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Dom Flemons

Black Cowboys – 2018 (Smithsonian Folkways)

Reviewed by Greg Yost

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CDs by Dom Flemons

As a co-founding member of Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons was influential in keeping old-time string music alive for a new generation of music fans. With his latest solo outing, his first for the revered Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label, Flemons brings to light the underappreciated music and cultural contributions of African Americans as the country expanded to the west.

With the 18-song collection "Black Cowboys," Flemons, a music scholar and historian, delves into the topic from many different perspectives. Instead of merely presenting songs associated with black pioneers, Flemons uses period-appropriate instrumentation and unique arrangements to create a collection of traditional tunes, original songs and spoken word compositions that convey the life and times of African American cowboys in the Wild West.

The collection kicks off in eclectic fashion with "Black Woman," a field holler originally collected by famed musicologist/folklorist John A. Lomax in the 1930s. Although this is not a cowboy composition, Flemons explains that he chose it because it is thematically similar to cowboy songs, and it honors the African American women who labored to bring structure to the expanding territories. Other tangentially-related songs include "Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad," an example of square dance music popular with cowboys, the bright and playful fiddle instrumental "Knox County Stomp," which Flemons included to recall the free-form acoustic jam sessions black cowboys enjoyed with Mexican vaqueros, and a lovely cover of Roy Acuff's "Lonesome Old River Blues," included here to pay homage to the influence African Americans had on early country music.

"Old Proc," a spoken word recitation of a piece by noted modern-day cowboy poet Wally McRae, offers a nice mid-album break from music. Although McRae is white, Flemons included this composition about a legendary black cowboy because it reflects the prevalent attitude of the day that cowboys were judged by their work, not by their skin color.

Traditional cowboy tunes "Home on the Range" and "Old Chisholm Trail" also shine. The former is included because Alan Lomax, John's son who was also a legendary musicologist, recalled his father saying that a black bartender from San Antonio sang the tune into a cylinder recorder in 1908, and it is this version that would stay popular through the ages. "Old Chisholm Trail," done here as an impassioned a cappella chant in the style of prison songs, commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Chisholm Trail and offers a nice conclusion.

The set also features extensive liner notes, the kind you expect from a Smithsonian Folkways release. The album is part of the label's African American Legacy Series and was produced in conjunction with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The 40-page booklet includes two essays and Flemon's recording-specific notes.