Dom Flemons Talks About What Got Over
Last Record Store Day I trundled out of the house to nearby Silver Platters Records, one of my go-to record stores in a city (Seattle) rife with great choices. Record Store Day has become something of an excuse for corporate record labels to offload crappy reissues of too-famous bands, but I had fun last Record Store Day picking up small-press vinyl releases from cool roots folks. And one of my favorites this time was a kick-ass little vinyl EP, What Got Over (released on the Music Maker Relief Foundation record label), from Dom Flemons, the American Songster.
Intended as a companion piece to his much-loved debut full-length, Prospect Hill, which came out in 2014, What Got Over works as a kind of cross-section of the many facets of Dom. He’s a fascinating person, after all, one part consummate performer, one part perfect gentlemen, one part scholarly archivist, and one part shrewd businessman. It’s quite the package, and the more I talk to him, the more I realize how much of the genius behind the Carolina Chocolate Drops was owed to Dom. Onstage he’s an absolute blast, charming and funny, full of energy; I watched him literally jump up and down with joyful excitement in the middle of one of his Pickathon sets in the Lucky Barn earlier this year.
But don’t mistake the fun performances and funky, quirky songs like “Hot Chicken” for someone who’s here just to have a good time. Dom has a message, and his message is that we need to work harder to celebrate and understand American roots music, especially African-American traditions. He’s about the last player of the quills, an African-American folk instrument like a panpipe, and he’s widely knowledgeable about Mississippi fife-and-drum, another endangered black folk tradition. On What Got Over, he draws from these influences, working to give a bigger voice to these lost traditions. From his rare giganto-banjo to the way he knudges fife-and-drum with hip-hop beats — hell, to the way he even brought in the totally lost tradition of Tohono O’odham fiddling from his native Arizona on Prospect Hill — Flemons leaves no stone unturned and beckons us along with him on the hunt.
To find out more about this rockin’ little EP, I chatted Flemons up on the phone. I also had to ask about his current vinyl obsessions, since I know that he is a man who loves old vinyl. Like me, he’s gunning for those old vinyl LPs from the folk revival of vital music traditions that were never reissued on CD.
Dom Flemons on What Got Over:
“I did What Got Over for Record Store Day. The big plan is that this is a companion record to Prospect Hill. I made it so that it could stand on its own, but if you take Prospect Hill as a program with What Got Over following it, that would be an hourlong program instead of a 20-minute EP and a 40-minute album. It’s a one-hour song cycle. I wanted to take Prospect Hill as an album, artistically stick my arm down its throat and pull it inside-out, and that’s what What Got Over is. It’s a little bit weirder album, a little bit darker than the sessions with Prospect Hill. I was kind of subverting Prospect Hill.
It’s also the recording premiere of Big Head Joe, my big six-string banjo. It’s a giant early 1920s 6-string banjo, two inches bigger than the Papa Charlie Jackson banjo. I wanted to pull in some fife and drum too, so there’s a lot of fife and drum. There’s an original song, “Clock on the Wall,” on it, plus alternate takes of songs from Prospect Hill, like “Til the Seas Run Dry.” When we were doing the sessions, I came up with all these beats. One of the studio engineers was thinking I should sell these to a hip-hop artist. I was on the bass drum and Guy Davis was on the snare (he also recorded some great guitar on a new take of my song “Hot Chicken”). Some of the takes feature these beats.
I went out on Record Store Day and did a release show for What Got Over and bought a few things. Bought the Master Musicians of Jajouka that came out on Record Store Day; that was badass. I usually go out on Record Store Day, that’s how I knew about it. I’ve been collecting vinyl since about 1998. I’ve been at it for a couple of decades now. As Prospect Hill came out I wanted to get that into record stores and I made a lot of connections with record stores when I was touring last time. I always try to stop in and make connections with the managers as I tour around. And I was always come in buying records; I’m a customer too. In a business where record stores have been written off for the most part, there’s still a lot of them around. They’re like old hardware stores, they’re in every town, whether they’re a hip young record store, or old stores that have been there and there’s just an old guy behind the counter who loves to sell and buy records.
Dom Flemons’ Current Vinyl Obsessions:
The Edden Hammons Collection
Edden was the patriarch of the Hammons family, and I think Alan Jabber put this album together. It’s great, when I first went to Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, that’s how I got hip to the Hammons family. I had a copy of all their stuff for a long time. This one, I found a really nice vinyl copy for $5.99, so that’s nice [Columnist’s note: Vinyl of this album sells for over a hundred dollars on eBay]. West Virginia’s just an odd style of old-timey music that’s different from the other ones, like Kentucky. It’s like Kentucky fiddle, but weirder.
Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austins. Blues Serenaders.
She’s a great classic blues singer from the ’20s. She wrote the song “Down Hearted Blues;” that was Bessie Smith’s song. She was the star of Black Swan Records, then started recording for Paramount.
Buffy Sainte-Marie. Native North American Child: An Odyssey
This is a heavy album; I heard this one early on, when I was young, in my library. Just heard this song “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone,” which is a really heavy Buffy Sainte-Marie number.
Leon Bridges. Coming Home
I saw him at Pickathon so I wanted to support this new young guy coming out. He’s got a decent sound, I really want to hear how he develops. Comparing him to Sam Cooke … it falls a little flat, but y’know, that’s Sam Cooke.
Songhoy Blues. Music in Exile.
African desert blues, kind of like Tinariwen but a little different. It’s some great shit.
Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol 1: Secular Music
This LP from Smithsonian Folkways has a lot of great field recordings by Harold Courlander. All recorded in Alabama. Features Vera Ward Hall, probably one of the most well-known of the singers, since she recorded with Alan Lomax. Also features Rich Amerson, and several others. Features the original version of “Wild Ox Moan,” which Vera Hall also did. Also known as “Black Woman.” What a beautiful song, a little field holler. Barely anyone does field hollers anymore. The hard thing is that people have moved away from vocal styles, everyone focuses on instrumental styles if they’re a folk type or singer-songwriter. Field hollers kind of fell away from that. I don’t want to say it’s a strictly black form, but I think the generation of white singers that could do it, like Koerner, Ray & Glover … post-Civil Rights it’s the kind of thing that nobody wants to touch. I do a couple myself. It’s a black ballad tradition that’s really interesting. It requires a cappella singing and in the post-Dylan world, most people don’t know how to sing like that.
I formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops on the idea of Koerner, Ray & Glover. That’s the model we were looking at. I loved their trio, and what they did is they’d do a couple songs all three together, but most was different variations of people in the band. They weren’t structured as a band but were three different individuals that were collectively a group. Especially the original trio. That was something I was really clear about in the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Everyone has their own repertoire and everyone shows off what they’re doing as a collective as well.