Whitewashed from cowboy movies and lore, the African-American contribution to the shaping of the American West was more significant than previously considered, down to tunes black cowboys and laborers sang, which were as familiar as “Home on the Range.”
In researching songs that would become his album Dom Flemons presents Black Cowboys for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the artist learned that musicologist John Lomax recorded the most familiar version of “Home on the Range” from a black cook in San Antonio.
“He transcribes the fellow’s particular way of singing the song and it became the well-known western anthem that we know today,” says Flemons. It was the same with a familiar cattle driving song about a horse, “Goodbye Old Paint.”
The fiddler who Lomax recorded singing that song was white, Flemons says. “But another musician talked about how he learned the song from an ex-slave who worked for his father on the ranch.” It has since been credited to the black cowboy and former slave Charley Willis.
Hearing about the roots of two songs so closely associated with the American West, Flemons says, “started leading me in a musical direction that showed that African-American cowboys were an essential part of the general cowboy song theme.”
From books like Philip Durham’s seminal 1965 The Negro Cowboys, a copy of which he found in his native Arizona, Flemons learned one in four cowboys who helped settle the West were African-Americans, as were some of its biggest personalities, from Nat Love, better known as Deadwood Dick, to Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi, who many believe was the model for The Lone Ranger.
Flemons wrote an original song about the leading black movie cowboy, Bill Pickett. And he found strong connections to other parts of the African-American experience such as the cowboys who became Pullman Porters and in turn became strong figures in the Civil Rights Movement. “I knew I had to tell a story that was a story of the past, but also point people to a direction to show that there are modern black cowboys that are still out there,” Flemons says.
He says he found the right partner to issue his entertaining history in Smithsonian Folkways. Black Cowboys was the first to be issued in the label’s 70th anniversary year and Flemons, the Grammy-winning co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, was featured entertainment when the label marked the milestone with a party at the Smithsonian Castle in early May.
“I started working on this project two years ago, and being able to have it come out on their 70th feels very righteous,” he says, “taking my cues from people like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lead Belly a part of the Folkways catalog for years and years. That’s something that’s been a great honor.”
Black Cowboys is the 11th release in the African American Legacy Recordings series issued in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“We’ve inherited many narratives on how this country came about and what it is, and they’re getting increasingly confusing with the current political climate and the digital sphere in which we work,” says Huib Schippers, director of Smithsonian Folkways. “What we want to do is to create counter narratives to some of the grand narratives that have been told.”