Dom Flemons Collection at Heard Libraries offers ‘treasure trove’ for scholars exploring African American influences on roots music

The Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries have acquired the personal collection of Dom Flemons, a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and cultural historian whose music and research have brought greater awareness to African Americans’ extensive contributions to roots music. The collection was compiled and curated by Flemons and his wife, Vania Kinard, to include research materials on Black cowboys, musical instruments, an Edison phonograph with several playable wax cylinders, historical sheet music, field recordings, art pieces, memorabilia, personal gifts, autographed records, and materials documenting Flemons’ professional music career over the past 20 years.

Dom Flemons (submitted)

“This is a treasure trove for anyone interested in Americana music,” said University Librarian Jon Shaw. “Dom Flemons has assembled a remarkable collection that illustrates the significant role African Americans have played in shaping roots music over many decades, and I’m delighted these materials are now available for wider research and teaching through our libraries’ collaborative partnership with the National Museum of African American Music.”

Housed in Vanderbilt’s Special Collections and University Archives, the Dom Flemons American Songster Collection was acquired from the artist through the university’s Academic Archive Purchasing Fund in collaboration with NMAAM. The fund supports Heard Libraries’ expanding collections of books, scores, sound recordings and material objects related to African American music and makes those collections available for loan, display and study at the museum.

“Dom Flemons is one of America’s true folk heroes,” said Bryan Pierce, curator at NMAAM. “He has worked tirelessly to preserve African American folk culture through music, written periodicals and lectures. There are few people who excel in this subject matter to the extent that he has over the past three decades. That is why this is such an important collection; it helps the National Museum of African American Music’s mission of providing the public with quality content regarding the foundation of African American folkways.”

Alice Randall, an award-winning songwriter, author, writer-in-residence in Vanderbilt’s Department of African American and Diaspora Studies, and holder of the Andrew W. Mellon Chair in the Humanities, also noted the significance of Flemons’ collection. “Dom Flemons’ music and research are helping Black communities reclaim an important part of our heritage,” she said. “Many traditional music genres in America and the instruments associated with them, such as the banjo, have their roots in West African cultures. Thanks to Dom and others, there’s growing interest in reviving and exploring these vibrant cultural connections.” Randall’s latest book is My Black Country: A Journey Through Country Music’s Black Past, Present, and Future, which will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2024.

Known as “The American Songster,” Dom Flemons has released multiple solo albums, including the Grammy-nominated Traveling Wildfire in 2023, and was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops string band, with whom he won a Grammy in 2010. He is also a two-time Emmy nominee, 2020 U.S. Artists Fellow, and creator, host and producer of American Songster Radio Show on WSM in Nashville. Flemons is considered an expert player on the banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug, percussion, quills, fife and rhythm bones. His collection at the Heard Libraries includes several of these musical instruments.

A banjo in the Dom Flemons American Songster Collection (Vanderbilt Special Collections and University Archives)

“From the moment I began my journey into a career in music, I found that my trajectory led me to acquire items that would be of interest to future generations,” Flemons said. “Many of the items, which are unique in nature, will give viewers insight into my own personal passion for music and the history that surrounds it.”

The Dom Flemons American Songster Collection complements other archival collections at the Heard Libraries that document Southern culture, folk and country music traditions, and African American musicians. Examples include the Donald Davidson Papers, the Rissi Palmer Collection, the George Boswell Papers, the Charles Faulkner Bryan Collection, the George Pullen Jackson Papers, the Grand Ole Opry Collection, and the Yusef A. Lateef Papers. The Flemons Collection also builds on music archives held at the Anne Potter Wilson Music Library, including those of dulcimer player David Schnaufer and singer-songwriter and old-time music performer John Hartford.

“The Flemons Collection adds an exciting new dimension to our archives,” said Holling Smith-Borne, director of the Wilson Music Library and co-sponsor of the AAPF proposal to acquire the collection. “While music scholars will find plenty within it to support their teaching and research, I’m excited to see how other disciplines make use of the materials. Whether you’re studying English literature, diaspora studies or American history, there are so many insights to be gleaned from this collection.”

This month, Flemons will make two appearances in Nashville at events sponsored by the Heard Libraries. On Saturday, Jan. 20, at 7:30 p.m., he will perform in the Steve and Judy Turner Recital Hall at the Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music. On Sunday the 21st at 6 p.m., NMAAM will host a performance by Flemons and an unveiling of items from his collection. The Blair School concert on the 20th is free, but registration is required. The NMAAM event on the 21st is $10 for members and $15 for non-members. Tickets will be available starting Friday, Jan. 5, at 10 a.m.

Register for the Jan. 20 event at the Blair School.

Purchase tickets for the Jan. 21 event at NMAAM.

“It’s a real treat that Dom will be performing not once but twice in one weekend here in Nashville,” said Robbie Fry, principal senior lecturer in musicology and ethnomusicology at the Blair School, who is helping to organize the events and was a co-sponsor of the AAPF proposal to acquire the Flemons Collection. “His concerts are always sensational, in part because of the stories he tells about his music, but these events will be particularly special as he shares details about some of his most treasured belongings, which are now available for wide study thanks to our partnership with NMAAM.”

For more information about the Dom Flemons American Songster Collection and other collaborative collections with NMAAM, please contact Special Collections and University Archives at 615-322-2807.

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