Sometime in late 19th century, a colorful type of musician emerged in the southern United States—a songster who would wander around singing a broad range of repertoire, from ballads to folk songs to dance numbers. At first joined by separate musicians playing banjo and fiddle, and later using guitar to provide self-accompaniment, the songster was a precursor to the prototypical blues musician and by extension so much of American popular music.
More than a hundred years later, Dom Flemons, aka the American Songster, recasts the tradition by putting his mark on tunes collected from a century of roots music—from field hollers to folk and country songs—playing not just the customary guitar, banjo, and harmonica but other more traditional instruments like fife, quills, and rhythm bones.
Over the last couple of decades, Flemons has assembled his repertoire through scouring record bins for historic and rare finds, learning from old recordings, and connecting the dots. He has become a music scholar and historian in large part through poring over the liner notes in his music collection, currently around 5,000 records broken down into scores of categories, and he now shares selections on his monthly show The American Songster Radio. At the same time, Flemons has built on the fingerstyle guitar approaches that he learned firsthand from blues masters like Algia Mae Hinton in the mid-2000s, when he was in his 20s and beginning his music career in earnest in North Carolina.
While in that state, Flemons co-created the Carolina Chocolate Drops with fellow multi-instrumentalists Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, doing much to hip new mainstream audiences to old-time string band music. In 2010, the group won a Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Album for its album Genuine Negro Jig. Flemons has experienced similar success with his unique surveys of old-time music as a solo artist, beginning with his 2007 debut, Dance Tunes, Ballads and Blues. More recently, his 2018 album, Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys, explored the role of African-American musicians in the development of country music and earned him a Grammy nomination.
On his latest album, Traveling Wildfire (Smithsonian Folkways), Flemons, now 40 and based in Chicago, examines the Black experience in country music on his own song “Slow Dance With You.” He also explores a wide range of other territory, from a cover of the unreleased Bob Dylan song “Guess I’m Doing Fine” to the original instrumental “Rabbit Foot Rag,” a spirited number based in the ragtime tradition.
I talked to Flemons about his journey to becoming the American Songster, how he found his voice in assembling his expansive repertoire of old and new songs, and what makes the ideal acoustic guitar.
As the American Songster, you have a repertoire that covers many decades of roots music. How do you preserve the songs while putting your own imprint on them?
One of the ways that I like to think about presenting my music is to have a balance between songs that I haven’t written and songs that I have written. When I interpret an old-time number, there is a style. There are certain aesthetic qualities that make that older style. It allows it to be unique sounding, and also it tells a lot about the time, place, and space the song came from. And so when interpreting old songs, I try to make sure that they sound familiar, but that they’re also brand new expressions of this music.
How do you find that balance?
I try not to just repeat things I’ve heard before. I try to make sure that whatever I’m putting out there sounds unique to people who may not be familiar to this music—as well as those who are, people like record collectors and other folks that are deeply invested in the old-time music and its sound. And so I try my best to not just copy stuff outright, but to create a little extra space for it.
How has being a record collector yourself helped you develop your repertoire and see all these connections between the idioms and eras you cover?
When you collect the records, then you get to hear the songs. And I’m always searching for that new sound, that next song that will give me just that inspiration to come up with a new tune, or any type of thing like that. That’s one of the things as a collector that is unique—just being able to take that time to find all the little subtleties. Sometimes you hear a recording by an artist that only a few people have heard before. And being able to reinterpret their music, it’s great to be able to present it back.
Someone like Papa Charlie Jackson or Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas would have two different songs that I was interested in. And when I started to listen to their recordings, I then found myself inspired to do their songs because a lot of people hadn’t covered their material, compared to someone like Robert Johnson, who’s much more well-known.
On a recent episode of the Acoustic Guitar Podcast, you mentioned that you’ve synthesized your own style by finding curious riffs and figuring out how to play them. Talk about some of your key discoveries along the way.
I definitely would say with a lot of the pickers from North Carolina, people like Blind Boy Fuller, John Dee Holeman, and Algia Mae Hinton, hearing them on record was very, very powerful. Being able to pick in a way that allows you to mimic the sound of two guitars playing at the same time was a revelation to me when I first heard it. You get so much sound out of just one person. And so I tend to do that in a good deal of my numbers, displaying this particular style of using the thumb-led bass note and then putting a little bit of melody on the top. That’s one part of it, and of course Henry Thomas was a big influence because he played the quills [an early American folk instrument, panpipes made from cane tubes] and the guitar. For me that was a way to make my way over into playing the quills and playing music that preceded the blues.
Since you came into playing guitar before the advent of YouTube, did you have to learn on your own, or did you use the few existing books and videos that were on the market? How did you acquire your great fingerpicking technique?
Well, there were books that were around in the public library, and so I was able to find some music and tablature there. One of the best instructional video series that I was able to get my hands on was Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, several of those books and DVDs that he had put out.
But a lot of my learning came from just listening to the records closely and being able to copy what I heard, at least finding the chords and the melodies and working on how they fit within the sound that I was hearing. Then when I moved to North Carolina for a while, I started to sit with different pickers. I would go to their houses and spend time with them, and that was how I began to learn a whole other way of playing the guitar and playing this old-time music.
What was it like to learn that way?
Well, for me it was Joe Thompson and John Dee Holeman, and then Algia Mae Hinton, and another fellow by the name of Boo Hanks—I spent a lot of time with them through a nonprofit organization, Music Maker Foundation. I became a go-to backup musician for these players. And when you learn in that traditional sense, a lot of times you just have to learn on the fly and figure out what chords are going to be played. With that, you start being able to anticipate where someone’s going to go, because as a backup musician, your goal is to make the person that you’re backing up look great.
After having spent the time backing up many of these musicians, I was able to play the songs myself. And so then I could put my own stamp on them because I had learned at the feet of the masters. In making my own music, it was always something where I had some grounding to start out with, so then I could create my own arrangements that would be unique.
How did you become the American Songster?
One of the things that led me to become the American Songster was that as my interests grew, I realized that I was interested in more than just blues music or country music or old-time music. I found that since I had a repertoire of music, the songster—which is a term from the late 1800s—fit what I was doing more so than just trying to say I was just a blues singer or folk singer. There was a way for me to expand the definition of what I could be doing onstage. And it was an old enough term that it sounded new to people at the same time.
But in a way, I started out like a lot of people. I picked up records of singer-songwriters from the ’60s and ’70s, and there was also a lot of the early rock ’n’ roll from the ’50s and ’60s that I really loved. From there I began to go down the rabbit hole slowly but surely. And of course, before the internet, going down the rabbit hole was a much more intensive process, because I had to go to each of the places to find the items that would lead me to the next step. It took quite a bit of time to go through all of that.
How might your music have been different if you had been in your developmental years when so many of the sources were available with just a click?
I think it was very important that I learned what I did before the internet, especially for performing the songs of a person like Papa Charlie Jackson, who isn’t really as well known as other blues singers. When I was learning his stuff, there wasn’t anybody to tell me what Papa Charlie Jackson’s music was all about or anything about Papa Charlie himself. I had to learn everything on my own, and I had to find my own sources. I also had to find my own way to interpret his music. And most of the time now, you have a video on YouTube that’ll just tell you all those things.
So in some ways it allowed me to have a longer gestation period to develop as a musician. At the same time, it’s very much ingrained in my mind—not something that I just learned because I had a wild fancy to learn the music and then left it at that. I really got to internalize the music, spend a lot of years thinking about it, and later spend a lot of time re-analyzing that music.
On your website, you wrote that the past few years have been a time of deep reflection and meditation for you. What insights have you gained from this period, and how are they reflected in the new album?
One of the things that happened was I had to go deep into my own mind and figure out why I liked doing music and what my whole journey in music was about. What I ended up finding was that I am a person who really enjoys records and playing the music for people. Thankfully, that’s where I landed when I went deep into my own psyche about it.
But the biggest thing was just not having the constant forward motion of traveling and touring standing in the way of deeper reflection. I left my home in Arizona in 2005, and by 2020 I had been on the road for the better part of 15 years. And so the pandemic allowed me to take that time to sit back and sift through my thoughts. That was something I probably wouldn’t have done if everything hadn’t been shut down.
And I started to pull out a few songs that I had written early on, the two on the new album: “Slow Dance With You” and “It’s Cold Inside.” Those are older songs that I had written a while ago, and I was able to start pulling new things out of my ether that I might not have done if I hadn’t been sitting in a lockdown.
“Slow Dance with You” is about the Black experience in traditional country and western music. Can you talk a little bit about how it applies to this specific song and your repertoire more generally?
My first introduction to country and western music came from my African American father, who was always a big fan of country music. One of the things that tends to get lost is that a lot of country music is heard over the radio. Because of that, it doesn’t have a color; if you’re just hearing a song, you’re not actually seeing the musicians who are playing it. A lot of people have referenced country music as being a big part of their upbringing, and my dad was no different in that way.
So my introduction to country music came very early on. And with country music, it’s all about the storytelling. With “Slow Dance with You,” I wanted it to be a very simple story of a couple. I didn’t make it too specific about if the couple was together, or had been together, or was going to be together. And it talks about that moment of connection just during one single slow dance.
In the past several years, I’ve heard a lot of people thinking about African American contributions to country music. And so what I decided to do is really focus in and create some material that satisfies that need. That’s why I have “Slow Dance With You,” “Dark Beauty,” and “If You Truly Love Me,” where they have overtones and aesthetic qualities that touch upon the Black experience with love.
You also unearthed an old and unreleased Bob Dylan song. What was it like to bring that to life on your album?
Well, “Guess I’m Doing Fine” is an interesting one, because I had heard it around 20 years ago, on this collection I had called the Genuine Bootleg Series. It’s kind of thumbing its nose at Dylan’s official bootleg series albums. I had heard it along with another song called “Long Time Gone.” They were part of the series of demos that Dylan did for the M. Witmark & Sons publishing company.
On these particular set of demos, there were a few songs that he hadn’t put out on an album, and “Guess I’m Doing Fine” has these beautiful words about resistance on a very personal level. When I had the chance to reach out to Dylan’s people and ask if I could perform one of his songs for the album, they suggested “Guess I’m Doing Fine.” I thought it was just wonderful because of its message about the ways that even if you’ve got nothing except yourself to fight the good fight, there’s a way to do that.
When we got all the instruments together and cut it in the studio, I could tell that it needed a fiddle part. I’m actually playing everything on that recording except fiddle. And I was very pleased to get in touch with Sam Bush, who put a really great fiddle track on top of it. So it was great to get that particular Dylan song and to be able to expand its musical palette, because it was originally just a solo guitar number by Dylan. Just to be able to break it into a sort of bluegrassy type of vein and then to get Sam Bush to add the fiddle on top was the real icing on the cake.
It turned out beautifully, to say the least. I understand you have lots of instruments, and each one has a special story. What acoustic guitars are in your collection right now?
The acoustic guitars that I have on hand are these two wonderful instruments made by the luthier Todd Cambio out of Madison, Wisconsin. His company is Fraulini Guitars, and they’re a very special type. Both are the Angelina model. When Todd was putting the guitar together, we sized it so it had a grand concert body and then a regular-sized neck [with a scale length of 25-1/2 inches, rather than the model’s standard scale of a long 26-1/2 inches]. That way, it would be easy for me to hold onto it, but it would still have extra mid-range bass that could really pop on the recordings. So those two have been great friends to me; they are my main guitars that I always keep with me.
What about them speaks to you?
Well, having that really bassy midrange is one of the things that speaks to me as a guitar player. Because a lot of times I am fingerpicking, I tend to be right in the middle part of the guitar. Both of my Fraulinis are so clear and crisp when I’m fingerpicking. It just warms my heart every time I pick one up.
It’s great that you found a pair of instruments that you’ve bonded with like that. What other guitars are you gravitating toward?
Another acoustic I have is a banjo-guitar called Big Head Joe. It’s a giant six-string banjo, tuned like a guitar, which comes from an interesting sort of forgotten chapter of American music. It was made circa 1919, so it’s over a hundred years old. Just to be able to present this special instrument to the world through my recordings—like on “Saddle it Around” on the new album—has been a real treat. It also produces a really wonderful low, mid-range bass sound that is just beautiful; it does everything that an acoustic is supposed to do and then some.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.