American Songster Radio Podcast

American Songster Radio is a monthly look at the roots of American Popular music. It’s hosted by world renowned musician and folklorist Dom Flemons who playfully refers to himself as The American Songster.

Dom was a founding member of the Grammy Award winning Carolina Chocolate Drops and has toured the world as a solo performer. With this new WUNC podcast Dom uses interviews, live performance and historical documents to offer a fresh take on traditional music.

Note: Scroll down to see a list of episodes.
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Q & A with host Dom Flemons

Q: What are your hopes for American Songster Radio?
A:  My hope with American Songster Radio is to get people to think critically about the music they listen to on a day-to-day basis.  While not all music is meant for critical thinking I find it so important to always remember that music is a reflection of a society.  It is a way that people can bridge gaps socially because music is truly universal.  But to think about it critical takes its own set of skills and on my program I want to help people look at music in a way that will give them skills to look at other types of music.  I feel it is through personal research and personal conclusions that can truly affect us which is why we listen to it in the first place.  It has also been my belief that the more I have learned through critically listening and researching different songs that I have found a strong sense of my own national identity.  Hence the name The American Songster.

Q: What kinds of things will you be featuring?

Dom Flemons, the American Songster


A:  In my program, I will talking with various musicians, scholars and enthusiasts about something we all love: music.  The idea is to not only discuss music but to also take some time to speak with my guest about what brought them into music.  When interviewed Arhoolie Records, Chris Schtrawitz, I was amazed to hear that his story began in Germany and that his family fleeing the Nazis led him to California and to his love of American folk music.  This is not that uncommon.  All of the guests on my shows have made careers using American folk and roots music as their conduit and many times their personal stories are just as interesting as the people whose work they themselves documented.  Other musicians are newer to the roots music scene.  I am a strong advocate for getting their music out and also taking to catch them at the early parts of their careers when their thoughts about this music are only developing.  Ultimately, it is about friends and colleagues getting together to share stories and some of the guests are people I have known for a long time and in the show we will take time to ask them questions that veer away from the normal questions one might hear elsewhere.

Q: Your podcast celebrates music that is at times more than a century old.  What speaks to you about this music?
A:  I have always been drawn to history and literature.  I have found a wonderful conglomeration of both in the folksongs of every country in the world.  I just happen to focus on the United States as I feel there are so many songs that haven't been heard by the listening public in general.  Just because I song was written or sung a century ago means that it has stayed in the American consciousness.  The same can be said about performers.  A performer that was the biggest star of his era could be completely lost in time but through the power of recorded technology we have documentation that they were there.  I have been completely floored again and again by amazing recordings by people who are now lost in the mists of time.  I feel it is time to look back at the brilliant musical culture produced in our brilliant and at times disturbing nation.

Dom Flemons with Old Crow Medicine Show: Top: Gill Landry, Morgan Jahnig, Brian Farrow, Chance Younts, Critter Fuqua, Kevin Hayes Bottom: Dante Pope, Cory Younts, Dom Flemons, Ketch Secor

Q: The first two episodes feature interviews with Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show and Bill Ferris from the Center for the Study of the American South.  Do you have any dream guests?
A:  I would love to interview a variety of people.  Many I've met on the road and others I have just seen in the paper.  Recently met a wonderful cowboy singer named Don Edwards who is a truly a master of his craft. He'd be great.Steve Martin. Bela Fleck.  Bradford Marsalis.  Stefan Grossman.  Guy Davis.  Janelle Monae.  Mos Def.  Willie Nelson.  That's just a few but my dreams are pretty far reaching all around.  the main thing is everyone has a story.  Every well-known musician has a story of being a "folk" musician or the moment they heard that song or record that made them say "That's what I wanna do!"  I find that the journey is as interesting as the full story being told.

Q: How often will we get new episodes?
A: We’ll have something new for you every month.

American Songster Episode 17 logo
Jason Richmond

When Dom Flemons set out to make his 2014 release Prospect Hill, he knew he wanted it to be an eclectic record. For variety, he assembled two different bands, each one a fantasy line up of top players. 

What Else Does the Banjo Sound Like? American Songster Radio Episode 16

Nov 19, 2017
Screen cap from Pinecone’s concert video

Young banjo players Jerron Paxton and Kaia Kater hail from places that are pretty far removed from the American South.  But as they learned their instruments and connected with banjo mentors, they found old-time music well beyond its reputed home region.

American Songster Radio Episode 15
Diádoco / Flickr

When Dom Flemons visited a legendary fried chicken joint in Nashville, inspiration struck him like a wave of cayenne heat:

More Tunes And Tales From Vegas: American Songster Radio Episode 14

Aug 13, 2017
Gus Canonn, jug and banjo, Ashley Thompson, guitar, and Noah Lewis harmonica (Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers around 1928)
Public Domain/ WUNC

When Dom Flemons first came across the story of African American songster Gus Cannon, one fact took him by surprise.  "[Gus Cannon] was a blackface performer, but he was a black man," Flemons says, recalling his initial reaction.  "How can this be?  That you can have an African American man be a part of a type of entertainment that, when I’d read about it in books, they would say that it was demeaning to black people?"  

Dom Flemons 'What Got Over' Release
Dom Flemons

When Dom Flemons was in the studio making his album Prospect Hill, the engineer made a casual comment that pushed the material in an unexpected direction. “Maybe you should sell some of those beats to a hip-hop artist!” the engineer quipped. 

Laurent Dubois: American Songster Radio Podcast Episode 12

May 15, 2017

In 2005, Laurent Dubois had an encounter that would spark his transformation from a historian with a banjo to a historian of the banjo.  It was an unusual example of the instrument that began to deepen his curiosity—a Haitian artifact that had languished for most of its life in a museum collection.  

Dom (left) and Jerron backstage at a Tribute to LeadBelly at Carnegie Hall in February 2016
Vania Kindard

The young folk musician Jerron Paxton defies easy categorization.  He grew up in a west coast metropolis, but his family and community adhered to customs from the rural south. And, like a number of people in Los Angeles with Louisiana roots, he inherited a combination of African-American, American Indian, and Jewish heritage. Paxton plays acoustic music that reflects these origins, with a focus on solo fiddle, guitar, and banjo. He also has a passion for telling his family’s story: 

Kaia Kater
Polina Mourzina

The birth of the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University has become the stuff of folk music legend. “Of course it was an academic event,” Dom Flemons notes of the conference, “but it was also based on the idea of confirming that you weren’t the only one out there.” Once launched, the Drops’ music spread like wildfire. With it emerged a new public appreciation of the African American roots of old-time, bluegrass, and country music.

Dom Flemons, the host of WUNC’s American Songster Radio Podcast, has a role in the new CMT TV series Sun Records, which premieres tonight (Thursday 2/23) at 10 PM on CMT.  

Cowboy Songs: American Songster Radio Podcast Episode 9

Feb 21, 2017
Dom Flemons, 2nd from left, with Brian Farrow, Cowboy Celtic, Sourdough Slim and Robert Armstrong
Vania Marie Kinard

What makes a song a folk song, anyway?

One familiar answer is that a folk song is a song without an author. Folk song scholars even have a name for the theory that some songs emerge without any one person composing them. They call it "communal creation."

On Episode 8 of American Songster Radio, host Dom Flemons speaks with his recent musical collaborator, the legendary English guitarist Martin Simpson. 

Dom Flemons and Martin Simpson have worked together since 2014, when the pair received a joint commission from the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Since then, they’ve completed multiple duo tours and released Ever Popular Favourites, an album that celebrates the longstanding mutual influence of British and American music.

Jake Fussell Playing Guitar
Brad Bunyea

Jake Fussell didn’t have to look far for musical inspiration in his home state of Georgia.  Even before he picked up a guitar, he was surrounded by some of the region’s most storied performers and committed documentarians.  Fussell grew up in the town of Columbus, GA, the son of parents whose passion was studying, teaching, and presenting regional culture.  For Fussell, an American folk song like “Raggy Levy” isn’t just an archival find.  It’s a part of his lived experience. 

Dom Flemons with good friend and mentor Bill Ferris

Meet Bill Ferris

On the first Sunday of every month, Bill Ferris attended an African-American church on the farm where he grew up. Over time Ferris, a white child, became a routine presence at the church. He especially loved participating in the church’s communal singing. "I learned the hymns, and I just felt very emotionally close to that world," Ferris tells American Songster Radio host Dom Flemons.

While still a very young person, Martin Fisher fell in love with a very old machine. It was Christmas in Tennessee, and Martin's parents kept pestering him to submit his list. Martin remembers that his quirky, nine-year-old self wasn't all that interested in gifts. But his parents persisted, and Martin came up with a response: "I finally said, 'Ok. I'm gonna call their bluff.' And I said, 'have the elves hook up a cylinder player.'"

Dom Flemons with Valerie June
Vania Kinard

Before Valerie June had ever written a song of her own, she was busy putting up show posters for artists like Bobby Womack and Prince. You might say June was born into the music business.

"My dad had a promotion company called Music Makers Production, and he put all of us to work!" the singer told Dom Flemons in their interview for American Songster Radio.

Valerie June’s whole family pitched in on bringing national acts to their home town, Jackson, Tennessee.

Talking With Taj Mahal: American Songster Radio Podcast Episode 3

Aug 1, 2016

In episode 3 of the podcast series American Songster Radio, host Dom Flemons calls on blues legend Taj Mahal for a conversation about their mutual love of the banjo and its complicated history. 

"All the pictures and caricatures of those black-faced minstrels really seemed to be degrading. But the instrument itself - there was something about it. It would rattle in my bones," Taj Mahal says of his early connections with instrument. 

American Songster Podcast host Dom Flemons with Bill Ferris in the WUNC Chapel Hill Studios

Bill Ferris is an author and scholar and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Currently, he's Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South, professor of history, and adjunct professor in the Curriculum in Folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Dom Flemons and Ketch Secor
Ketch Secor: Michael J. Farrand

American Songster Radio is a monthly look at the roots of American Popular music. It’s hosted by world renowned musician and folklorist Dom Flemons who playfully refers to himself as The American Songster.

For Episode 1 Dom calls on Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show fame for a chat about their shared passion for music and about being  "hardcore Bob Dylan fans."

The program also features Dom playing  two Leadbelly Tunes: "Poor Howard" and  "Goin Dig A Hole to Put the Devil In."

Meet Dom Flemons: American Songster Radio Podcast Episode 0

Jul 4, 2016

Welcome to WUNC's new podcast called American Songster Radio. Every month host Dom Flemons, a.k.a. The American Songster, will present a new take on traditional music.

Dom, a co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, will be inviting a variety of guests to join him in a journey of discovery through the worlds of traditional folk song.

From his vintage hat to his enormous 1920s banjo, Dom Flemons looks like he's time-traveled from a different era.