Title: Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus
Artist: Dom Flemons
Format: 2-CD set, Digital
Release date: February 28, 2020
Multi-instrumentalist and music historian Don Flemons, otherwise known as “The American Songster” and co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has become one of the foremost experts and practitioners of African American folk music traditions. Flemons garnered a Grammy nomination and multiple awards for his last solo project, Black Cowboys (2018). Now Flemons is offering his first compilation, Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus, which includes his Prospect Hill solo album from 2014, the EP What Got Over originally released on vinyl as a 2015 Record Store Day premium, and a new collection of twelve previously unissued instrumental tracks he’s pulled together under the title The Drum Major Instinct. If you didn’t score copies of these records when they first dropped, you should definitely pick up this nicely packaged two-disc set with extensive liner notes by Flemons and Vania Kinard and evocative tintype photographs by Timothy Duffy.
On his Prospect Hill project, Flemons says his goal was to establish his brand as “The American Songster” by showcasing his wide range of musical styles across one hundred years of American music. At the time, he was living in North Carolina and collaborating with the Music Maker Relief Foundation, while also working to expand his repertoire beyond the string band music he performed with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Uninhibited by genre categories, Flemons regards himself as a tradition bearer but strives to never lose sight of the “ever-revolving spectrum of popular music.” While each track might begin with a traditional reference point, Flemons spins his own web of connectivity between the past and the present. For example, “Grotto Beat” was inspired by fife and drum as well as rap music via Ed Piskor’s 2014 graphic novel Hip Hop Family Tree, and Flemons interprets the 1920’s song “It’s a Good Thing” by the Beale Street Sheiks as an “old-time” hip-hop song with spoken “toasts.” Flemons’ original “’Til the Seas Run Dry” was loosely influenced by the early jazz repertoire of New Orleans, while early blues recordings provided the source for his arrangements of “Polly Put the Kettle On” and the hokum song “But They Got it Fixed Right On” by Georgia Tom (Dorsey) and Tampa Red. Other tracks bring in elements of country, Chicago blues, beebop jazz, early rock ‘n’ roll, and a touch of R&B music—not to mention the multitude of instruments performed by Flemons (vocals, guitar, 4-string banjo, harmonica, fife, jug, percussion) and his backing musicians, including Guy Davis (harmonica, guitar and Mike Seeger’s 6-string banjo), Keith Ganz (guitar), Brian Horton (saxes), Ron Brendle (bass), and Kobie Watkins (drums).
What Got Over is described by Flemons as “a collection of original and traditional songs that showcase my love of ethnographic recordings from the Library of Congress.” The disc opens with “Big Head Joe’s March,” a processional bearing the name of Flemons’ one-of-a-kind banjo fabricated in the early 1920s by African American luthier Robert H. McGinnis, who also made instruments for James Reese Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra. Now those are some serious historical connections to wrap your head around! Original songs include “Clock on the Wall,” a blues tune featuring Flemons on both electric guitar and amplified harmonica, and the title track, “What Got Over,” which transforms began a field holler into a brief blues-rock rant punctuated by bass drum. Another original, “Going Backward Up the Mountain,” is a shout song based on the Ashanti proverb “Sankofa” that’s energized by handclaps over a fife and drum accompaniment. Also included are a few alternate takes from Prospect Hill with different instrumentation, such as “Hot Chicken” featuring Flemons on guitar and harmonica, a string band version of “Have I Stayed Away Too Long?” and the return of the banjo Big Head Joe on “’Til the Seas Run Dry.”
The second disc concludes with The Drum Major Instinct, which Flemons describes as an all-instrumental album that focuses on moods, rhythm and “the beats.” While delving into archival recordings, he began to “see them through a line between old-time music and hip-hop.” Flemons goes on to explain, “many of the old-time songs follow a similar long form rhymed verse structure followed by a chorus or hook that frames the entire song.” Another commonality with hip-hop can be found in songs that “give voice to issues of the day, while simultaneously being great dance music.” In this manner, Flemons serves up his own style of “old-time hip-hop” with a focus on the foundation beats of selections from Prospect Hill and What Got Over. The disc closes with two instrumentals not previously featured on the set—“The Grand Manifesto” and “Blue Butterfly”—the latter a duet between Flemons on acoustic guitar and Guy Davis on 12-string guitar.
As always, Dom Flemons educates as much as he entertains on Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus, schooling us on the continuity of music traditions. Like a true songster, he reinterprets the past through the present and the present through the past, in his own genre-defying style.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss