NOTE BY NOTE
Confession: I'm a Dom Flemons latecomer.
Missed his stint with The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a groundbreaking old-time trio he formed in 2005 and left in 2013 — a peculiar lapse in my affinity for traditional American forms (and one-time affiliation with such record labels). Thankfully, my obliviousness ended on Prospect Hill (2014), a masterful romp into our country’s roots — the flow of its blood, the fuel of its dreams — that as a student of history I find fascinating.
Retrospective books examine time from a comfortable tweedy distance. Music, however, evokes a people, their ebullience, fears, passions, and language, reviving them in crackling bursts that, in their way, more accurately reflect bygone eras than static paragraphs. Even innocuous numbers speak of vanished fashions and vernaculars in lively terms, extending our overall understanding of the past. Dead-tree verbiage can’t hope to match the exultation of living sound.
Prospect Hill dances deftly in histories and the here-and-now, marrying classic structures to interpretations of forgotten standards and fresh, original compositions. Flemons himself, of course, writes effortlessly in those idioms. As musicological study, it’s a breathless plummet down a fascinating rabbit-hole. We are, after all, discussing an artist/scholar so fluent in our musical languages he could tour Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," as he did live on NPR's Fresh Air in 2014, with only a banjo on his knee and surrender none of the song's vitality.
On Prospect Hill, the (very early) 19th century English nursery rhyme “Polly Put the Kettle On,” itself a patchwork of older, more intercontinental thefts, streams through a decidedly American prism, perhaps as birthed on Appalachian porches. The delightfully sing-song “But They Got It Fixed Right On,” with its ribald evocations of peg-legs and jelly rolls (anyone who laments a lost American innocence conveniently forgets our celebrations of proclivities in coded language; see, also: “It’s a Good Thing,” a cleverly randy rap waxed by Frank Stokes and Dan Sane as the Beale Street Sheiks — that's "sheik" as in Valentino, torrid gigolos amid post-Victorian dunes — in our grandparents' misspent youth), goes at least as far back as Tampa Red nearly 100 years ago.
Frank Loesser’s 1943 work “Have I Stayed Away Too Long?” has survived the country-weeper dressage of Tex Ritter, Jim Reeves, Bobby Bare, and Willie Nelson to be reborn at a faster Flemon shuffle that somehow maintains its initial woebegone spirit. The question still applies. James Davis’ “Georgia Drumbeat,” derived from the late bluesman’s hypnotic pummel once described by Snake-Nation-Press' James Calemine as assaulting systems “like a shot of clear-mountain moonshine at dawn,” moves at a more clear-eyed acoustic pace — only a harmonica replicates the original track’s grit — on Prospect Hill, revealing the composition’s genius, a drop of moonshine, perhaps, in the morning coffee, just enough to elasticize.
Flemons' own contributions seamlessly complement the album’s tone, even in the more folkish “Too Long (I’ve Been Gone),” redolent in '60s Dylan and '70s Croce with a songwriterly nod toward Faron Young’s (by way of Willie) “Hello Walls” (1961). Powered by harmonica, “Marching Up Prospect Hill” moves back-porch feet in any era, as do the rollicking drums and flutes of “Grotto Beat.” Poultry turns illicit (and possibly illegal on most farms) on “Hot Chicken.” There's those darned double-entendres again. We may be doomed to pottymouthed eternity.
Last year, Omnivore Recordings augmented the original album with an additional disc (there was a wax cylinder, too, in case you had one of those players still), branding the 2015 Record Store Day vinyl EP What Got Over to intangible bits (highlight: “Clock on the Wall,” snooting like a mid-20th-century stomper from the juke joint of the mind), plus 11 previously unreleased instrumentals that in part track the album’s development into an untouchable omnibus. We also saw Flemons collaborate with The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band and nstitution-in-the-flesh Steve Cropper on a rollicking faithful ride through Elmore James’ shout-inous “Shake Your Money Maker” (1961), which itself owed plenty, including its central verb, to lexiconl forebears Charley Patton and Bukka White.
That many of these ideas sprawl from a single man, 10 fingers of archival wonder (2018's Grammy-nominated Black Cowboys reveals a new Old West unfamiliar around even more progressive campfires), remains impressive, giving new resonance to silenced voices. Dig, for instance, Buffalo Junction, his 2012 collaboration with Boo Hanks, the last of the Piedmont blues criers, now gone but in no way forgotten. With every release, Flemons' America moves as living daguerreotype, a dive through past and present in a songbook never-ending.
— Cory Frye
With The Carolina Chocolate Drops:
Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind (2006)
The Great Debaters [various-artists soundtrack] (2007)
Carolina Chocolate Drops & Joe Thompson [live, 2008] (2009)
Genuine Negro Jig (2010)
Carolna Chocolate Drops/Luminescent Orchestrii [EP] (2011)
Leaving Eden [EP] (2012)
American Songster (2008)
Prospect Hill (2014)
[reissued as Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus, 2020]
Black Cowboys (2018)
Tampa Red, Vols. 1-15 (1928-1953)
Various Artists, Blues Came to Georgia
CHECK IT OUT
WHAT: “An Evening with Dom Flemons," a performance/conversation webcast hosted by OSU Director of Popular Music and Performing Arts Bob Santelli for Oregon State University's American Strings series.
WHEN: 5 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20
WHERE: Online via Zoom link
HOW MUCH: The event is free, but registration is required. To register, visit https://beav.es/JT3.