Chimpin’ with Jerry Zolten

By Therese Boyd, '79

Jerry Zolten, associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Altoona, author, musician, and CD and radio producer, has always had an ear (and eye) for what is known as American roots music. In 2003 he and his friend and fellow record collector Robert Crumb (of underground comics Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural fame) recorded a radio show where they discussed and played some early twentieth-century blues records at WPSU. That recording, Chimpin the Blues, was released on both vinyl and CD in 2013; the first two vinyl pressings sold out and a third is on the way while the CD is still available and selling briskly. Jerry sat down with Research and Teaching at Penn State Altoona editor Therese Boyd to talk about the CD and American roots music in the twenty-first century.

Cover art and vinyl record for Chimpin' the Blues
Cover art and vinyl record for "Chimpin' the Blues"

How did the idea for “Chimpin’ the Blues” come about?

I was visiting Robert Crumb at his home in France. We were doing what we always do, sitting around spinning records. This particular session he was playing some amazing tracks and we were entertaining ourselves. I just got to thinking this would be a great way to get this obscure old music out there. Was there a way we could capture this? Robert is so entertaining. That gave me the idea to do a radio show. And WPSU was open for the idea. So it really came down to when Robert would be in my part of the world. In 2003 he was making a trip over and said we could do it. Of course for the show I already had on hand records from my own collection, and in France we had recorded onto tape the tracks we could use from Robert’s collection.

Robert Crumb is legendary. Even people who don’t know his name know his drawings from the 1960s underground comics. How did you two meet?

It was about 1980. We had a mutual friend who was a cartoonist and also a record collector. An agent who was working for both Crumb and my friend said that Crumb was looking for collectors who might be willing to swap artwork for records.

Crumb was living in northern California. He introduced himself in a letter all hand printed: “Would you be interested in trading records for original artwork?” As it turned out I was heading out to California and I called and he said come by. We talked about all kinds of things from comics and philosophies to relationships, the price of fame, and ... music. I learned a lot about Robert as a person during those years when he lived in Northern California. When he was east he’d come and stay, when I was in California I’d visit. Of course I had records that he wanted.

I love how in the recording Robert Crumb freely admits he doesn’t like the music of the 1960s, which is a surprise to anyone who thinks of him as of that era. How did you approach the conversation? It sounds very natural, not scripted at all.

Robert was never shy about expressing his disdain for 1960s rock and roll. So, while he loved Janis Joplin as a person and was happy to do the now iconic artwork for her first album, the music he hated! As to our conversation, we improvised it. We would talk about a particular record and why we loved it. That’s where the chimpin’ comes from—“chattering.”

Jerry Zolten explains this cartoon from R. Crumb

Jerry Zolten explains this cartoon from R. Crumb: "On a visit, R picked up my copy of a high-end publication of one of his old sketchbooks. I noticed him whiling away with a pen on the facing page ... but didn't interrupt. Later I saw the book just sitting on the table. I opened it up ... and there was that drawing. ... We had quite a good laugh over that!"

I recognized a few of the artists, Reverend J. C. Burnett and Lottie Kimbrough, and one song, “Walk Right In,” which you acknowledge on the CD became a hit for the Rooftop Singers in the 1960s. But most of the material is new to me and, I suspect, most American roots music listeners. What turned you on to this era of music?

I grew up in McKeesport at a time when rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues were unfolding and nearby Pittsburgh had a fabulous black radio station in WAMO. To us high-schoolers, the station was a kind of early underground radio, at the low end of the AM dial where you could hear this music you couldn’t hear anywhere else. Radio was segregated back then. WAMO was geared to black listeners, but the radio waves flowed out to everyone and anyone, and we tuned in. They would play a record because it was good. Didn’t matter when it was released, whether it was on the charts, or who performed it. All I knew was that I just had to have those records. That got me seeking out those little hole-in-the-wall record stores where I could riffle through hundreds of records. The labels were a visual delight and the music took you on a journey to a place you’d never go otherwise.

Back then, though, I was into the small seven-inch 45 rpms with the big center hole. I didn’t know about the brittle shellac 10-inch wind-up Victrola records. However, over time I had begun to be aware of the blues, prewar blues, and eventually I began bumping into recordings of it, mostly on LP album collections like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. In college in the middle ‘60s I expanded into folk and jazz, but I never thought about collecting the 78s because I never saw them. I still remember the flea market near Huntington, Pennsylvania, and the big pile of 78s. Doris Day was on top but halfway through the stack was Blind Boy Fuller and “She’s a Truckin’ Little Baby.” That was the beginning for me.

After its radio play on WPSU, how did Chimpin’ the Blues get released as a CD?

I became friends with John Heneghan, who started East River Records. He is a collector of rare records and as a performer with Eden Brower draws his repertoire from old 78s. We thought it would be fun to release Chimpin’ as a CD. John is also a sound engineer and wanted to upgrade the quality of the musical tracks. The CD is sonically improved [from the radio show] with the talking tracks separated out from the music. Robert Crumb added color to his earlier original black-and-white drawing. The two vinyl pressings sold out; a third is in the offing. It hit number 39 on the Roots Music Report radio charts in January.

So the old music is getting a great response?

We’re tapping into an interesting little wave. The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which I was peripherally involved in through my association with the gospel group from the film, the Fairfield Four, sparked a renewed interest in old American roots music. We were doing an O Brother concert at Carnegie Hall. At intermission, I was lingering near a group of twenty-somethings and heard them saying they had never heard “You Are My Sunshine.” And then they started singing it and going on about how much they loved it!

Interest in this music has snowballed. My most recent project is working on rock-and-roller Jack White’s The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records [Third Man/Revenant Records], a collection that when completed will make available around 1,600 tracks of rare blues, jazz, gospel, and hillbilly recordings from the 1920s. Jack White and quite a number of contemporary artists—Mumford and Sons, the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Sarah Jarosz, Dom Flemons and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Lumineers, and so many others—are all part of the snowballing interest in American roots music. Even a throwback to older technology whether it be acoustic instruments, live as opposed to contrived recording, the staying power of artists such as Dylan and Springsteen—and dare I say Robert Crumb—and before them Woody Guthrie and the late Pete Seeger, and, of course, the old time needle-on-vinyl way of listening to recorded music. I think all of these factors have helped make viable Chimpin’ the Blues.