Dom Flemons Presents A New Image Of The American Cowboy

Jan 5, 2019

Dom Flemons' latest album, Black Cowboys, is a collection of seldom-heard stories about the roles African-Americans played in settling the West after America's Civil War. The album's inspiration came during a road trip back home where the fifth generation Arizonan became enamored with an obscure collection of stories.

"I came across a book called The Negro Cowboys that talked about how one in four cowboys who helped settle the West were African-American cowboys," Flemons, a co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, says. "And being an African-American person that's half-African-American, half-Mexican-American from the Southwest, I just found that to be a fascinating story."

Now, the album has earned Flemons a 2019 Grammy nomination in the category of best folk album.

Many songs on Black Cowboys will be new to most listeners, but a handful, like Flemons' rendition of "Home on the Range," are instantly recognizable. Flemons presents a new image of the American cowboy — one that isn't exclusively white.

"You have people coming from slavery and emancipation and then, through their hard work and perseverance, in spite of the obstacles they had, they were able to create a new social order that still influences us to this day," Flemons explains.

The former slaves-turned-settlers Flemons sings about were able to transcend segregation in the Western states. For example, Bass Reeves, the first African-American deputy U.S. Marshal in the West was likely the towering inspiration for the Lone Ranger.

Working on the album over the course of two years became deeply personal for Flemons. His grandfather was a sawmill worker, preacher and World War II army veteran from East Texas and the musician says he sees his own family's history in these cowboy stories. He also sees the societal legacy in these stories. "Steel Pony Blues" chronicles Nat Love, who was born into slavery worked on an Arizona ranch and then became a railroad porter. That legacy, Flemons says, would eventually influence the early leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

"When you think about people like A. Philip Randolph, who started the first all-black working union for Pullman porters," Flemons says, "He was one of the people that helped change the course of African-American history by mentoring people like Martin Luther King Jr."

Black Cowboys is available now via Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons has built a career on exploring the lesser-known corners of American music. A founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, he released his second solo album, "Black Cowboys," this year and now has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Folk Album category. Ryan Heinsius from member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz., spoke with Flemons about the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNOX COUNTRY STOMP")

RYAN HEINSIUS, BYLINE: Dom Flemons' newest album is a collection of seldom-heard stories about the roles played by African-Americans in settling the West after the Civil War. Flemons wanted to return to his Western roots. The inspiration came on a road trip back home, where the fifth-generation Arizonan became enamored with an obscure collection of stories.

DOM FLEMONS: I came across a book called "The Negro Cowboys" that talked about how about 1 in 4 cowboys who helped settle the West were African-American cowboys, and being an African-American person that's half African-American, half Mexican-American from the Southwest, I just found that to be a fascinating story.

HEINSIUS: Many songs on "Black Cowboys" will be new to most listeners, but a handful are instantly recognizable. Flemons, however, presents a new image of the American cowboy, one that isn't exclusively white.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME ON THE RANGE")

FLEMONS: (Singing) Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play.

You have people coming from slavery and emancipation, and then through their hard work and perseverance, in spite of the obstacles they had, they were able to create a new social order that still influences us to this day.

HEINSIUS: The former slaves-turned-settlers Flemons sings about were able to transcend segregation in the western states. One was Bass Reeves, the first African-American deputy U.S. marshal in the West and likely the towering inspiration for "The Lone Ranger."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'S A LONE RANGER")

FLEMONS: (Singing) There was a man way out West, rode around this country with the snow (ph) on his breast, every white man and the Indian tribe, he was the baddest man that ever was alive. Now he's a...

HEINSIUS: Working on the album "Black Cowboys" over the course of two years became a deeply personal pursuit for Flemons. His African-American grandfather was a saw mill worker, preacher and World War II Army veteran from East Texas.

FLEMONS: I was able to see in these cowboy stories a lot of my family's history and my grandpa's history even though I had never really talked to him about it. So I found that there was just a really big piece of the history of African-American culture out West.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEEL PONY BLUES")

FLEMONS: (Singing) Getting far too old to follow this here herd. Good lord, I caught the first thing smoking down the road somewhere, caught the first thing smoking down the road somewhere. Now, I caught a steel pony, and boys, I'm going to ride.

HEINSIUS: Another song, "Steel Pony Blues," chronicles Nat Love, who was born into slavery, worked on an Arizona ranch and then became a railroad porter. That legacy, as Flemons says, would eventually influence the early leaders of the civil rights movement.

FLEMONS: When you think about people like A. Philip Randolph, who started the first all-black working union for Pullman Porters, he was one of the people that helped change the course of African-American history by mentoring people like Martin Luther King Jr.

HEINSIUS: If Flemons wins, this would be his second Grammy. The award ceremony is February 10. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Heinsius. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.