A decade later, WPSU radio program ‘Chimpin’ the Blues’ is reborn

Bill Zimmerman
November 25, 2013

Penn State professor and American roots music historian Jerry Zolten has spent decades hunting for old records.

Now a rare Zolten recording has been unearthed.  

“Chimpin’ the Blues,” a 60-minute program co-hosted by Zolten, aired a handful of times on public radio in 2003 and will be released Nov. 26 by a New York-based independent label. The WPSU-produced recording is one decade old but the tunes of the 1920s and ’30s are timeless, according to the associate professor of communications arts and sciences, and American studies at Penn State Altoona.

R. Crumb and Jerry Zolten holding a 78 RPM record

R. Crumb, left, and Jerry Zolten have bonded over record collecting since the early 1980s.

IMAGE: Submitted photo

“I’m hoping like heck that this will introduce a lot of new fans to a lot of music,” Zolten said.

Those 11 cuts originating from 78 RPM (revolutions per minute) records rescued from dusty boxes at yard sales, antique malls and estate sales will get a slick repackaging on CD, vinyl LP and MP3 courtesy of East River Records and Redeye Distribution. Long-forgotten tunes aside, the program’s biggest draw may be the involvement of comic artist, record hunter and longtime Zolten pal Robert Crumb.

“It’s a couple of monkeys just chattering to each other about their little cultural interests. I’m sure that model train builders and stamp collectors do it,” said the man better known as R. Crumb, by phone from his home in the south of France.

Zolten envisioned the recording using the “Crumb brand to trick people into listening to music that they would otherwise totally ignore.” Crumb created the cover art, a depiction of the two obsessives admiring over a 78 with almost “no groove wear.”

The Philadelphia-born Crumb, got his start working for American Greetings Corp. in the 1960s and later became known for writing and illustrating underground comics such as Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, and designing the album cover for Janis Joplin’s first album. In the late ’60s, hippies embraced his strutting “Keep on Truckin’” characters, giving a countercultural figure like Crumb a place in popular culture.

Raised in McKeesport, Pa., Zolten began collecting 45 RPM records as a teen and started DJing at record hops. Soon he became a junior historian, delving deep into recordings made decades before his birth, especially the work of overlooked African-American gospel, and rhythm and blues artists. He went on to become an educator, musician and producer. In 2003, Oxford University Press published his book "Great God A'Mighty - The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel,” a exploration of the Grammy-winning group with roots in the Jim Crow South. Most recently, he’s been researching the emergence of the Paramount record label in the 1920s.

“I began to realize that records were windows into culture, into time, place, sensibility and it just drew me in,” he said.

A mutual acquaintance in record collecting circles introduced Crumb and Zolten in the early 1980s. Crumb offered his original artwork in exchange for records; Zolten, a fan, jumped at the chance. They shared a fondness for 78s with each boasting collections of several thousand and would meet for marathon listening sessions. After one especially fruitful meeting of “chittering back and forth about petty details,” Zolten thought the rare music and Crumb’s commentary might have broad appeal. Eventually, the two friends were chimpin’ in WPSU’s studio, thanks to station manager Greg Petersen, and producers Eileen Aiken and Steve Shipman.

On the program, Crumb said, they avoided esoteric discussions about the likes of master numbers on recordings, the type of stuff that would be fair game when they’re “really chimpin’.” The lineup includes obscurities from artists with names including Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Geeshie Wiley and Bobbie Leecan's Need More Band. Sometimes they dig deep into the musicians’ biographies. Other times they’re just trying to decipher the meaning behind a song’s name. “Let’s not even go there,” Zolten says as they start to discuss one potentially suggestive title.

“It was a just a great period of recorded music,” Crumb said, “and I think it's because that was the fertile musical background of America at that time and they caught it before it began to be diminished by the rise of music as a much more high-powered business than it had been. The commodification of music changed music, to me. At least the commercial music was hurt by that.”

WPSU aired “Chimpin’” in 2003 to coincide with what the U.S. Congress declared the Year of the Blues, and then made it available to Public Radio Exchange (PRX), an online marketplace for public radio programming.

Now it’s been reborn thanks to John Heneghan and Eden Brower, friends and sometime musical collaborators with avid mandolin player Crumb. The husband-wife duo behind East River Records is making 2,000 CDs and 500 vinyl LPs of “Chimpin’” available. As the East River String Band they specialize in the music of the “Chimpin’” era and earlier.

Heneghan called the project “A rare glimpse of two extremely advanced 78 RPM record collectors spinning their favorite pre-war blues and gospel records and discussing (chimpin’) the power and details of this nearly forgotten American music.”

In addition to shining a spotlight on musicians time forgot, “Chimpin’” also offers a deeper look at a Crumb, according to Zolten.

“He’s enigmatic in the sense that he disdains publicity, yet when somebody talks with him, he's completely candid and rich and holds back nothing,” Zolten said. “So he's a wonderful conversationalist and observationist, and a self-educated man. Really quite impressive.”

  • A sketch by R. Crumb for Jerry Zolten

    Record collectors have their tricks for finding recordings. R. Crumb attempted to hypnotize his friend Jerry Zolten with a sketch. 

    IMAGE: R. Crumb

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Last Updated December 09, 2013