A banjo slung over his shoulder, his right hand swung at the wrist allowing his fingers to effortlessly pick, strum and coax with other means, tinny notes found by the curious fingers of his other hand working the fret, wringing cords, knuckles contorting unnaturally, finger tips nailing the wiry strings. Don Flemons moonlit Shank Hall, treating the modest, fully engaged audience to an old time country blues set fit for both foot stamping and kicking back in a weather worn wooden chair under a shade tree. He opened with his version of Milwaukee Blues.
Pass the Sweet Tea
In an easy conversational manner that endeared the audience to receive him like an old friend, while moving his capo far down the banjo neck, Flemons warned us that he worked really hard to get the tuning for his next number down. Reserved on a line in his tattered set list notes for one of his favorites, he cut into the pleading opening scale of Rabbit Brown’s James Alley Blues. A chill went up the base of my neck raising every hair it touched on the way, when he leaned heavy into the lyrics of the first verse, “Those times ain’t now, nothing like they used to be.” A fitting honor, Living Blues magazine bestowed Flemons the 2013 Most Outstanding Banjo Musician award for his rendition of Brown’s tune of tribulation.
A Gift to Give
Like an old transistor radio, Flemons’ voice carried the presence of many songsters past, many gone for a century. Hid did Franks Stokes, tinged with a character giving southern drawl. In other rips, he cleared the air with crisp tenors of John Estes. Flemons’ even reached high pitched yodels seeking something to the effect of Mike Johnson’s soul.
Dubbing himself a ‘vocal contortionist’, Flemons admittedly attempts to capture the tonal qualities of the original authors. This description should leave you more settled than to say Flemons radiates as a spiritual medium to the hard lives of Ragtime and Depression Era Americana. Lost to our contemporary consciousness, the only trace of their musical existence lays fossilized in gritty phonograph recordings pressed in wax, and cracked gray scale photographs, and in a dying generation of blues musicians, Flemons one of their few native sons.
More than his Music
Listening to old time folk and blues gives the ear a taste of the rhythm of the times, the other part, in the musics essence the byproduct of entertaining. Flemons embodied his appreciation of the intangible elements of old time blues players, spending a few moments between each leg of his musical monologue on old tall tales and comedic bits, explaining the gamut of son topics from ‘happiness and heartache’ to ‘hokum’.
With mechanical certainty, he stood straight, swaying his head side to side between conversational pauses, eyes shifting as if his mind beat one step ahead of his strumming hands. He interrupted songs, to urge his personified banjo to keep playing. He swung his banjo buddy high, low and all around displaying his tingling prowess, playing with unorthodox bodily extremities, still on key and in rhythm.
Deep Blues Maker
Back then making instruments sometimes made do for having nothing else to accompany the banjo or guitar, or having any instruments at all. Most know of the washboard, spoons, maybe even ham bone, and of course the harmonica. Flemons, immersed in the blues traditions, naturally came equipped with a harmonica, blowing through it fluidly. Playing a hold card, Flemons broke out a well improvised flute know as the quills, a lyre-esque doohickey giving off a hollow breathy whistle.
His ace in the hole, hands down, came in the form of four polished portions of cow ribs, known as the Bones. A pair sandwiching the middle finger, clasped loosely in each hand, when shaken vigorously, they smack together making a crisp clacking sound; tempo exceeding castanets. Flemons flapped, waved and punched his way through an incredible one man bones duet with his harmonica providing the melody.
Memorable for the sake of Memories
A fairly young man, Flemons shared stories of spending time with some of the great depression era country and blues musicians still living. He’s impressed upon so many from the blues community that he’s been featured at the Black Banjo Gathering in Lexington, KY, the Mt. Airy Fiddlers Convention and on a PBS Art Beat special. Dom Flemons is also know for his founding contributions to the greatness that is the Carolina Chocolate Drops. His his latest solo work includes a collaboration with Boo Hanks entitled Buffalo Junction and American Songster.
Good writing here too man – Milwaukee staying live. I would love to see this cat, have you had a chance to lend an ear to his albums yet? I might have to busk an hour to scrounge of 15 bucks and order me one!
Definitely should check him out, he was touring the midwest, might want to check his website… Haven’t heard the CD, might pick it up too!