We featured the positive vibes of the traditional southern folk band, Carolina Chocolate Drops in our September issue. Now, catch up with musician Dom Flemons in this behind-the-scenes Q&A.
What’s the best way to describe what you’re doing with the old tunes: preserving, reworking, or reinterpreting?
“I would say that we are doing a combination of all three. It all matters what the song or tune needs to feel right in our group. I will first make a point to mention that whatever you do with a song it will always sound like yourself…Some songs are perfect as is and playing it as close to the original as possible is the goal so that the audience you are playing for may get a sense of the excitement that you the interpreter had when you first listened to it…Many times I have found songs that in their original form needed a little help with a few chord changes or a re-write on the words and that makes for a whole other piece of music…In our group, we freely use all of these techniques and mix and match them as we see fit to find the best version to put on stage or recording.”
Why do you focus on these older songs?
“One of the main reasons I began focusing on old songs is because of my own love of history, and also wanting to get that history out to the general public. Like the folk singers who came before me, I like being able to give a personal or historical anecdote to the song that will personalize it to my performance. I wrote and performed all original songs when I first started performing and over time I lost interest in having that be my profession. This means I still throw a few originals out if I have the notion but I am not particularly interested in being the source of all the music I produce. There is such a wealth of music out there, and I far more interested in that than writing a bunch of songs.
“…as a person presenting folk music in this era, I am an important piece of a long chain of folk song interpreters going back many, many years. And as a younger person in this musical circle, it is a great joy to be able to add my name to the list of the ones who have come before…When I first went to the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005, I was aware that the banjo was a black instrument but I had no idea how important it was for me to be a young black banjo player who could articulate why I played and the musical connections I was making in my own research.”
Are you ever challenged for being young and focused on traditional African-American music?
“The biggest challenge I have found is making sure to let people know that even though our focus is a black and Afro-centric study and approach to the music, it is not meant to overshadow anyone else’s contributions to the music. This comes from the people involved in the folkloric field who have studied this music, and because they may not be black themselves, get pushed aside for people like us that make a perfect picture of young blacks studying black music. We have had a lot of help along the way from many different people who have worked hard for many years on their areas of focus.
“We have also tried not to be militant in our presentation…We talk about slavery, reconstruction, the birth of the blackface minstrels (both white and black) and the development of blues, jazz and gospel music through the music, while talking about many of the social aspects that brought on these developments. It can be tricky to juggle these things but it is very important to get the message out there without making it too heavy-handed.”
What was it like to play the Grand Ole Opry? Where else would you like to play?
“It was great! To have the chance to play at the home of Country Music was an absolute thrill…The only two other places I really ever dreamed of playing was Austin City Limits in Austin and at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. We did a Johnny Cash Tribute on the stage of Austin City Limits which was pretty close to that goal. We’ll see if we ever make it out to Preservation Hall.”