- Dom Flemons Presents: Black Cowboys
In conjunction with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings’ 70th anniversary, “The American Songster” Dom Flemons’ new album Black Cowboys shakes the dust off the obscured traces of the singing African American trailhand. Flemons exposes the influential roles of Blacks, often hidden by nostalgic fieldwork and the romantic popular cultural history of the American West, across the “Great American Desert,” following shifts in frontier life music as it moved from the trail to the rail. An adept at many folk styles, Flemons curates an album of mostly traditional blues, ballads, and fiddle tunes, recombining the variety of Southwestern folk music and instrumentation into a more informed picture of African American presence in the mestiza folk world of white and Black cowboys and Mexican vaqueros, and he crafts new compositions to emphasize recovered material. By the time of secession in 1865, Texas had 182,000 slaves, and, with valuable skills learned wrangling plantation livestock, Blacks became integral to all parts of the cattle business, some becoming ranch owners themselves. One out of four cowboys was Black, most bringing familiarity with Appalachian and Southern musical traditions and considered competent and fraternal companions by white cowboys on the cattle trails at a time when merely having the right to ride a horse was a status denied to many slaves. Work to collect and preserve cowboy songs started by John Lomax and Nathan Howard Thorp challenged the prevailing perceptions of ballad professors that cowboy songs were crude and valueless, and Black Cowboys continues this quest by producing a more accurate and inclusive depiction of the “singing cowboy” that still fascinates folklorists and the American public.
The opening track, “Black Woman,” is a composite of field hollers collected by folklorist Harold Courlander and a 1937 recording by “the ballad hunter” John Lomax of Vera Ward Hall, a Black sharecropper from Alabama. Because the tune recalls familiar feelings of ranch life and lonely spaces, Flemons thought it a fitting tribute to the African American women frontier pioneers whose folk history is hidden perhaps even more than the Black cowboy. Historian William Loren Katz writes: “Although few in number, they [Black women] earned an honored niche in the saga of the wilderness. As the nation grapples with the history of its multicultural past, the story of the frontier African American women deserves a telling” (p. 15). The West could not be “civilized” until women brought domesticity, manners, and the other folkways of family life, giving impetus to building schools and churches as social foundations instead of the saloon. Flemons puts Black women at the album’s forefront, confirming that it was the hardworking female partner of the trailhand and homesteader that truly brought African Americans into “good standing” as community builders, a status that paid dividends in the civil rights movement. Flemons’ solo vocal on “Black Woman” reverberates with the empty spaces, physical and emotional, of life on the plains, highlighting the competent engineering skills of Folkways’ Grammy-winning recording engineer Pete Reiniger. On most other songs, Flemons is backed by the formidable talents of guitarist Alvin Youngblood, featured frequently on Hawaiian guitar, Fraulini Angelina on six-string, Jimbo Mathus on mandolin and harmonica, and Stu Cole, who plays the upright bass with aplomb. [End Page 119]
Flemons found the best traces of Black singing cowboys in a limited body of folk revival period scholarship and Library of Congress recordings collected by John and Alan Lomax. (It should be said the father and son team often had complicated relationships with their cultural informants in terms of racial bias and cultural ownership.) Flemons’ original inspiration for the album came when he discovered the 1965 publication The Negro Cowboys (Dodd, Mead) by Philip Durham and Everett Jones in a gift shop during one of his many cross-country tours, but Black Cowboys is also a personal project of exploring his own family’s cultural heritage of coming out of Texas and Arkansas to settle in Arizona. The primary source of cowboy song material many turn to is...