that was something that was a part of what Don Edwards told me. It’s also the reason I decided to use “Little Joe the Wrangler” on the record. Don Edwards has a great version.

He also recommended that I pick up a copy of Jack Thorp’s book, “Partner of the Wind”, and Jack Thorp is the first fellow to self-publish his own book of cowboy songs. And even his story in the autobiography is linked to a situation where he meets a bunch of black cowboys. They sing this really amazing song, and then Jack Thorp is inspired to write it down. And this is two years before John Lomax publishes his own seminal work on cowboy songs you have a fellow Jack Thorp, who’s on his own non-academic level, he’s produced his book of cowboys songs, but that’s all around meeting some black cowboys, were doing their songs, and it was something that was powerful enough for him to move him.

As I read the autobiography, I started to see that some of the things that he was talking about that were distinctive reminded me of what we would now describe as the Blues. And so for me, I sort of took an idea of the Blues or an idea of “blue” quality of singing, and apply that to songs like “Little Joe the Wrangler” or “Goodby Old Paint” is another one that’s like that as well, and that’s how the Cowboy Poetry Gathering first got involved with the project. Wally McRae, one of the legacy poets he also gave me the blessing to recite his poem “Old Proc,” they’ve just been an essential part.

So this is finally the culmination of something I dreamed of when I first started the project because there’s so much amazing imagery in many artifacts as well as stories around black cowboys, that I was hoping that at some point we’d be able to curate an exhibition. And so my wife and I, we have decided to take the album and the essence of the album and apply that to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

We’re going to probably have a timeline, a great photo gallery. We’ll have kids programming, as well as activities. We will also have several different performers that are going to be showing the many aspects of black cowboys throughout the country, because there were a couple of spaces that I really couldn’t focus on for my own project like Louisiana Cowboys, and also cowboys from Florida.

So we’ll have a little bit of information connecting those communities as well. And that’s something that in the context of Elko, we can expand upon what I could do in my limited space for the project that I did. I can then, we can help open it up to a whole other level, so there’s a bit of that.

Also, in this past year I’ve traveled to a lot of western museums who have had amazing exhibitions on black cowboys of different sort linking into my project. I brought in my links that I found as I was traveling on the road learning, new stories about the black west from some of the local communities. We’re going to be bringing that into the context of the gathering as well.

WH: Thank you for explaining all that. That was that was in-depth and amazing.

DF: Thank you so much. It’s been quite a ride, and like I said, I’m always finding new stories and going to new parts of the country like I went to Montana and Wyoming this year for the first time. I was blown away that they had their own stories of black cowboys. And that’s not just from the scholars, but people in the audience as well. They contribute their stories and they pulled me to the side of the merchandize table and said, “Hey, have you heard of this guy?” And they tell me what would be just an amazing story of someone who, in spite of the odds, persevered and became a prominent member of their town or their state or what have you.

It’s a very interesting juxtaposition where you have a pre-civil rights world where you have people of color treated as second class citizens, but in the context of the black cowboys, you have situations where at certain points, if a person of color was prominent settler a pioneer of a certain place, you find that they were given different treatment, sometimes better treatment just based on the idea that they are a pioneer of this town, compared to later on.

They built the town and then the second round of people come in. They bring the biases of their urban living to a certain town. It’s just interesting to see those small subtleties within the story that tells you a lot about the development of the United States and also the importance of things like the civil rights struggle of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, because you can find that compared to those stories, these earlier stories come from a time when it was not socially acceptable to have an outspoken voice. People had to figure out how to get ahead in spite of those social realities of their own times. And so, again, it’s that this particular subject matter opens up many conversations about this particular social phenomenon in a way that I think people nowadays would be empowered, and they would find a lot of substance to knowing that history.


Performing arts correspondent Will Houk is a musician and host of Roots, Rednecks and Radicals on KNVC community radio. Please take time to support his work.