Music Reconstructed: Dom Flemons, Black Cowboys and the American West

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Installment 2

From ranches to railroads, learn about the often unrecognized role that African Americans played in the range cattle industry, as Pullman porters and in law enforcement. In part two of this special series, Grammy Award-winner Dom Flemons takes us on a musical exploration of the American West after emancipation. “The American Songster” joins historian Charles L. Hughes to discuss the complexity of sounds, songs and stories from and about the Jim Crow era. 

Music

Transcript

Bethany Jay: From “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X to the recent western The Harder They Fall, the idea of Black cowboys has been making its way into popular culture over the last few years. But there’s much more to learn about the role that African Americans played in the complex history of the American West.

I’m Bethany Jay and this is “Music Reconstructed,” from Teaching Hard History. It takes research to re-think, re-mix and re-imagine music. The results can reveal insights into history for educators and students. In this special four-part series, music expert and historian Charles Hughes brings us conversations with contemporary musicians who are exploring the sounds, songs and stories of the Jim Crow era through their music.

After the Civil War and Reconstruction, many formerly enslaved people migrated west. They became integral parts of industries like cattle ranching, the railroads, and law enforcement. In this installment, Charles introduces us to Grammy Award-winner Com Flemons, who helped lay the groundwork for the growing understanding of this often forgotten history. Together, they take us on a musical exploration of the American West after emancipation. Here’s Charles.

Charles Hughes: On this episode, I talked with Dom Flemons who goes by the name of the American Songster, a title that he richly deserves. He is a musician, a historian, an educator, an archivist. We'll specifically focus on his Grammy-nominated album, Black Cowboys, which traces the songs and the stories of the Black cowboy tradition and the African-American West. And as he explains here, these are stories, these are songs that often get left out or forgotten. An erasure that affects not only our understanding of Western migration and Western settlement, but also of the vibrancy of Black life and Black experiences in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Flemons is a model for how to go about doing research and historical learning in order to create projects that not only give us such a wealth of information but also to help us think about how we might present that material and express what we have learned in a way that is relevant for our present day.

[Music: Carolina Chocolate Drops "Country Girl"]

Dom Flemons: I started a group called the Carolina Chocolate Drops which is dedicated to showcasing traditional African-American string band music. The Carolina Chocolate Drops. were sort of trying to do our own version of African-American old timey music. And that includes early parts of blues and jazz and country music.

[Music: Dom Flemons "Steel Pony Blues"]

Dom Flemons: And I did that for nine years. And after that, I decided to expand my studies out even farther to include different parts of traditional folk music as well as Black cowboys.

I came across a book called The Negro Cowboys. One in four cowboys who helped settle the west were Black and there was just a multitude of stories about the Black west. And being of African-American and Mexican-American by heritage, that excited me.

And then as I did more research on individual cowboy stories, I found that there were cowboys then becoming Pullman Porters and being part of the evolution of the Civil Rights era, which leads me into writing new songs, commemorating Black Western pioneers. "Steel Pony Blues" talks about Nat Love, who wrote his own autobiography.

I went to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko. From the very first moment I mentioned that I was going to be doing a Black cowboys album, every single person in the community made sure to tell me one of the stories that they knew about Black cowboys. They wanted to do everything in their power to make sure that the "negros vaqueros," the official name that many of the Black cowboys used, were a part of this bigger story of the West.

But once you delve into the history of Black cowboys, then you start to find that you're delving into the entire history of the United States. Because if you think of the settling of the West as being a phenomenon of white America, you'll naturally view everything else as being derivative or something that is not on the same level as white America's progress.

But if you start to acknowledge Black cowboys, Mexican vaqueros, and Native American cowboys, then all of a sudden you start to see that the story of the West has been diverse from the very beginning. And it's not something that we just added later on.

[Music: Dom Flemons "He's a Lone Ranger"]

Dom Flemons: There's "He's a Lone Ranger" about Bass Reeves. I just heard that he was the historical basis for the fictional character The Lone Ranger. Bass Reeves was the first African-American deputy U.S. Marshall of the United States west of the Mississippi, following Frederick Douglass, who was the very first one.

You know, "broad shouldered and six feet tall. He had a sorrel that could outrun them all. Master of a pistol and a master of disguise. And he looked every man, he caught dead in the eyes."

Like the lone ranger, he used disguises. He was a bounty hunter. He was a fellow born into slavery. And he also was illiterate. He couldn't read or write.

There was a family story that bass Reeves would start singing a little spiritual to himself before he would get into a gunfight. And that was sort of the big cue for everybody to get out of the way, because Bass Reeves is going to start shooting.

Bass Reeves’ story begins in Fort Smith, Arkansas on a plantation, during a time when Oklahoma was still considered the Indian territory. And by the end of his life, you have Bass Reeves as a municipal Constable in Muskogee, Oklahoma. You know, we're hearing about the modernization of America, which, I started to find, was one of the big reasons that Black cowboys got pushed to the side. As the United States began to modernize as an urban landscape, the world of the Black cowboys disappeared

[Music: Dom Flemons "The Old Chisholm Trail"]

Dom Flemons: "The Old Chisholm Trail" is one of the most well-known songs in the western canon. And the version that I put together on the record is melodically based on an early field recording that was made by John A. Lomax and his son, Alan, in the early 1930s. They were in Sugarland, Texas at the state penitentiary.

[Music: Moses (Clear Rock) Platt "The Old Chisholm Trail"]

Dom Flemons: They came across a fellow by the name of Moses "Clear Rock" Platt, the water boy at the penitentiary. When I heard the audio for the original field recording, it told me Black cowboys just by listening to it.

[Music: Dom Flemons "Po' Howard / Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In"]

Dom Flemons: I had the great fortune of putting together my version of "Poor Howard's Dead and Gone" with the song "Going to Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In" for an event that happened at Carnegie Hall. It was a tribute to the great Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly.

His work, it's become a big part of the folk music repertoire, including songs like "Midnight Special" and "Goodnight, Irene," two of his most well-known numbers.

I was listening back to one of the early field recordings that Leadbelly made with Alan Lomax talking about Poor Howard. And he mentioned that the song was the first song song by the first negro fiddler freed from slavery. And it was the fiddler’s theme song,

And then the lyrics themselves, you know, "Poor Howard's dead and gone. And he left me here to sing this song." Being able to pass on history or pass on culture, generation by generation or person to person.

And "Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In," Leadbelly said that this is a song that when he — well, he called them the boys in the field — when they would see the boss coming, they would start singing the song like this, "Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In." Somewhat cursing or mocking the boss, but doing it in a way that is not directly speaking to the boss himself. It's a subversive song.

I wanted to put those two things together, because they speak a lot about the emotional journey of African-American culture, going from the farm, and then eventually moving into what would be the Civil Rights era and beyond.

I decided to use the banjo. One of Leadbelly's brightest proteges was a fellow by the name of Pete Seeger. And so I wanted to have a little bit of Pete Seeger's banjo style within my arrangements.

The history of the African-American banjo, the Black, Caribbean, and African roots—it's lost to the past. Because you have to imagine that the instrument is so far removed from African-American musical practice, that, in some ways, it was hard for people to even wrap their mind around the idea that the banjo could be connected to Black culture.

[Music: The Weavers "Goodnight, Irene"]

Dom Flemons: You can look up Leadbelly's history and his story, and you can see the tragedy of Leadbelly not seeing full recognition in his lifetime. Sadly enough, he passed of Lou Gehrig's disease just months before The Weavers with Pete Seeger had a number one pop hit with the song, "Goodnight, Irene."

To know that he did not get full acceptance in his lifetime, it allowed me to be able to say, well, I can take up the mantle and I can perform some of the songs. And I can do my part to at least let people know that a man like Leadbelly existed.

[Music: Leadbelly "Goodnight, Irene"]

Charles Hughes: It is so wonderfully appropriate, I think, to end with Leadbelly. Huddie Ledbetter in his time was very much participating in the same kind of musical work that Flemons is doing now.

[Music: Dom Flemons "Georgia Drumbeat"]

Charles Hughes: Not only because of the range of music that he performs, and the way that he takes these traditions and amplifies and celebrates them for a new audience, but also because, like Leadbelly, Flemons understands that the music and the stories that he’s spotlighting on Black Cowboys and in his other work are not just about this interesting part of the past, right?

It's critical for us as teachers and students and people who want to learn more about the history of the United States, the true history of the United States, the hard history of the United States, right. It's critical that we understand the complexity of the West. It's critical that we understand the role that Black cowboys played, not only in Western migration and settlement, but also to things like the development of the Pullman Porters and the roots of the Civil Rights Movement.

These questions are still very much relevant to how we think about our present day. We are still trying to understand what it means to be considered an American, who gets to be considered part of Country, as identity and music. And maybe the most important thing, that I certainly took away from our conversation, is that when we think about the music of the past, we have to understand that it was always part of creating a new future. That the moments and the people and the sounds that took place, even way far back or in a space and time, that feels very different to us, that they weren't the past when they were created. And they were part of, as he says at one point in our conversation, right, the modernization of America, especially when we're trying to think about our history in ways that go beyond easy, inaccurate, linear narratives of progress.

Bethany Jay: Thanks to Mr. Flemons for sharing his insights and his art with us. And thanks too to our friend and our music correspondent, historian Charles L. Hughes. Dr. Hughes is the Director of the Lynne & Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College and the author of Why Bushwick Bill Matters and Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.

You can find a complete list of the songs you heard in the show notes, along with a full transcript and links to helpful classroom resources. Visit us at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts.

Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. “Music Reconstructed” is produced by Barrett Golding. Our senior producer is Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. Cory Collins provides content guidance. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.

I’m Dr. Bethany Jay, professor of history at Salem State University and your host for Teaching Hard History.

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