Guru of roots music Jerry Zolten talks about John Jackson, Bo Diddley, R. Crumb, Pete Seeger & Janis

"The blues is about life, the human experience down into all it’s cracks and crevices, the stuff that connects us all no matter the distance of time, place, culture."

Jerry Zolten: Chimpin' the Blues 

Jerry Zolten is an educator, author, musician, CD & radio producer, and speaker in the realm of American Roots Music and Popular Culture. An Associate Professor at Penn State University, he is best known as the author of a book tracing the 30-plus year career of the African-American Dixie Hummingbirds gospel group and their influence on both sacred and secular music. He also writes about and is a noted expert on the history of American stand-up comedy. Zolten is also known for numerous articles and CD liner notes on blues, country, and gospel music as well as collaborations on musical projects with Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar. His most recent writings and musical releases include "The Beatles as Recording Artists" in The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles, biographical and musicological entries on Paramount recording artists for The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1927, and Chimpin' the Blues with Robert Crumb and Jerry Zolten, an audio collection of conversation and rare blues and blues related recordings from the early 20th Century.

As an undergraduate at Penn State, Zolten was president of the Penn State Folklore Society. He performed in numerous musical groups, most notably a jug band, the New Old Time Wooley Thumpers. The Wooley Thumpers opened for Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Company at a 1968 Penn State performance. With the group and as a single, Zolten performed at diverse venues such as the Jawbone Coffeehouse, the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, and Lewisburg Penitentary. The Wooley Thumpers also recorded a single in 1969 for Buddah Records. Billed on the label as "Protozoa," a name assigned by the label, the tracks, written as parodies of then popular "bubblegum music," were "Ring Around My Rosie" and "Pink Hippopotamus." Zolten was instrumental in resurrecting the career of the Grammy-winning Fairfield Four, producing two CDs, Wreckin' the House/Live at Mt. Hope (Dead Reckoning) and, by their bass singer Isaac Freeman, Beautiful Stars (Lost Highway). Among his public radio productions are Chimpin' the Blues, a history of early blues and pre-blues co-hosted with underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, In the Spirit, a history of Black gospel music, and Boppin' With Pekar, an overview of jazz history with Harvey Pekar of American Splendor and special guest, artist Phoebe Gloeckner. In collaboration with the GRAMMY Museum and the Guthrie Foundation, Zolten produced a Centennial Celebration of American folk music icon Woody Guthrie.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

What I love about the blues - and other forms of roots music - is not so much self-discovery as it is other discovery. The best artists project a vivid sense of time and place, point-of-view and attitude...so that when I hear them, I am transported. The best artists can change your mood into what they want you to feel. Especially with the blues, which at its core is about feeling, whether pain, anger, angst, flat-out joy, or sexual celebration. For me, the blues is about life, the human experience down into all it’s cracks and crevices, the stuff that connects us all no matter the distance of time, place, culture.

"For me America’s foundational roots music goes back to the earliest written descriptions or notes on paper, but especially the beginnings of recorded sound, which really accelerated spreading the music around." (Photo: Jerry Zelton and his "surreal" dog, Pudge, Altoona, Pennsylvania 2008)

How do you describe and what characterize Jerry Zolten’s music philosophy and mission?

My mission – not that I ever consciously thought about having one – probably derives from my personal proclivities. I get excited about sound and ideas, musicality and cutting-edge creativity. Great performances live or on records pump me up and I want to shout out about them, turn as many others as possible on to them. As I think about it, there’s another side to it as well, and this ties in with the old records and long gone artists who did brilliant work but really never got their due. I get great satisfaction out of playing my miniscule part in keeping their work alive by putting it forward, making it accessible, and in the best instances telling their stories, putting a face on the music...“voices from the groove.”

Why did you think that the American roots music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Good question. I’ve been puzzling over that very thought. To tell you the truth I’m not even exactly sure what “American roots music” is. For me it means any sort of foundational music that goes back to beginnings. But then I’ve been around a while, and I know for some of my younger friends “roots music” might mean postwar Chicago blues or dare I say, Elvis Presley. For me America’s foundational roots music goes back to the earliest written descriptions or notes on paper, but especially the beginnings of recorded sound, which really accelerated spreading the music around. Here’s the thing, and maybe this is obvious, but recorded sound has changed everything. For the first time in the history of human beings on the planet we can go back in time and hear exactly what are forebears heard. These days with the Internet one can reach back more than a century. As a result, bygone music is on a continuous throwback loop that allows artists from the past to influence the present like never before. I find it heartening that so many teens and 20s and 30-somethings have the desire to tap into music no matter who, when, or where, no matter what the fidelity. It has nothing to do with nostalgia and everything to do with performance and ideas.

"The best artists can change your mood into what they want you to feel. Especially with the blues, which at its core is about feeling, whether pain, anger, angst, flat-out joy, or sexual celebration." (Photo: Jerry Zolten on stage with the late great blues legend, John Jackson, late 1980s)

Are there any memories from John Jackson, Bo Diddley and Janis Joplin which you’d like to share with us?

Good Lord! A ton! Here’s a few.

John Jackson. Soft-spoken, brilliant. Piedmont blues artist. Loved Blind Blake, John Hurt, Jimmy Rodgers, and would you believe Tom T. Hall! A master with a metal detector. John discovered Civil War camping sites, the locations known only to him. He had a great collection of Civil War artifacts. We took quite a few trips together and whenever we went into a restaurant John would insist that I order first...and then he would order what I ordered. It took a while before I realized that John could not read. His perceptiveness and storytelling abilities were such that it never crossed my mind.

My brief experience with Bo Diddley always puts a smile on my face. I remember calling him about assembling a backup band that would include me on rhythm guitar. I asked if he could give me a set list and the song keys. There was a pause. He said, “That’s not the way it’s going to be, son.” Then he says, “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m gonna start playing and then I’ll turn around...and you look at me and start doing what I’m doing.”  Another pause. “And if you can’t do that, boy, then you shouldn’t be playing with Bo Diddley.” I said, “Yes, sir, Mr Diddley,” and that was that. And indeed that’s exactly how it was on stage. We had a ball on stage and I treasure the moment!

Janis Joplin is almost a dream haze. So long ago. Back in the late 1960s.  What I remember most is being nervous, and not just about opening for Janis and the Holding Company. It was the first time our little band had played on a full stage in front of a packed house. We were used to coffeehouse settings where we all stood close to each other, could hear our instruments and vocal blend. Now we were going to be spread out across probably 40/50 feet. What I remember most is Janis inviting us into the dressing room – pre-show, I think - where she and Sam Andrew and the other Big Brother band members were sitting in a semi-circle, joking, laughing, getting ready for the show. Janis was swigging from a bottle of Southern Comfort, which she then passed my way. I wasn’t a drinker...but I took my swig! That was the moment. We did the show...and then the moment was over and gone.

"Take me back to a race record store in any big city. Chicago, New York, Atlanta. Even Pittsburgh or Philly. Make it about 1936. Give me a pocket full of money and let me pick out the records." (Photo: Jerry Zolten on stage with Bo Diddley and Larry Wilson on basscirca 1987

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I guess what I miss the most is the sense of discovery, when it was all new and I was hearing things for the first time. As a young kid growing up near Pittsburgh I would lie in bed into the wee hours with my bedside radio, microscopically tuning the dial until some exotic musical sound came at me from somewhere out of the ether. Memphis. Chicago. WLAC Nashville. When the wind was right, even as far away as New Orleans. I would hear something like Professor Longhair singing about “looky there, she ain’t got no hair” or Sticks McGhee singing “wine spo-de-o-dee” and have no idea who they were or what that kind of music was called. All I knew was that I loved it and had to get my hands on the record.

And then as a teenager, I got to see in person some of the people who made that music. I loved live performances by the early groups. I remember being blown away by the stage antics of the “Shout” era Isley Brothers. The Vibrations were always tops, each group member trying to out-dance the others. Bo Diddley going phallic with his guitar, clog dancing, and kicking out high. Had never seen anything like it. So fresh and outrageous. I guess I miss that newness the most.

It was so easy to shock in those days. I’ll never forget Little Richard on TV. He put his leg up on the piano and my father jumped up – no remote back then - and changed the channel. That said, I’m actually very heartened these days by so many young artists looking for ways to spurn commerciality and conventionality. I think of friends of mine like John Heneghan and Eden Brower who perform as the East River String Band drawing totally on the music of the 1920s and ‘30s. They may never get rich or famous but they keep the tradition alive. Jack White, too, who when it comes to roots music and rare records is like a kid in a candy store. Very gratifying to be part of his Rise and Fall of Paramount Records project...

"Maybe I have an unconventional view, but to my mind the first truly African American music was religious. The spirituals. Slave songs." (Photo: Jerry Zolten & the late  folk legend, Pete Seeger)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I guess it would be a world in which the foundational pioneers got their due back in the day. Not just the fame, but also the wherewithal to have lived out their days in comfort, good health, and with dignity. Some did... but most did not.

What has made you laugh with Robert Crumb and what touched (emotionally) you from the late Pete Seeger?

I enjoy spending time with Crumb. Like any friends we laugh and joke and talk about all kinds of things...life, kids, libidos, musical tastes, having a third eye, the state of the world. I suppose the funniest stuff happens when talking about our obsessions and quirks. For me one of my favorite laffs came when Crumb was visiting. I was in another room and noticed that he had picked up my copy of one of his sketchbooks, one of the high-end German publications. He was all hunched over drawing on the inside facing page. He finished then closed the book and slid it back into its cardboard sleeve. He left later that day. I retrieved the book and saw that he had drawn a picture of himself looking out at me, his eyes filled in with hypnotic spirals. The caption said “we will always be friends...you are getting sleepy...go to your record collection... remove the records you know R. Crumb would like...pack them carefully in a box and mail them to R. Crumb.” Still laughing about that!

As to Pete Seeger, we had talked over the years but I can’t say that I knew him well. But about a year before he passed he agreed to talk to me on film for use at the Woody@100 conference I was producing.  Pete was not feeling physically up to the trip but wanted to be present in someway. The most poignant moment came after we had stopped talking for the camera. I did not want to overstay my welcome but every time I got up to leave Pete would call me back and start talking.  At one point he volunteered that he did not want to live past a hundred. He said if he reached that age he was just going to stop eating and let nature take it’s course. I looked close into his eyes. It was hard to know what to say. Nothing came out. When the time came to leave I just hugged him and thanked him for who he was and what he represented. He hugged me back. It was a moving moment.  

"These days with the Internet one can reach back more than a century. As a result, bygone music is on a continuous throwback loop that allows artists from the past to influence the present like never before." (Photo: Jerry & cartoonist/musician Robert Crumb "talking" about rare 78 rpm records

What were the reasons that made the 60s - your generation to start the Folk/Blues searches and experiments?

Well, that’s an interesting question. I have to laugh. About a year ago I had a visit from a couple of college students and they told me I was so lucky because my generation had come up with all of these new things and left nothing for their generation to create. Of course the idea was absurd because back when I was their age I felt the same way about my times. But to answer your question I came up while rock ’n’ roll was still unfolding. Most of us as teenagers - especially in the north - had no idea where the music came from. Not everyone was curious, but enough of us were that we began working back.

For me, I got deeper and deeper into first Chicago and then country blues, which led to hillbilly and gospel and all the rest. The fact that old records even existed certainly helped. Every time I discovered a new record another little piece of the puzzle fell into place. At the time I thought I was the only one digging a little deeper, but as I came of age and got out into the world I realized I was one of many, and just a speck at that compared to so many of my contemporaries.  There were enough of us, though, to get the ball rolling on researching and discovering America’s roots music heritage.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Folk and continue to Jazz and Gospel music?

Maybe I have an unconventional view, but to my mind the first truly African American music was religious. The spirituals. Slave songs. An amalgam of Anglo hymn, African work song, chant, ring shout rhythm...the pain of slave existence, the catharsis of emotional vocal expression, transcendence through word and metaphor. Whoops. Don’t want to get too professorial here. I guess my bottom line is that black religious music is the fount from which all else flows out...from blues to jazz to all forms of African-American roots music.

"I guess it would be a world in which the foundational pioneers got their due back in the day. Not just the fame, but also the wherewithal to have lived out their days in comfort, good health, and with dignity. Some did... but most did not." (Photo: Jerry on stage / Photo by A. Treese, 2015)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Meeting people of accomplishment – and I’ve had the good fortune to know quite a few – is helpful because it makes it all real. In other words, this person is not just a famous name, a marketing fiction, a voice on a record, an ideal in imagination, but rather an accessible person who figured out how to get the job done...and so maybe you can too. Best advice. From a mentor during my college years, your only helping hand is at the end of your own arm... And from Rev. Willie Richardson of the Fairfield Four – we called him “Preach” - simply “be what you are.” That was his mantra, the title of a gospel song he sang with the Southern Tones and later with the Fairfields. And finally, though not direct advice, I’ve always loved Woody Guthrie’s line, “take it easy...but take it.”

Where would you really wanna go via a time machine and what memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

Take me back to a race record store in any big city. Chicago, New York, Atlanta. Even Pittsburgh or Philly. Make it about 1936. Give me a pocket full of money and let me pick out the records. Books are great but gimme shellac. Knowing what I know today, I’d pick out the most obscure and over-the-top stuff that is still missing today. The lost Willie Browns. The most obscure on Paramount, Black Patti, Okeh, Merritt.

Or I know. I’d love to find out who drew those incredible cartoons from the 1920s and ‘30s advertising blues and jazz records in the Chicago Defender or Pittsburgh Courier. Give me some of those original drawings!

On the other hand, maybe take me to the cross roads where I meet Robert Johnson and become his personal manager! But then if that happened it might be like the death of a fly changing the whole course of evolutionary history! Johnson’s career might have gone nowhere because I couldn’t get him a record deal. So forget that. I’ll settle for a high stack of incredible store-stock records.

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