When most people are asked to imagine the Old West, a number of old chestnuts pop up: horses, outlaws, gunfights past the swinging doors of a saloon. This image is, of course, problematic. Western movies have a long and troubled history of caricaturing indigenous people. They also paint this time period in simple dualities. But the simpler times were never simple. After all, the rugged individuals those movies celebrate were in reality ex-Confederate soldiers fleeing the fallout of the Civil War. Dom Flemons is here to correct that image.
Flemons, an alumni of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is no stranger to shining bright lights on aspects of history ignored by popular history. On his new album, Black Cowboys, from Smithsonian Folkways, Flemons foregrounds the people history -- as written by white people -- would prefer to forget. Black Cowboys features songs written by black people seeking the promise of freedom on the range.
On "Steel Pony Blues," Flemons pays tribute to Nat Love: "I wrote this song about the amazing life of Nat Love, known as 'Deadwood Dick.' In 1854, he was born into slavery in Tennessee, and at a young age he made his way out West to work on a ranch in Holbrook, Arizona. By 1890, he retired from the ranch and began to work on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad as a Pullman Porter. In his 1907 autobiography he wrote: 'I always say to the traveling American, "See America"...I have seen a large part of America, and am still seeing it, but the life of a hundred years would be all too short to see our country...' I feel honored to have followed in the footsteps of Nat Love, in his great admiration for the United States."
Learn more about Don Flemons and Black Cowboys on his site.