Singer-songwriter Dom Flemons’ newest album, Black Cowboys, takes a rarely seen look into a nearly lost piece American history. Its 18 tracks are a mix of originals, traditional folk tunes, and many seldom-heard songs that chronicle the role played by African-Americans in settling the West after emancipation in the 19th century. Flemons’ is a fifth-generation Arizonan and a former Flagstaff resident, and tomorrow he returns as one of the headliners at Pickin’ in the Pines. For the latest installment of KNAU’s series Eats and Beats, I had a chance to talk with Flemons about the very personal genesis of Black Cowboys.
Dom Flemons: I came across a book called “The Negro Cowboys” that talked about how one in four cowboys who helped settle the West were African-American cowboys. And being an African-American person that’s half African-American, half Mexican-American from the Southwest, I just found that to be a fascinating story. It really gave me a sense that there’s a bigger story that needs to be told about black cowboys and African-American pioneers of the West. You have people coming from slavery and emancipation and then through their hard work and perseverance in spite of the obstacles they had they were able to create a new social order that still influences us to this day.
DF: Bones Hooks was one of the first African-Americans to settle in Amarillo, Texas, and he made the first black community out there. And at first he was born into slavery and then he moved off the plantation after emancipation. And by being one of settlers out West, he was able to create friendships and relationships with the people out there to where he was able to do things that in segregated times black people weren’t allowed to do, and that included walking through front doors and being able to speak his mind freely.
DF: Those stories were so powerful of themselves, but then they also sort of informed my own family’s history, because my grandfather, the Rev. Raymond Flemons, he was a sawmill worker who came from east Texas and after the Second World War where he served in the Army, he became a preacher, and then he worked in Holbrook, Winslow, and Williams and McNary, which is now the Diné reservation. And I was able to see in a lot of these cowboy stories, a lot of my family’s history and my grandpa’s history even though I’d never really talked to him about it. So I found there was just a really big piece of the history of African-American culture out West.
DF: We’re now learning more about this history because we are living in a time in which people of color and specifically African-American descent can be lifted up to the level to where they can be talked about as a first-class citizen, even though way back and even up until very recent times that was not the case and that was never something that was on the table. Western culture has always been multi-faceted and multi-ethnic just by the nature of the Westward Expansion. The American identity has been in flux in a really big way, and this album is just kind of meant to be something that, I wouldn’t say takes a neutral position, but it’s definitely coming at it in a non-divisive way, so that people can understand that we’re all in this together and that’s part of the way that makes the West in particular work is that we all got to be in this together.