By Bradley Alston
Before there were early bluesmen there were songsters. Songsters were often traveling, itinerant musicians who had an ever-expanding musical repertoire that may have included blues but also the songs of the day- reels, hokum, breakdowns, square dance songs, minstrel and vaudeville tunes. Scholars place the start of the songster tradition around 1870 when newly freed African Americans started to travel without restrictions. Dom Flemons is one of the leading performers and scholars of the songster tradition and his third recording, “Prospect Hill-The American Songster Omnibus” is a musical master class on the genre. The 2005 co- founder of the Grammy winning, groundbreaking African American String Band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Flemons left for a solo career in 2010 and never looked back
The attractively designed double disc CD opens with “Til The Seas Run Dry” a time travel back to the New Orleans jazz age of the 1920’s. “But They Got It Fixed Right On” is a springy hokum that was originally written by Georgia Tom Dorsey and Tampa Red. Flemons is joined on the duet by Native American singer-songwriter, activist Pura Fe Crescioni. The hokum genre is defined by its clever use of double entendre. Hokum set the stage for rhythm and blues and “I Can’t Do It Anymore” is a tribute to the early R&B tradition. Flemons wrote the song after years of researching and listening to early rock & roll, country and rhythm and blues vinyl records. Pioneers like Muddy Waters, Hank Ballard and especially Fats Domino are all channeled in the catchy original composition.
Dom Flemons has been a successful traveling musician for over a decade. “Too Long (I’ve Been Gone) is a beautiful Dylanesque meditation on the life of a solo traveling songster. Flemons’ musical trails easily intersect with the artist who have traveled some of the same territory, Guy Davis. The award-winning acoustic blues artist joins the younger Flemons on many of the tracks playing guitar, mandolin, snare drums, harmonica as well as background vocals. His voice blends in seamlessly with Flemons on the “old time” prototypical hip hop tune, “It’s A Good Thing.” The song was discovered by Flemons on a rare 1950’s recording by Will Slayden titled, “African American Banjo Songs from West Tennessee.” Guy Davis returns to narrate the New Orleans/Mardi Gras themed fife and drum fueled romp, “Grotto Beat.” From Louisiana, Flemons venture musically out to the West Coast and pays homage to Jesse Fuller’s timeless standard, “San Francisco Bay Blues” with his own composition, “San Francisco Baby.” Flemons is joined on the tune by renowned saxophonist Brian Horton who add tasteful fills and color. Horton returns for the culinary themed frisky frolic “Hot Chicken” another original that is dedicated to Flemons’ favorite eatery in East Nashville. Another highlight, “My Money Never Runs Out’” features Flemons and Davis performing an interpretation of a classic by Banjo Joe and Blind Blake recorded in 1927 for Paramount Records. Banjo Joe was the stage name for Mississippi-born Gus Cannon. The double CD contains 35 well-crafted songs. It is a fine addition to the discography of the songster tradition and an exciting visit to the creative and busy world of one of today’s important folk blues artist.