The rising tide of Black representation in (Mainstream) American roots music has resulted, to no inconsiderable extent, from the efforts of Dominique “Dom” Flemons and his colleagues in the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an exceptional band founded in Durham, North Carolina back in 2005.
Flemons’ departure from the group in 2013 initiated what appears to have been the group’s final dissolution over the subsequent couple of years, but all involved have gone on to notable solo careers, and occasional cross-brand collaborations, while their six studio albums remain popular today, a decade after the last one was released.
Flemons, who’ll be performing a sold-out show at the Waterworks in St. Augustine on Saturday night, June 17, is actually the second former member of that band to perform in the area this year; his fellow co-founder, the brilliant Rhiannon Giddens, played as part of the Fort Mose Jazz and Blues Series on February 18. Opening for Flemons will be Bad Dog Mama, a beloved duo act in the St. Augustine scene, comprised of Chelsea Saddler (vocals/guitar) and Lauren Gilliam (vocals/bass), each of whom are also active as solo artists.
Flemons sings, and is mostly self-taught, having developed notable proficiency on guitar, harmonica, banjo and drums, as well as more esoteric tools like jug, pan flute, quills, fife and rhythm bones (which are exactly what they sound like). His specialty is the Piedmont Blues, which refers to a unique guitar style where your thumb is playing bass notes while the others are playing the melody. I am no expert, by any means, so I reached out to someone who is: Mitch Hemann, himself a skilled blues musician and a former archivist for the Jacksonville Historical Society, in which capacity he played a crucial role in helping with the #Jax200 celebrations in 2022. He is currently doing similar work at The Ritz Theatre and Museum, a building whose own provenance is actually of direct relevance to the very subject we are discussing right now.
“There are many subgenres of the Blues,” he says, “and they can be identified both by sound and geography. Of course, like any other artform, styles can influence and bleed into one another. The Piedmont Blues style has its foothold in the American southeast, and gets its name from the Piedmont plateau region where it was developed. This area stretches from Virginia to Georgia. Nestled among the Appalachian plateau, the Blue Ridge mountains, and the Gullah Geechee corridor in the low country, the style is a culmination of influences from all sides. Borrowing heavily from Ragtime, what differentiates Piedmont from styles like Delta Blues is the way the guitar is played. The instrument is finger-picked with an alternating bass line played with the thumb that accompanies a syncopated melody played by the other fingers on the treble strings. To the uninitiated, this is a fancy way of saying that the guitar is played more like a piano, which gives Piedmont its unique sound.”
Hemann continues: “Piedmont and Ragtime had a much greater influence on Jacksonville and Northeast Florida than any other style of Blues. Because of the river, and later the railroad, Jacksonville became a cultural exchange partner with other parts of the country. By the early part of the 20th Century, Jacksonville’s LaVilla neighborhood was on par with cities like New Orleans and Atlanta in terms of their contributions to American music. Blind Blake, the King of Ragime Guitar, was one of the most seminal figures in creating this music, and he lived right here in areas like LaVilla, Brooklyn and Hansontown. Originally from Virginia, he brought that Piedmont sound with him, and went on to record 80 songs for Paramount Records in Chicago. He traveled regularly to the north by train via the Jacksonville Terminal in LaVilla.”
Flemons put out three solo albums while still in the band, starting with Dance Tunes, Ballads & Blues, released by CD Baby (which just recently announced they are no longer distributing physical product) in 2007. He’s also recorded for Music Maker, Fat Possum, Fledg’ling Records and the iconic Smithsonian Folkways, which put out Flemons’ excellent sixth album, Black Cowboys, in 2018. It’s the kind of album that young Black kids will ponder with curiosity at public libraries, and whoever actually borrows it first will be initiated into a whole new discipline. That’s probably happening already. He’s also recorded and performed with artists like Joe Thompson, Tom Rush, The Chieftains, Taj Mahal, Luminescent Orchestrii, Eden and John’s East River String Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, Loudon Wainwright III and the Cincinnati Pops.
Flemons’ latest is 2023’s Traveling Wildfire, also on Smithsonian Folkways.
“There’s an additional local connection to Flemons’ work that I don’t think everybody realizes,” adds Hemann. “On his 2018 album Black Cowboys, Flemons pays tribute to the celebrated Black cowboy and rodeo performer Bill Pickett. During his career, Pickett starred in two films produced by local filmmaker Richard Norman, whose home base was in Jacksonville. Norman Studios still stands today in the Arlington neighborhood.”
Being an English major and a former competitive slam-poet, Flemons’ flair for banter stands out, even within a genre known for its gifted storytellers. He provides a real educational service to his fans, allowing them a starting point from which to begin their broader explorations of the music and its history. For those already familiar, Dom Flemons’ place in that legacy is made increasingly clear, year after year, at show after show, including the one here.
The Flemons show is just one of several Juneteenth themed events planned for America’s Oldest City. Florida Soul author John Capouya lectures on “Respect: Soul Music and the Civil Rights Movement” at the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center (102 Martin Luther King Avenue) on Thursday, June 15 at 4pm. Smooth jazz saxophonist Marcus Click plays in the same venue at 7pm that day. The Mahøgånëë Xperīence takes place on Friday, June 16 at 7pm, led by the Geechee Gullah Lowcountry singer, artist, poet, who has crafted a sound that effectively weaves the disparate threads of musical styles from across the African Diaspora. Sunday, June 18 sees a local legend, jazz trumpeter and FAMU professor Longineu Parsons, returning to St. Augustine as part of the Heritage Luncheon at the LMCC at 11:30am. His program will also include a tribute to Dr. Dorothy Israel, one of the true unsung heroes of the Lincolnville community. The museum has also opened a new exhibit focusing on the infamous Green Book that guided Black motorists to safety through the segregated south.