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The Fresh Air Interview
Wed July 30, 2014
Dom Flemons Holds On To Those Old-Time Roots
Originally published on Thu July 31, 2014 11:39 am
From his vintage hat to his enormous 1920s banjo, Dom Flemons looks like he's time-traveled from a different era.
Flemons was in Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Grammy-winning group that's extended the tradition of African-American string bands of the 1920s and '30s. His new solo album, Prospect Hill, is his first since leaving the group. Flemons sings and plays guitar, banjo, bones, harmonica, fife and jug. The album reflects his interest in old-time music, blues, early jazz and R&B, and also includes a couple of original songs. Flemons grew up in Arizona, and now lives in North Carolina.
By coincidence, Flemons recorded the album the day legendary folksinger Pete Seeger died. Seeger had a major influence on Flemons and was one of the reasons he was drawn to play the banjo. Despite the sad circumstances, they enjoyed playing in remembrance of him. "That's the thing about the blues, and string-band music is the same way — it grabs to a root and it brings you out of whatever spot [you're in]," he tells host Terry Gross. "Then you can project out that energy through the songs — and it was joyful."
Flemons recently joined Fresh Air in the studio to play songs from Prospect Hill and discuss what he loves about old-time music.
On the music that inspired him to play in an old-time acoustic style
"It started out with my interest in oldies, like doo-wop, '60s rock, '60s pop music, '50s rock 'n' roll... I just started pushing toward these styles that weren't particularly contemporary at the time. I also listened to other stuff like Green Day when they first came out, or Sublime and groups like that.
"But acoustic music at that time, there wasn't a whole bunch of it, unless a rock singer decided to do an acoustic-y ballad number or something like that, or adult-contemporary acoustic music. So when I heard Bob Dylan's first record, the self-titled Bob Dylan one, that really blew my mind. It made me think about guitar and harmonica, so I started doing that. I started learning everything that I could hear on the radio."
On his musical background
"I was doing a lot of busking. I played for a while in a group called The Wild Whiskey Boys, and so I played harmonica in that group, but it was always guitar, banjo and harmonica. And that was all I played until I came to North Carolina, and then I started playing the bones and the quills and the bass drum, snare drum, all the drums — I played that in school, so that was my actual formal training. I was in marching band with bass drum, and then I played auxiliary percussion from tympani all the way down to suspended cymbal to triangles and all that stuff. So [I got] a good sense of not just the main rhythm, but what the auxiliary rhythm that you put on top of the main rhythm was."
On doing imitations of performers when he sings their songs
"The idea that I had in my 16-year-old mind is that I'd hear these songs, and no one else knew what these songs were, so I'd try my best to replicate them so that people would get a sense of the song as it was performed by the original performer. At that time, I didn't feel like I had any interesting stories. After being in the business for about 15 years, just about now, I have some stories of my own. But at first, I didn't really have stories, so I would tell other people's stories."
On his large and tricked-out banjo
"It's an 18-inch head on here, and usually most banjos you see are maybe an 11-inch head in diameter. It has a very fancy pick guard, a very extravagant inlay, because this was actually made in Philadelphia; there's a small guitar-making studio that made this banjo. It has lights that you could clip onto the truss rod so that you can heat the head of the banjo, in case it happens to be a hot day and the skin gets moist and soggy, to dry it out... If there was more [humidity], the skin would start to sink down and the notes would start to sound kind of mushy... This was made circa 1924, and so this is an old vintage instrument that is one of a kind. And I'm really glad to be the owner of it."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GROSS: Well, that got my attention - when I first played Dom Flemon's new album, "Prospect Hill." It's his first album since leaving the Carolina Chocolate Drops - a Grammy award-winning group extending the tradition of African-American string bands of the 1920s and '30s. Flemons sings and plays guitar, banjo, bones, harmonica, fife and jug. His new solo album reflects his interest in old-timey music, blues, early jazz, and rhythm and blues.
The album also includes a couple of original songs. Flemons grew up in Arkansas and now lives in North Carolina. He's brought several of his instruments with him and is going to perform some songs for us. Dom Flemons, welcome to FRESH AIR.
DON FLEMONS: Oh, it's a pleasure. Thank you for having me again, Terry.
GROSS: I want to start by asking you to play a song and it's a song that's on your new album. The song is called "My Money Never Runs Out." Tell us a little bit about the song for you play it.
FLEMONS: Well, "My Money Never Runs Out" - it was originally recorded by a fellow by the name of Gus Cannon, who went by the name of Banjo Joe. He was a black banjo player and a songster, and he also was a fellow who performed in blackface. So he was a black fellow who played in blackface. And so he had a very unique repertoire that reflected the popular music of the 1890s into the first World War.
GROSS: Some people wouldn't touch music that had anything to do with blackface.
FLEMONS: Well, you know, Gus Cannon's music is very interesting in the way that he was part of that generation that retained a lot of the same repertoire. But they took out words like coon and, you know, of course the N-word and darkey. And they took all those particular words out of the songs, even though they retained the musical material. So Gus Cannon was part of that and he was kind of like in the - kind of like the lower rungs of the music industry, compared to people like Bert Williams, who were on the top rungs.
GROSS: So do the song for us. It's called "My Money Never Runs Out" - oh, well, after it's over, I'll ask you to tell us about the banjo you're playing on (laughing).
FLEMONS: Oh, sure thing. Here's a little bit of "My Money Never Runs Out." (Singing) Now there's a flirtin' yellow joker living around this town. He's just as lazy as a lazy can be. As long as they flirt boys, he hangs around, I love my hops, says he. Early one morning this joker ran away, to roam the world was said. I believe I'll go back to bed. Man, I give up my head, I don't care if I never wake up. Yes, I don't care if I never wake up 'til the birds is through with me. Now I'm coming around here with my big Ford, going to run them up a tree. Nothing like living like a money king, I drink from a silver cup. I eat pork and pears, I eat out of (unintelligible), I don't care if I never wake up. Yes, yes. Now if my money boys was stacked high, I believe my soul would touch the sky. I polish people in the diamond dust man, I don't care with this banjo base because my money don't never run out. You rich fools you are making me shout every good evening this sweet old toast I shout. Yes, I'm livin' a good old time. Don't take no beer and no cheap wine. And I always (unintelligible) because my money don't never run out.
GROSS: That's Dom Flemons performing in our studio. And he does that song on his new album, which is called "Prospect Hill." It is so much fun to hear that and so educational to hear it too. So I'm going to ask you to pick the banjo back up and tell us about it. And was the style that you were playing a style that Gus Cannon originated?
FLEMONS: Well, this style I was playing in is my own adaptation of Gus Cannon's style. See, he played with a five-string banjo. And when I started playing, I started with four strings. I had a good friend of mine who passed me a five-string banjo that he had taken the fifth string out of. So I learned how to play all the songs I knew on guitar on the banjo. So, you know, I used to play songs like this, a song like "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard" by Paul Simon. So, you know, I'd do it more frantic in like a - (singing) Well, mama pajama rolled out of bed and she went to the police station. Papa found out and began to shout and he started the investigation. It was against the law, it was against the law. What the mama saw was against the law. And momma turned around and spit on the ground every time my name gets mentioned. Papa said oy, if I get that boy, I'm going to stick him in the house detention. Well, I'm on my way. I don't know where I'm going. I'm on my way. I'm taking my time, but I don't know where. Goodbye to Rosie, the Queen of Corona, seeing me and Julio down by the schoolyard. Seeing me and Julio down by the schoolyard.
GROSS: That's really great. That's so much fun. So that's how you learned to play banjo, by adapting, like, rock songs and stuff like that?
FLEMONS: Oh yeah. I used to take all sorts of different stuff and I'd experiment on the banjo or the guitar. And then I found out about open d tuning, open g tuning on the guitar. And I found that I could take different techniques I learned on the banjo and put them on the guitar. And then I worked them the other way round, taking stuff on the guitar onto the banjo. And that gave me - it gave me my own sort of way of looking at the material so when I got into old-timey music, a lot of the stuff is based on those same sort of notes and cord shapes and stuff like that. So I began to form my own style based on that.
GROSS: So what first got you interested in the kind of music that you're playing now, which is music of the '20s and the '30s - and music - as if it was from the '20s and '30s - playing more contemporary things in the manner of the '20s and '30s?
FLEMONS: Well, I mean, it started out with my interest in oldies and...
GROSS: By oldies, you mean like doo-wop and stuff?
FLEMONS: Doo-Wop, '60s rock, '60s pop music, '50s rock 'n roll. I also really loved a lot of documentaries. And so I watched a lot about these different styles of music.
GROSS: So you were already out of your period.
FLEMONS: Yeah. And just when I started, I was...
GROSS: Because you're what, in your thirties?
FLEMONS: Yeah, I'm 31 this year.
GROSS: Oh, OK
FLEMONS: Yeah, I just started pushing - pushing toward these styles that weren't particularly contemporary at the time. I also listened to other stuff like - I listened to like Green Day when they first came out or Sublime and, you know, just kind of groups like that. But acoustic music at that time, there just wasn't a whole bunch of it, unless like a rock singer decided to do an acousticy ballad number, something like that, or adult contemporary acoustic music. And so when I heard Bob Dylan's first record, the self-titled, it blew my mind. Made me think about guitar and harmonica, so I started doing that. I started learning, you know, everything I could hear on the radio. I'm also a curious enough person - so when I got into records, I'd see these greatest hits albums of these doo-wop groups. And I just would look up each of the groups. I'd look up - who were The Spaniels? What sort of songs do they do? And yeah, I just - I'm just a sort of studious sort of person that's into that sort of stuff so, I just was doing that for four or five years. I was busking out on the streets. I was playing at the folk coffee houses in Phoenix and I was going to college in Flagstaff. And so I just always kept all that stuff going. So when I went to the Black Banjo Gathering, I had all this knowledge in my head about how different types of...
GROSS: The Black Banjo Gathering.
GROSS: And that is?
FLEMONS: That was - that was an event in Boone, North Carolina, in 2005. And that was where I met Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson and we started the Carolina Chocolate Drops after that. And so that was, you know, at that time I was just making up a style of playing music. And so then I had another transition point, where - when I move to the South, I learned a whole bunch more about Southern music. I started to work with the Music Maker Relief Foundation and I got to learn about why the music sounds the way it does. And so I learned those sort of little lessons in my own heart. And so over time, I've tried to develop my own style.
GROSS: And you have.
FLEMONS: I appreciate it, Terry.
GROSS: And it's a very eclectic style. So if you're just joining us, my guest is musician and singer and songwriter Dom Flemons. And he used to be with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but he's now solo and he's performing a lot of music from the '20s and '30s and onward. And his new album is called "Prospect Hill." Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more and Don Flemons will perform more for us. This is FRESH AIR.
FLEMONS: Oh, the funny thing that I found was that he didn't write it.
GROSS: No, I couldn't believe it when I read who wrote it, when I looked more carefully. Frank Loesser wrote it. And he wrote "Guys And Dolls," and...
GROSS: You didn't know that?
FLEMONS: No. See, I saw the name, and I recognized it. But I just assumed he was, like, one of the major, Nashville, country guys.
GROSS: Oh, no.
FLEMONS: Oh, he wrote "Guys And Dolls"?
GROSS: He wrote the musicals "Guys And Dolls," "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying." He wrote a beautiful, almost, like, opera, which is called "Most Happy Fella." He wrote "Baby It's Cold Outside" and a gazillion songs. So - anyways - why don't we play the song your style? And then we'll talk a little bit more about it.
FLEMONS: All right. Well, here we go with "Have I Stayed Away Too Long?"
(Singing) Have I stayed away too long? Have I stayed away too long? Now, if I came home tonight, would you still be my darling? Or have I stayed away too long? Long-distance out of town, call me the worry lad. Maybe I don't want to hurry back. Now, I'd just stay out of town, worry you no more. I know you found someone else to make you care. Now, all my dreams have gone wrong. My beautiful dreams have gone wrong. Now, if I came home tonight, would you still be my darlin'? Or have I stayed away too long?
GROSS: So that's my guest Dom Flemons, performing in our studio. And he does that song also on his new album, which is called "Prospect Hill." When we left off, right before you started playing that song, we were talking about how it was written by Frank Loesser. And you said you'd assumed he was one of the Nashville songwriters. And, in fact, Tex Ritter, I think, had a hit with the song. But I went on iTunes to see who else recorded it. Perry Como recorded it. (Laughing) So I listened to a little of the Perry Como version. It's like 180 degrees different from what you did. It's like a slow ballad and, you know, kind of middle-of-the-road.
FLEMONS: Yeah. Well, you know, it's funny 'cause the first version I heard was the one on the Blind James Campbell record. And I had no idea that it was - it was recorded by anybody else. And so as I was putting the publishing together on the record - you know, you have to get the songwriter's name and everything - then I started finding out all the other versions that had been done of it. And it's really different, what Blind James Campbell - and then for me, hearing it, I tried to put a Hank Williams or a honky-tonk sort of flavor onto it - or even also like a Big Joe Turner, that sort of a feel on the song. So that's such a - spins around in a whole bunch of different circles.
GROSS: So you sing a lot of songs that you've learned over the years. You collect songs as well as recordings.
FLEMONS: Oh, yes.
GROSS: And you, I'm sure, know a gazillion songs. But you write songs as well. And you wrote a song that really sounds like almost an answer song to the song that you just did. The song you just did asks the question, have I stayed away too long? And the song that you wrote is called, "Too Long I've Been Gone," as if answering the question. Yep, I have stayed away too long. Would you do an excerpt of that song for us, and maybe tell us what inspired the song? Did the song we just heard inspired this song?
FLEMONS: Oh, no. This song was - I wrote "Too Long I've Been Gone" about a year and a half ago. I was just sitting in the hotel room one day, and I just started musing on the idea of when you're traveling a bunch, how lonesome you can get just for - you know, the same thing - Paul Simon did the same thing in, you know...(Singing) Every day is an endless stream of cigarettes and magazines - on "Homeward Bound." It was kind of a song like that. I tried to reach into - make a folk song that would be, you know - that would be a nice little message in there. I didn't want to get too deep on it. Like, this whole album was an exercise for me to cut back on any excess things I was doing. And for "Too Long I've Been Gone," I had about two more verses. But I cut all of them out because I felt like it told the whole story. So I'll play little bit of this one here.
GROSS: Thank You.
FLEMONS: (Singing) Don't need no cup of coffee in the morning. I can get up fine. I can get up fine. Delia is a pretty girl. But she ain't mine - but she ain't mine. Take a little trip to the station, I'm bound to go. I'm bound to go. When I'll see my love again I do not know. I do not know. Too long, too long I've been gone. Four white walls and a worried mind - that's all I have. That's all. That's all. And when I need someone to talk to, I just say, hello, wall. Too long, too long I've been gone.
GROSS: Nice. Thank you. And that is Dom Flemons singing a song that he also does on his new album. The album is called "Prospect Hill." And today he's performing for us in our studio. So the song you just sang, which you wrote, has a very kind of folk sense to it. You were in college in Arizona. You grew up in Arizona. You were in college in Arizona when you started getting into folk music. But you used to play in rock 'n roll bands, right?
FLEMONS: No, I never really played in rock 'n roll bands. I always played solo.
GROSS: Oh, so you were, like, doing a lot of busking?
FLEMONS: I was doing a lot of busking. I'd play solo. I played for a while in a group called the Wild Whiskey Boys. And so I played harmonica in that group. But it was always guitar, banjo and harmonica. And that was all I played until I came to North Carolina. And then I started playing the bones and the quills - oh, and the bass drum, snare drum, all the drums. I played that in school, so that was like my actual formal training. So...
GROSS: Were you in marching band in school?
FLEMONS: Yeah, I was in marching band with bass drum. And then I was - I played, like, auxiliary percussion. I played all the different - from timpani all the way down to suspended cymbal, triangles and all of that stuff - so a good sense of not just the main rhythm but what the auxiliary rhythm that you put on top of the main rhythm was. And that was something that I didn't think about until later - like ideas of syncopation, you know, sort of subdividing rhythms and things like that. Those were all things that I just naturally had inherent within my own musical education.
GROSS: Did you learn to love marches, being in marching band?
FLEMONS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Like, another old song I got to thinking about - a song like "Workin' At The Car Wash Blues" by Jim Croce. Like, this is the story of stuff I used to do. So, like, when Jim Croce does it, he does...
(Singing) Well, I just got out of the county prison, doing 90 days for non-support. Trying to get me an executive position, but no matter how smooth I talk, they wouldn't listen to the fact that I was a genius.
So that's that style. But if I wanted to change into, like, a gospel - a quartet number, I'd do, you know...
(Singing) Well, I just got out of the county prison, doing 90 days for non-support. Trying to get me an executive position, but no matter how smooth I talk they wouldn't listen to the fact that I was a genius. Man say, we got all that we can use. Got them steadily depressing, lowdown mind messing, workin' at the car wash blues.
So I used to do that. I used to take all the styles that weren't the styles of the original artist, and I used to just do that. You know, and I would just - you know, and just for my own amusement I would do this sort of stuff all the time. So when I started getting into performing and reinterpreting traditional material, I tried to find material that wasn't the well-known material - 'cause everybody's done a Robert Johnson number. And it's really hard to reinterpret that stuff because it's just so well-worn. I just tried to find people like, you know, that interested me - like Henry Thomas, or Papa Charlie Jackson, Lead Belly, Charley Patton - where there was a little bit of room to interpret their music so that I could learn it my own way. And then I could try to figure out how to put my own stamp on it. You know, that's the thing that every songster does.
GROSS: Dom Flemons will be back in the second half of the show and perform more songs for us. Here's a track from his new album "Prospect Hill." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLLY PUT THE KETTLE ON")
FLEMONS: (Singing) Oh, little Susie, how I love you. Nothing in the world can make me snug you. Polly, put the kettle on, kettle on, kettle on. Polly, put the kettle on. Boil the tea 'cause bread and butter's good enough, good enough for anybody. Bread and butter's good enough, good enough for me.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Dom Flemons. He was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band extending the tradition of African-American string bands. He recently left the group and has just released his first solo album called "Prospect Hill." It reflects his interest in old-timey music, blues and early jazz. He plays guitar, banjo, harmonica, bones, jug and fife and has brought some of his instruments to the studio. I was wondering if I could ask you to perform an excerpt of one of the songs that first got you interested either in folk music, or in music of the '20s and '30s.
FLEMONS: Well, one of the things that really got me interested in a lot of the old music was a documentary called the "History Of Rock & Roll." And they had an episode about the folk revival.
GROSS: Was this the PBS series?
FLEMONS: Yes it was. When I was watching that documentary, one of the first country-blues musicians I got interested - they had a little clip of him - and it was Lightnin' Hopkins doing the song "Mojo Hand." I just love the sound of his (singing) I'm going to Louisiana. I'm going to get me a mojo hand. I'm going to Louisiana. I'm going to give me a mojo hand. I'm going to fix my woman so she can't have no other man.
And I love that intro. (Singing) that's what I'm going to do (laughing.)
GROSS: So, you know, I can hear that you can - you're almost trying to, like, channel the performers that you do and get their voice as well as their guitar style down. I guess if you have a really good ear, it's easier to do that, to really also copy somebody's voice. Like if you have really good pitch, you can get somebody's voice better. You were telling me earlier before we started the broadcast that when you were performing solo early in your career, you would do imitations...
FLEMONS: Oh yeah, yeah (laughing).
GROSS: ...Of performers.
FLEMONS: Yeah, well, the idea that I had in my 16-year-old mind is that - see I would hear the songs and no one else knew what these songs were, so I tried my best to replicate them so that people would get a sense of the song as it was performed by the original performer. At that time, I didn't feel like I had any interesting stories. After being in the business now for 15 years just about now, I have some stories of my own. But at first, I didn't really have stories. So I would tell other people's stories and then, you know, I'd do like - let's see, (laughing) I'll do a funny one of - I used to do Nashville skyline Bob Dylan. I used to do - you know most people know him as - with this voice - (singing) go away from my window, leave at your own chosen speed. You know, but in national skyline he started singing like - (singing) Peggy day stole my poor heart away. By golly, what more can I say? Love to spend the night with Peggy Day.
FLEMONS: I used to do that.
FLEMONS: When I was 18, I got to see Dave Van Ronk and I heard him do this song... (MUSIC)
FLEMONS: And especially with Llewyn Davis coming out now, people know a little bit more about David Van Ronk, which is a really beautiful to me.
(Singing) Well, listen here pretty Papa, please get out of my sight. I'm calling it quits now, right from this very night. You've had your day. Don't stand around. You're being a good old wagon daddy, but you done broke down.
GROSS: But you were telling me though that you also did Van Morrison.
FLEMONS: Let's see. (Singing) Half a mile from the county fair and the rain came pouring down. Me and Billy standing there with a silver half a crown. Hands are full of fishin' rod and the tackle on our back. We just stood there getting wet, with our backs against the fence.
And if I wanted to sing it like Van Morrison now - (singing) oh, in the water. Oh, the water, (unintelligble).
FLEMONS: You know, and I'd do things like that or, you know...
GROSS: Did you ever have a hard time figuring out but who is Dom Flemons?
FLEMONS: I thought about it every once in a while. And I wrote songs at first. The first five or six years I performed, on top of doing other people's songs, I did my own songs too. But I got into a spot where I just really felt like doing songs that I liked playing. I just didn't feel like writing songs anymore. I just felt like oh, gosh. I'm not as good of a songwriter as, like, the great songwriters that I had listened to. So I just focused on styles and then for this one, I decided to creep a little bit of songwriting back into it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dom Flemons. He used to be a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band that was reviving the African-American string band tradition. But he's recently gone solo and he has a new solo album, which is called "Prospect Hill." Let's take a short break and we'll hear Dom Flemons perform some more. This is FRESH AIR.
FLEMONS: Well, you know, I just - I just realized I'm going to start calling it Big Head Joe.
FLEMONS: Because someone was - someone was sitting in an audience at show they just kept saying that's such a big head on that banjo. That's such a big head on that banjo. And I've been trying think of name, so Big Head Joe I think, is a good name.
GROSS: That's very good. Would you describe it's size and how it compares to a regular banjos?
FLEMONS: Well, it's an 18-inch head on here. Usually most banjos you see are maybe 11-inch heads in diameter. It has a very fancy pick guard, a very extravagant inlay because this actually a - this was actually made in Philadelphia. There was a small guitar making studio that made this banjo. It's called the Clef Club brand banjo. I picked it up at the pick Retrofret guitar shop in Brooklyn and they couldn't find anything to link the Clef Club brand with the Clef Club Orchestra, which was James Reese Europe's orchestra. But you know, I'm taking a little bit of historical liberty by saying if there's the Cleft Club brand of banjo, and this is a big banjo like you'd have in a banjo orchestra, I feel like it's a least a knockoff banjo that a professional musician had made for him. Because it as a really fancy pick guard. It has a little holder your flatpick. It came with the capo. It had lights that you could clip onto the truss rod so that you can heat the head of the banjo, in case it happens to be a hot day and the skin gets moist and soggy. It has, you know, it has these little custom lights so you can just plug them in there.
GROSS: What, to dry it out?
FLEMONS: Yeah, just to dry it out so that it can, you know, you see right now?
FLEMONS: There's not too much humidity, but if there was - if there was more of it, the skin would start to sink down and the notes would start to sound kind of mushy. And so I found out that that was another thing that they had. They had little lights for professional banjo players. They either have a little foot switch or they plugged it in or whatever it was because it doesn't take a lot. You just have to put a little heat on it and then the banjo is good to go.
GROSS: So when was this first made?
FLEMONS: This was made - they have it written down as circa 1924. And so this is an old, vintage instrument here that's just one-of-a-kind and I'm really glad to be the owner of it.
GROSS: And it's much deeper sounding than a regular banjo.
FLEMONS: Oh yeah. Well, you know, for example here, a song that I've played for quite a few years was "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine" which is a Papa Charlie Jackson number. But on this banjo, it sounds - this is a little bit more how Papa Charlie played it - and I'll sing it more like Papa Charlie too. (Singing) I'm going to tell you about my baby. Well, I can't tell you everything about my baby. It wouldn't be possible to tell you everything - it wouldn't be possible to tell you everything. Everybody talking about the sweetie nowadays, I've got the one with the sweetest ways. Your baby may roll her jelly fine, nobody's baby can roll it like mine. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She make her jelly roll all the time. And when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby know just what to do. Yes sir, she even calls me honey. She even let me spend her money. Never has a baby put me outdoors, she even buys me all my clothes. I don't want to brag, I want to put you in line. Your baby ain't sweet like mine, oh no. Your baby ain't sweet like mine.
GROSS: That's great (laughing).
FLEMONS: And so just for comparison sake, I would play it on the regular guitar - I would play the same thing. Even between guitar-banjo - (singing) everybody talking about the sweetie nowadays, I got the one with the sweetest ways.
See, it even has a completely different tone...
FLEMONS: ...if I play it on this regular guitar. And that's always been the appeal of those instruments is that you can - it's tuned like a guitar and it plays like a guitar, but it has a banjo quality to it.
GROSS: Oh, I didn't realize that.
GROSS: And the big banjos tune like a guitar?
FLEMONS: Yeah, this one's tuned exactly like a guitar. And see, so they sell - they sell smaller ones usually, like Deering, Gold Tone - all of them have their own versions of their - of a six-string banjo. Rod Stewart did it on - when he was doing the "Standards" album, he really popularized the six-string. Johnny St. Cyr, who played with Louis Armstrong, he played a six-string. Danny Barker, the New Orleans player - it was really a New Orleansy instrument - the main proponents of it - that and Papa Charlie Jackson, who was another New Orleans guy - they played six-string banjo. But it kind of - once - oncethey electrified guitars, it really put the nail in the coffin on the six-string banjo because sound wise, it's not particularly a great instrument. Since this one's so big, it has a really great resonant tone, but smaller ones generally have bad intonation and they're all, like, very midrangey sort of instruments. So in terms of recorded music, it tends to be a very hard instrument to record. So once they realized they could just - you have parlor guitars and electric guitars, they just dropped the six-string banjo altogether.
GROSS: So an advantage of banjo before electrification was that it would cut through a little better.
FLEMONS: Yeah. It's like six-strings and, like, resonators. Those are like the two types of big, big amplified - pre-amplified - guitars that people would play.
GROSS: So most banjos have five strings.
FLEMONS: Yeah, most banjos have five. I don't play five-string all the time. I don't carry one with me. But it's - four and six strings are my two (laughing).
GROSS: And why four-string?
FLEMONS: Four was just because I started out on four-strings and I'm more comfortable playing it with four. And, you know, but I was - I know it's not the real way to play it, but I, you know, I've found that it's worked out for me OK after a while.
GROSS: So there's a song that you do on your new album, it's called "But They Got It Fixed Right On" that I'd like you to do for us. And you do that on that really large banjo.
FLEMONS: Oh yes. Yeah, see because a song like "But They Got It Fixed Right On" is so ridiculous that I have to have this ridiculous banjo to go with it (laughing).
GROSS: Tell us about the song before you play it.
FLEMONS: Now, the song is a type of song called a hokum song, which is a song - the hokum songs are all humorous songs. They have double entendres, so they mean, you know, two different things at one time when you say a certain phrase. And this was actually recorded and written by Thomas A Dorsey and Tampa Red. And this was the type of music that Thomas A Dorsey was doing before - he had actually a series of tragedies which led him to become very, very much a God-fearing man. And he then wrote "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and "Peace In The Valley." And he actually made a larger career being a gospel song writer. But beforehand, he and Tampa Red came up with a song "It's Tight Like That." And a lot of these hokum numbers, he pretty much invented the style. And so I'll play it for you now - "But They Got It Fixed Right On."
FLEMONS: (Singing) Gal with a Ford and a boy named Jim, he liked her and she liked him. Both broke down in a country bar, but they didn't get home until after dark. But they got it fixed, ain't no doubt, nobody know what the song's about. Too bad that the news got out, but they got it fixed right on. A man with a peg-leg and a gal named Sue broke his peg-leg half in two. Only way that they could fix the leg was to get this gal to take a hold of the peg. But they got it fixed, ain't no doubt, nobody know what the song's about. Too bad that the news got out but they got it fixed right on. A gal walked into the butcher shop, grabbed the butcher's big ham hock. Butcher knocked her right off her feet, she missed his bone but she got his meat. But they got it fixed, ain't no doubt, nobody know what the songs about. Too bad that the news got out, but they got it fixed right on. Now, the monkey and the polecat made a deal, to discuss the subject of sex appeal. Skunk won the argument right or wrong, sex appeal was much too strong. But they got it fixed, ain't no doubt, nobody know what the song's about. Too bad that the news got out, but they got it fixed right on.
GROSS: (Laughing) that's great. That's Dom Flemons performing in our studio. And that's a song he also does on his new album, which is called "Prospect Hill." So your new solo album "Prospect Hill" was recorded, I think, the day of or the day after Pete Seeger died.
GROSS: And being immersed in folk music as you are, what did he mean to you and what did that coincidence of dates - how did that affect the mood when you were recording?
FLEMONS: Oh well, I mean Pete's been an essential part of my life as a lover of folk music ever since I heard a demo version of him playing "If I Had A Hammer." And that was really one of the first times I really thought about the banjo as an instrument - that I liked the sound of it. You know, it'd be years before I actually played one. But I had heard it and I liked the sound of that. And so Pete was - he was getting close to - getting close to being on the way out. It was not looking good. I have a couple of friends - mutual friends - and I've met Pete on several occasions. I never got to go out to his house, but I have enough mutual friends that I could hear it was - he wasn't long for this world. And Guy Davis had signed on for the album. I had known Guy for a lot of years.
GROSS: Playing guitar on the album?
FLEMONS: Yeah, playing guitar and harmonica on the record as well and snare drum. And he had been visiting Pete the morning - I mean, I guess the afternoon before Pete died. So he went on a redeye flight the next morning to come down to the session. Pete passed away within that time. And he was also - his mom Ruby Dee just passed away too, and so he also just had to...
GROSS: Guy Davis's mom was Ruby Dee?
FLEMONS: Yes, Ruby and Ossie were - are his parents.
GROSS: Oh, Ossie Davis.
FLEMONS: Yeah, so he was taking care of her too. So he had to come down, you know, passed mom off to his sisters and then had to leave Pete. Pete passed away so it's like, you know, his heart was heavy with all that stuff. But he also came in wanting to work, and so he said let's go ahead and do this. And, I mean, that comes through - that spirit comes through on the album. We just - we got in there...
GROSS: It's just so interesting that he was in this other place, this place of mourning and preparing to mourn. But the music on most of the album is really so lighthearted.
FLEMONS: Yeah, it's just - that's the thing about the blues and string band music's the same way. It grabs to a root and it brings you out of whatever spot it is, you know, like - yeah, you feel that feeling and then you can protect out that energy just through the songs. And it was joyful.
GROSS: Well, Dom Flemons, it's really been great to talk with you and to hear you perform. Thank you so much for being with us and for playing for us.
FLEMONS: Well, thank you for having me, Terry. And I just have to say that it's just such a great pleasure to be here again on the show with you.
GROSS: Here's more music from Dom Flemon's new album "Prospect Hill."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'TIL THE SEAS RUN DRY")
FLEMONS: Well, it's too late, can't get along with you honey babe. Too late, seems that we've run out of time. I'll always remember the love we shared. I got to get you baby off my mind. I get away, get away. I'm never going to take you back. Not until clocks run backwards and the seas run dry. You treated me like a fool and oh so cruel, but it's too late baby to try me one more time. Oh Lord. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Coming up, tech contributor Alexis Madrigal explains why the app and website Pinterest is more than a digital scrapbook, it's becoming a place to conduct searches when you don't quite know what you're looking for. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.