June 20, 2019

Freight Trains, Cowboys, And The Old Town Road: Dom Flemons On Black Country Music

By Mark Gunnery

Dom Flemons

Dom Flemons

Black country music is having a moment, if the Billboard charts are to be believed. Lil Nas X’s trap country crossover hit, “Old Town Road,” has topped the Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip Hop charts for eleven weeks. In April it spent one week on the Hot Country chart as well, until it was removed because, according to Billboard, the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” This move on Billboard’s part sparked a debate about how musical genres are defined and where African American artists and fans fit into contemporary country scenes.

But black country music isn’t new. According to music scholar, historian and multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons, African Americans have shaped country and western culture and music from its beginnings in the mid-19th century.

“One in four cowboys who helped settle the West were African Americans,” Flemons told The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

For Flemons, black cowboys symbolize the bigger movement of African Americans moving out West in the aftermath of the Civil War. “The development of the West happened right alongside the Reconstruction era,” he said. “So many African American people decided to go outside of state lines, put out a land claim, and try to build a new life for themselves.”

Flemons, a former member of the Grammy Award-winning, old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, has committed his life to documenting the history of black country, folk, and blues music. His latest record, Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys, features both traditional songs from the 19th and 20th centuries and new compositions about black country legends like Bass Reeves, the first African American deputy U.S. marshal in the West who may have been the historical basis for the fictional Lone Ranger character.

But this isn’t strictly a Western tradition. The Washington, D.C. region for many years has been a hotbed for bluegrass music. Working class Southerners migrating from places like West Virginia and Kentucky traveled north for work in the 20th century, creating a network of country music fans, radio stations, festivals and venues from New England to Appalachia, with a thriving scene in the District. WAMU, for example, broadcast bluegrass music for decades. 

One of the biggest country blues hits of the mid-20th century was written by an African American singer and guitar player who lived in Washington, D.C. Elizabeth Cotten wrote “Freight Train” as a child in South Carolina, but didn’t record it until she lived in the District later in her life while working as a domestic laborer for the folk music family of Pete, Peggy, and Mike Seeger. The song, and her unique way of picking a right-handed guitar with her left hand, made Cotten an international folk star, and “Freight Train” is still played by guitarists today.

“It’s like the first Bach sonata you learn as a pianist but for Carolina Piedmont fingerpicking guitar playing,” Flemons told The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

Dom Flemons performs “Freight Train” at WAMU. Video by Maura Currie.

 

The fact that black country music is back in the spotlight is encouraging to Flemons. The “Old Town Road” phenomenon, as a pop culture manifestation of African American country traditions, “is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in a long time,” Flemons said. “There’s a want for a paradigm shift, and I’m interested to see what happens. Once you realize that country is a genre and black country people are a culture, those are two different conversations happening at the same time with just a minute and a half song.” 

Dom Flemons will perform songs from his record at the Hill Center in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, June 30.

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