The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of “Songster” is: “one that sings.”
The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music (1988) states that a “Songster” is: “A black American musician of the post-Reconstruction era who performed a wide variety of ballads, dance-tunes, reels and minstrel songs, singing to his own banjo or guitar accompaniment. Songsters were sometimes accompanied by ‘musicianers’, or non-singing string players.” (The post-Reconstruction era officially began in 1877.)
In his liner notes for the 2006 Smithsonian Folkways CD Classic African-American Ballads, Barry Lee Pearson writes that “Songster” is a term drawn from black folk speech by early-twentieth-century sociologist and collector of Southern Folk songs, Dr. Howard W. Odum. (Dr. Pearson is an African-American music scholar and member of the English Department at the University of Maryland.)
Howard Washington Odum (1884-1954) first mentions the term “Songster” in his article “Folk-Song and Folk-Poetry as Found in the Secular Songs of the Southern Negro” which was published in the July-September, 1911 edition of The Journal of American Folk-Lore.
In that article, Mr. Odum states: “In general, ‘Songster’ is used to denote any negro who regularly sings or makes songs.”
Paul Oliver, British architectural historian and prolific author on the Blues, once wrote that “Songsters were the entertainers, providing music for every kind of social occasion in the decades before phonographs and radio.”
In his 2010 Oxford University Press book The Blues: A Very Short Introduction, Elijah Wald explains that during the Folk/Blues Revival of the early 1960’s, musicians like Mississippi John Hurt who were “valued for the breadth of their repertoires and their preservation of pre-twentieth-century styles” were categorized as “Songsters.”
Most recently, in her July 1, 2014 article titled “Before There was the Blues Man, There Was the Songster” on Smithsonian.com, Kirstin Fawcett describes the Songster as: “an itinerant performer with the versatility of a jukebox, a man who’s played for so many different audiences that he can now confidently play for all of them.”
Ms. Fawcett’s article helped to herald the release of the new Smithsonian Folkways album Classic African American Songsters. Among the artists featured on this 21-track compilation are Big Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, Brownie McGee, Reverend Gary Davis and Peg Leg Sam. The 60-minute CD comes with a 40-page booklet containing liner notes and annotations by Jeff Place and Barry Lee Pearson.
Although I have not yet picked up a copy of Classic African American Songsters, I did recently purchase Prospect Hill – the outstanding new Music Maker Relief Foundation CD by Dom Flemons, a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who bills himself as “The American Songster.”
I initially became acquainted with Dom Flemons (born August 30, 1982 in Phoenix, Arizona) when he was a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I had the very good fortune to see this Grammy Award-winning, contemporary/old-time string band perform twice; once in August, 2012 and again in July, 2013. Both times the Carolina Chocolate Drops were performing at my favorite summertime music venue – the Prescott Park Arts Festival in Portsmouth, NH. (I wrote about their excellent 2012 concert in my August 14, 2012 post titled “August Music, So Far.”)
Dom Flemons, however, left the Carolina Chocolate Drops in November, 2013. Recording sessions for a solo album began on January 28, 2014 – the day after Pete Seeger passed away – and Prospect Hill was released on July 22, 2014. Proclaiming 2014 as “the year of the Folksinger,” Dom Flemons soon took his show on the road.
On Sunday, December 28, 2014, Dom Flemons’ itinerary brought him to The Stone Church in Newmarket, New Hampshire.
During the course of his infectiously joyous and highly entertaining 90-minute performance, Dom sang and accompanied himself not just on acoustic guitar and banjo, but also on harmonica, the quills and the bones.
His talented musicianers for the late-afternoon concert were upright bassist & singer Brian Farrow and drummer, fiddler & singer Dante Pope.
Dom’s wonderful “made” or original songs were among the many highlights of the program. “I Can’t Do It Anymore,” “Too Long (I’ve Been Gone)” – with its Elizabeth Cotten-style fingerpicking accompaniment – and “Hot Chicken” are highlights of Prospect Hill, as well.
Here’s Dom doing his song, “I Can’t Do It Anymore.”
All of the material on the set list that afternoon – originals and covers – demonstrated Dom Flemons’ dedication to the preservation of a wide variety of 19th and 20th century styles of music. The elements and flavors of Ragtime, Blues, Country, Traditional Folk, Contemporary Folk, Jazz, Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll and String Band music were skillfully woven throughout the musical tapestry of the trio’s marvelous show. In one solo 4-string banjo piece, Dom even quoted two 19th-century Minstrel Show songs: “De Boatman’s Dance” (1843) by Dan Emmett and “Oh! Susannah” (1847) by Stephen Foster!
The cover versions that he presented to the audience that afternoon clearly demonstrated that Dom Flemons is also in possession of a broad and, yes, jukebox-like repertoire of timeless and simply fabulous songs. (I would love to know where one could find a jukebox these days with a selection that included the records of Big Joe Turner, Bob Dylan, Big Bill Broonzy, Eric Anderson, Gus Cannon, Woody Guthrie and Charlie Poole.)
Here’s Dom Flemons & Brian Farrow doing the 1930’s Georgia Tom Dorsey & Tampa Red song “But They Got It Fixed Right On.”
On his website, Dom Flemons says “he would like to use the traditional forms of music he has heard and immersed himself in over the years to create new soundscapes that generate interest in old-time folk music.” In the “Thanks to…” section of the liner notes for Prospect Hill, Dom says: “I hope that this recording can inspire others to listen and love music of all types.”
I say, “Thank you, Dom Flemons for proudly carrying on the Songster tradition here in the 21st century.”