Jerry Zolten is really into this music. His eyes are closed. He's strumming along on his guitar. He's in a different world—transported. The voice coming through his stereo speakers is so deep, so rich that I can feel it vibrating in my chest. It could very well be the voice of God rising up through the oak floor of Zolten's living room.
We're listening to Isaac "Dickie" Freeman, bass singer for the legendary African American gospel group the Fairfield Four, croon "Beautiful Stars"—a hymn his mother taught him when he was a little boy. The track is from an album of the same name, which Zolten, an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Altoona, produced in 2002.
In the middle of the song, I can hear Freeman calling for the guitarist to join in. Zolten opens his eyes. "Freeman's used to singing a cappella. He wasn't used to singing with instrumentalists," he says. "So he wasn't quite sure how it would work. But we decided to leave his voice in."
Freeman sings the last few verses, his voice quavering slightly. At the end, over the guitars, he cries out, "I can almost see my mother right now."
"This is where he gets emotional," says Zolten, staring at the speakers. "He was crying. It's almost too hard for me to listen to."
Zolten puts down his guitar and switches off the CD player. He leans forward in his chair. "I felt like we were capturing history as well as music," he says quietly. "It's amazing to hear this voice singing songs that have been out of currency for 30 to40 years."
As a group, The Fairfield Four—once comprised of singers Dickie Freeman, Sam McCrary, James Hill, Willie Love, and Edward "Preacher" Thomas, among others—reached the height of its popularity in the 1940s. They toured the East Coast and the Deep South on a grueling schedule, recording for the Library of Congress, and performing daily on a nationally broadcast radio show out of Nashville. By 1950, though, financial trouble and a dwindling radio audience forced the group to break up.
Zolten met the Fairfield Four in 1983 at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. , where the group was giving one of several reunion performances. "They'd been out of the music business for years, and they were ready to sing again," Zolten says.
Captivated by their sound, he offered to help promote the group. They agreed, and Zolten became their road manager and historian throughout much of the 1980s, arranging performances for them and publishing several articles about them in popular music magazines. In 1989, Zolten recorded the group in front of a live audience in a small black church in Mount Union, Pennsylvania. From that performance, he co-produced "Wreckin' the House: Live at Mount Hope." It was his first venture into the world of record producing.
Zolten's recording of the group caught the attention of singer/songwriters Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch. They later released the album on their label Dead Reckoning, and it received high critical praise and remains the group's only "live" album. The Fairfield Four went on to record four albums with Warner Brothers, and in 1998 won a Grammy award for the album, "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray." In 2001, the Four earned a share of another Grammy for their contribution to the soundtrack for the 2001 movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
To Zolten, becoming a record producer was just a natural extension of a lifelong interest in music and performance, an interest that has shaped both his life and his academic career. As an undergraduate at Penn State in the 1960s, he played guitar for a folk-rock group called the "Wooley Thumpers." The band even made a go of it in New York City, playing the blues and folk in clubs, including the famous "Bitter End" in Manhattan. (Zolten still occasionally plays in central Pennsylvania with a band called Code:Blue and with his long-time musical partner Richard Sleigh in a duo called the Jivebombers.) He returned to Penn State for a master's in speech communications and then, in the '70s, he moved to San Francisco to try life as a stand-up comedian.
As Zolten told Ivyleaf, the Penn State Altoona alumni magazine, in 2003, "When I performed with any of my bands, I was always the announcer. I was always the one on stage who did the talking. And I got to be pretty good at it. So I moved to San Francisco and took a shot at both musical performance and stand-up comedy. I performed all over the city, in clubs and on the streets. At that time there were always performers out on the streets working for change."
Eventually, Zolten returned to Penn State to work on a Ph.D. in speech communications. In 1982, soon after completing a dissertation on "The Use of Premeditated Humor in Interpersonal Relationships," he took a job as an assistant professor at Penn State's Altoona campus, where he now teaches courses in communication arts and sciences, American studies, and integrative arts, including courses on the history of stand-up comedy and on the cultural roots of rock and roll.
To Zolten, all of these interests are related. "Gospel music, comedy, rhetoric, these are all ways of communicating with people, of creating social change," he says.
Z olten's collection of rare and historic recordings, from boxes of thick 78 rpm shellac disks to racks of CDs, dominates the two front rooms in his house in rural Warrior's Mark, Pennsylvania. It's a treasure trove of authentic American music—gospel, jazz, rock and roll, hillbilly. "I don't discriminate. I like all kinds of roots music," he says, grinning.
Nor is Zolten's massive collection limited to records. His shelves overflow with music memorabilia of all types: sheet music, pen and ink drawings, an RCA Victor vinyl chair, images, posters, framed record covers. Zolten shows me a placard the Fairfield Four would have handed out during concerts in the 1940s. Much of this collection, he says, comes from savvy yard sale and flea-market shopping over the years. Lately, E-Bay has become another important source of material.
In the early eighties, Zolten got a letter from another fanatical collector, cartoonist Robert Crumb—the famous R. Crumb, considered the father of underground comics, who created some of the enduring pop-art icons of the 1960s. Crumb had heard about some of Zolten's prize specimens through a mutual friend, and wanted to know whether he would trade old records for original artwork. Soon, the two became "shellac pals," searching out, comparing, and swapping rare finds. Their lasting friendship is immortalized in a framed Crumb comic on Zolten's living room wall. In the drawing, Zolten is standing in his front music room with his wife Joyce, surrounded by piles and piles of records. Joyce is holding a baby, their son Zack, now 16, and wondering aloud how they're going to make room for the new bundle of joy. The cartoon version of Joyce suggests moving some of the records into the basement. "Surely you jest!" the cartoon Zolten responds.
He has been collecting since he was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. That's when Zolten first became interested in "roots" music, which he defines as "music that draws on the life experiences of ordinary people, often defined by race or class." By the time he was a teenager, he had already amassed an impressive collection of records—jazz, soul, rock, folk. Gospel caught him off guard, as he was scanning the airwaves early one Sunday morning, having not gone to bed on Saturday night. Zolten discovered a music that had a passion and intensity he hadn't heard before. He was immediately drawn to the "rocking choirs, screaming preachers, sanctified divas, and sublime vocal groups with a soul feel that at the time was simply not present on the secular side," as he remembers.
Soon, he began visiting local black churches and following groups. Though he wasn't a particularly religious person, he began adding the music of the great gospel quartets of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s—The Dixie Hummingbirds, Blind Boys of Alabama, The Fairfield Four, the Golden Gate Quartet—to his collection. As a college student in the 1960s, he was part of an organization called the Penn State Folklore Society, a group of students with a passion for folk music. In that atmosphere of protest music and psychedelia, he began writing and publishing articles about a much older music. He has kept it up ever since.
During his stint as road manager of the Fairfield Four, Zolten was approached by Ira Tucker, the lead singer of the Dixie Hummingbirds, one of the towering gospel groups of the 20th century. They'd heard about Zolten, his work promoting and writing liner notes for other groups and musicians, his many articles and profiles in music magazines. "Tucker said they wanted me to write a book about them," Zolten says, grinning.
The volume that resulted, Great God A'mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds, published in 2003 by Oxford University Press, is the culmination of Zolten's parallel lives as a lover of roots music and a scholar of cultural communication. The book traces the members of the Dixie Hummingbirds from the band's formation in 1928 in South Carolina by a 12-year-old choirboy named James Davis to their 75th anniversary in 2002, celebrated in their adopted hometown of Philadelphia. Zolten uses the band's long history to explore the larger role of gospel music in African American culture throughout the tumultous periods of social change that characterized the 20th century.
"Gospel is a music that emerged from within African-American culture—it had a function that served the needs of the African-American community," he says.
Before the 1930s this music was called "spirituals," a descendant of slave music. "It has one foot in the Anglo hymn traditional and one foot in African music," Zolten explains. "The early gospel quartets simply took the old spirituals and arranged them for a cappella voices."
The term "gospel" didn't come about until the 1930s, Zolten writes. A blues composer from Georgia named Thomas Dorsey (not Tommy Dorsey, the big band leader) was the early inventor of the genre. "He was a down-and-dirty blues singer," says Zolten. Dorsey became distraught after his wife died in childbirth and turned to the church for comfort, eventually writing and recording the gospel standard, "Precious Lord Take My Hand." Says Zolten, "He took religious music, gave it the beat of the blues, and marketed it as gospel."
As reviewer Gene Santoro wrote in the New York Times in February 2003, "Zolten's descriptions of music are evocative, and he neither minimizes nor exaggerates the gospel world's fierce moral and showbiz competitiveness. He shows how, like all the top-flight gospel quartets, the Birds drilled on staging and presentation as well as music. And while he periodically overstates their innovations and their direct influence on doowop and soul, he makes a case that they were exemplars and conveyors of cultural and musical change."
In a time when African Americans were searching for cultural icons, embracing popular heroes like the heavyweight champion Joe Louis, Zolten writes, the Hummingbirds were particularly conscious of their status as positive role models. James Davis, who, even in retirement, remained the patriarch, "the guiding light of the group," held the Birds to strict policies prohibiting drinking, cursing, and seeing women while on tour.
According to Gadson Graham, pastorof the Canaan Baptist Church in Paterson, New Jersey, a congregation with whom the Hummingbirds have had a relationship for over 40 years, "they sang about racism, social injustice, racial injustice. They gave people hope."
A t his home in Warrior's Mark, Zolten pops in a videotape of a Hummingbirds performance at New Canaan Baptist in 2002. In the video, lead singer Ira Tucker is 78 years old. He's working the crowd, moving up and down the aisles, shaking hands, touching heads.
When the Hummingbirds get up in front of a crowd, Zolten explains, it's meant to be a give and take, a call and response. The dynamic harks back to African tradition. The performance, the energy, depends on the audience.
"The music is about making connections with people, not about preaching or proselytizing," says Zolten. "When they're really doing it right, they create a sense of unity in the room." On the tape, the congregation stomps and claps and hollers, responding to Tucker's urgings. "It's weird for these guys when they play for white audiences," says Zolten, laughing. "Sometimes the people are too restrained and the performance is stilted.
"Most American pop music ultimately has its roots in African-American music," he continues, "and the wellspring of African-American music is religious music." He says this slowly and deliberately, his low voice a bit gravelly. "When you hear a black gospel quartet, you're hearing the roots of jazz—the way the harmonies are constructed and the centrality of improvisation to the performance.
"Soul music is the secular counterpart to gospel," he adds. "Ray Charles is famous for bringing the blues into gospel music."
The core audience for what Zolten calls "hard" gospel remains "mostly older African-Americans, age 50 and up," he says. Its appeal is still strongest in the South and along the East Coast, where the Hummingbirds toured for decades. But the band's work with Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Stevie Wonder has helped to introduce them to a new generation of listeners. The band even has a big following in Europe—particularly Spain and Scandinavia—and in Japan.
Reviewing the Dixie Hummingbirds' 75th anniversary album "Diamond Jubilation" in 2003, Tom Moon, music critic for National Public Radio, noted, "they persevered through rock and roll and the rise and fall of the Backstreet Boys. . . Amazingly, after all the years, the Dixie Hummingbirds still find new vessels for that age-old spirit."
Zolten is not surprised, by either the new-found popularity or the enduring longevity.
"If you haven't heard it," he says of this uniquely American music, "it's exciting for the first time. It has repetition, melody—all there to hook you." At thesame time, he adds, "these songs havea lasting quality," something thatspeaks to, well, to our roots.
Zolten reaches for the CD case ofIsaac "Dickie" Freeman's "BeautifulStars," the record we'd listened to a few minutes earlier. "I heard someone pointing out that certain records bring great comfort to people in troubled times," he says. "And I can't think of a record that's any more comforting than Dickie's is."
J. Jerome Zolten, Ph.D., is associate professor of speech communications at Penn State Altoona, 101 Smith Building, Altoona, PA 16601; (814) 949-5113; email@example.com. His book, Great God A'mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds, was published by Oxford University Press in 2003. Zolten was supported by the Penn State Altoona Dean's Development Fund and a grant from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.