By Marcus Olah
On Thursday, Oct. 6, Grammy-winning musician Dom Flemons participated in Albion’s Big Read by performing two shows, one at Marshall High School and another at the Washington Gardner auditorium in Albion. Flemons was joined by Brian Farrow, a classically trained multi-instrumentalist, to form The Dom Flemons Duo.
Three months into a world tour, they have performed various folk styles from America’s past. Flemons and Farrow took breaks between songs to explain the names and histories of the instruments they were using, including the rattling cow bones that Flemons cured himself and an instrument called the quills which is a panpipe that hangs on a wire around Flemons’ neck so that he can play hands-free.
The music of The Dom Flemons Duo brings a sound to life that exists primarily in the early era of musical recordings.The listeners are able to hear what the origins of American music might have sounded like live.
Farrow describes how the Duo’s music is different from other styles he plays. “I always like to call it traditional style, which is more vernacular music [than], let’s say, the slang you talk with your friends. And there’s orchestral style which is the fancy style, so, let’s say, you have to go out to a fancy dinner party and put on your tuxedo.”
Flemons explained further, “You can have your formal training, and you can have your front porch training. And the two don’t have to be separate.”
The Big Read is a program that promotes reading, as well as the development of community interactions. This year’s events are centered on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. A novel in which all books are outlawed. Flemons explains what books mean to him.
“I grew up in the era where everybody was saying reading is fundamental, and my parents raised me on that notion,” said Flemons. “We’re in this era now where people have gotten comfortable just saying things, but they don’t back it up with actually reading stuff. I grew up going to the library. Got songbooks from the library.”
When Flemons was young his hometown rebuilt their library. A CD section was added and he began reading the liner notes. “That was something that gave me little snippets of information,” said Flemons. “There was a period when all this seemingly useless information became useful in only a matter of a couple of months. I had all this knowledge [about music] from reading about it.”
His reading led him to African histories and black roots of the banjo which ultimately influenced his musical style.
“For me, reading and keeping those resources is something I find very important,” he said.
Flemons was an English major in college and reflected how his studies affected his writing and thinking. He mentions that he’s always loved literature. He cites his favorite authors as William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.
His love of literature helped him to see the world in a broader sense. “As I read more books, I found that there were other narratives that broke off from the main narrative that they were teaching me in school. I was able to go on my own personal journey because I was reading about it.”
At Marshall High School, Flemons gave some history on the banjo and its connection to black roots in America. “This might not mean anything to you now, but it might later,” he said during his explanation.
“I just like to throw little nuggets of information out there,” said Flemons. “That’s part of what I do in my act so that people can make their own personal journey with the music.”
“Pop music, now, is getting more and more the same sounding,” said Flemons, “So much sound. And so many effects. And so many things going on. My first introduction into folk music was so liberating that there was so much space and time for a single person to tell their story.”
There is a word, Flemons tells the Marshall students, from the Gold Coast of Africa. It’s Sankofa and it translates to “go back and fetch it.” Flemons says he has followed this saying his entire life.
This work of Sankofa is exactly what ties Flemons to the world of Fahrenheit 451 in which humankind’s stories are erased. His music calls the listener to learn the stories of our past, from varied perspectives, and to then go out and tell them.
Photo courtesy of Maddie Drury