'Black Cowboys' Sheds Light On Overlooked Music Of African-Americans Who Went West

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Dom Flemons. (Courtesy Timothy Duff)
Dom Flemons. (Courtesy Timothy Duff)

"Black Cowboys" is the new album from multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Dom Flemons, a co-founding member of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. But it's more than a collection of songs from the Wild West — the record sheds light on the prominent but often-overlooked role African-American pioneers played in westward expansion.

Here & Now's Eric Westervelt (@Ericnpr) talks with Flemons (@domflemons) about the music's origins and evolution.

Interview Highlights

On the role black cowboys played in westward expansion

"During that period, you have a really unique experience that happened in the African-American community, because this is halfway between where the end of slavery happened, emancipation was gained, and then also there was the Reconstruction era in the South. And you had this movement of African-American people going out West to try to find independent wages outside of the old system of sharecropping, which retained many aspects of slave work. And with that you start finding that all these unique cultures start to bloom, and in the African-American community, you have places like Oklahoma, which has a lot of all-black towns that sprung up between I guess the 1870s to the 1920s."

On how the songs shed light on this sometimes marginalized history

"That first track, for example, 'Black Woman,' sheds a little bit of light on the strength and the power of the women of the West. Just like African-American cowboys, there were African-American women, and then of course women of all sorts of ethnicities, that were out West.

"One of the first books I read on black cowboys and was a book about a black cowboy named Bones Hooks, and he was from the panhandle of Texas. And one of the things that he tried to do in his last years — I guess that was in the 1940s — he wrote a letter to the pioneer society that he was a part of, and he wanted to erect a statue to the frontier women. ... It wasn't until the women came and settled in the West that you started seeing churches and schools and some of the finer things in life that you can really build a society and a civilization. That's when you really start seeing the development."

"After the African-American cowboys were gone, the image of the cowboy was redefined as a white person, and it was about the struggle of a white savior."

Dom Flemons

On connections between black cowboy music and the blues tradition

"The black cowboys, they brought those elements that we would now think of as the blues, and they brought them to cowboy music, and that was something that slowly developed over a long period of time. Because of course, when we think of being out on the range, they didn't have radios or anything. So you just had to make songs up as part of the community, and they would expand, and then they would travel if they were liked well enough. I can't help but see those comparisons to how we now would describe the blues."

On the song "One Dollar Bill," and cultural representations of cowboys

"I really wanted to approach the idea of Hollywood cowboys, and the African-American Hollywood cowboy, and just have a song that was just a real dramatic, cliffhanger-type song where there was action and adventure. There was gunplay, there was a woman that had done a guy wrong and just a lot of the elements that have won the American heart and imagination for more than a century. And I wanted to try to really make it rooted in traditional music and feature aspects of the music, like the East Texas blues songsters, for example, people like Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, Lead Belly, Henry 'Ragtime Texas' Thomas — those are all musicians that have pieces of the cowboy culture within their repertoires, and so I wanted to bring that into focus in addition to the stories that I had read about, so that you could get a good sense of musically where many of these cowboys in the early days were. Because of course, after the trail rides ended, and after the African-American cowboys were gone, the image of the cowboy was redefined as a white person, and it was about the struggle of a white savior. And that's good and fine in and of itself, but it's left a skewed perception of how we think about who was out there on the range, and how diverse it was in the actual old days."

This article was originally published on April 23, 2018.

This segment aired on April 23, 2018.



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