From flea markets to Grammy recognition: Zolten elevates American roots music

by Sherry Fugitt Sullivan for Ivy Leaf, the Penn State Altoona Magazine
July 14, 2015

"Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole."
— Eudora Welty

There are some important tools of his trade: a comfortable pair of blue jeans, a renowned collection of rare recordings, a 1932 National steel guitar that is never too far away, a necessary and quirky sense of humor and, as writer Eudora Welty described, “participation in what goes on.” From his teenage days heavily influenced by Pittsburgh’s WAMO, described by historians as the nation’s “flagship of black radio,” to work on award-winning collaborations, Jerry Zolten has defined participation in elevating American roots music to its deserving level of recognition. In his words, “the music takes me to times, places and sensibilities I would never experience directly.”

The Story is in the Rise and Fall

For the past three decades, students at Penn State Altoona have had the benefit of this journey with Zolten who serves as an associate professor of communication arts and sciences. Those students enrolled in his fall 2014 American Studies course, “The Cultural Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” received a special treat when it was announced that a project to which Zolten had contributed, "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records (1917-1932)," was nominated for two Grammy Awards. This volume of 800 newly remastered digital tracks was released in November 2013 by Third Man Records — founded by White Stripes lead singer Jack White in 2001 — and Revenant Records, launched in 1995 by American fingerstyle guitarist John Fahey. A second volume was released in November 2014 and stands a good chance to garner additional Grammy nominations.

“Because of my collection of rare 78 RPM recordings — in some cases the only known or best-condition copies — my name got to be known in the record-collecting community,” Zolten explained. “I started collecting when I was a kid but by the 1970s had shifted my focus to the older wind-up Victrola 78s, records that documented American roots music in the realms of jazz, hillbilly, gospel and blues. Dean Blackwood, the owner of Revenant Records, knew my name. He had contacted me several years ago to see if I would be willing to contribute one of my Charlie Patton recordings to the collection. I was glad to make it available. Fast forward a decade, and I was contacted by Blackwood asking if I would take part in the Paramount project both as a contributor of rare tracks and as a contributor to the collection’s historical liner notes. I also received a call from Alex van der Tuuk, the world’s renowned expert on the Paramount label. I was honored to accept the invitation to be part of this incredible undertaking.”

As described in the collection’s writings, “Paramount Records was formed in 1917 with little fanfare and few prospects — its founders ran a Wisconsin furniture company and knew nothing of the record business. Its mission was modest: produce records as cheaply as possible with whatever talent was available. ... In 1922, Paramount’s white owners embarked on a radical new business plan: selling the music of black artists to black audiences (“the music of the Race,” or “Race Records”). … By 1927, Paramount was the most important label in the Race Records field.”

In a February 2015 blog post (http://theconversation.com/profiles/jerry-zolten-156228/articles), Zolten wrote about the forgotten voices of race records. Specifically, he quotes a June 1926 article from Talking Machine World: “The Negro trade is … itself … an enormously profitable occupation for the retailer who knows his way about. … The segregation of the Negro population has enabled dealers to build up a trade catering to this race exclusively.”

As Zolten explained, the story of race records and Paramount Records’ rise and fall is nothing less than life experiences as told through music. Blind Lemon Jefferson sang that he “ain’t got nobody: I’m all here by myself” in his “Wartime Blues” while Papa Charlie Jackson explained that “it was in the loving kitchen where they made the plot for to poison her father and her mother in the coffeepot” in his “Coffee Pot Blues.” On the sweeter side of life, African-American vaudeville performer Trixie Smith sang, “I feel so happy, I have a smile, (both all the while), since my man came back home to stay, night and day … .” in her recording of “My Man Rocks Me.” And Rev. T.T. Rose rejoiced, “Hallelujah, I’ve got a hiding place” in one of his gospel recordings.

Zolten on the Rev. T.T. Rose

Associate Professor Jerry Zolten discusses the Reverend T.T. Rose, one of the most influential African American recording artists on the Paramount label.

C. Roy Parker, Penn State

From Dust to Digital

Rev. T.T. Rose is one of Zolten’s favorite Paramount research stories. Rose recorded only a few tracks for Paramount, and he was one of the artists on Zolten’s assigned list of unknowns as he embarked on his research for the Paramount project. Nothing was known about Rose beyond his inclusion in the 2003 Grammy-nominated collection "Goodbye Babylon," titled after one of the songs Rose recorded for Paramount. Then in 2006, the Black Keys hit the pop charts with their own take on Rev. Rose’s song.

In an October 2013 post for the musical archival blog Dust to Digital (www.dust-digital.com) Zolten wrote, “Session logs reveal that Rev. Rose cut a total of 10 sides on four occasions, three in Chicago in April, August and March of 1927 and a fourth three years later in Grafton, Wisconsin, in March 1930.” Zolten began his process of exploration with the Chicago Defender, one of the few black newspapers in operation at the same time as Paramount Records. In a 1940s edition of the newspaper, he found a small account of several dignitaries conducting a ceremony at Abraham Lincoln’s gravesite. One of them was Rev. T.T. Rose of the Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Illinois. 

After several internet searches and phone calls, Zolten reached a parishioner who explained that Rose had been her pastor but had passed on. She put him in touch with Rose’s daughter, then 95. Thrilled to tell her father’s story, Rose’s daughter directed Zolten to an online oral history completed by Rose in the 1980s and preserved by the University of Illinois. In his recordings, Rose tells of childhood visits to Springfield at the turn of the century where he observed brutal riots. It was then that he decided to commit his life to serving that community. For Zolten, the story unfolded right before him. This was just one of many examples where Zolten’s participation in digging deeper into the lives of American roots musicians uncovered historically significant stories and songs while creating lifelong friendships.

United and Empathetic Voices

The year was 1963. Life in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, was fairly typical of a thriving but soon-to-change East Coast steel town. Already an avid collector of 45 RPM records, Zolten had carved out a niche for himself as a popular disk jockey at McKeesport High School record hops. Part way into the evening, he would bring in local R&B acts to perform for the better part of an hour, among them the Altairs whose lead singer, George Benson, would go on to become a 10-time Grammy Award-winning guitarist and singer-songwriter.

A few years later, his record-spinning days behind him but still an avid record collector, producer-in-training and now aspiring musician, Zolten arrived on Penn State’s University Park campus. He joined a student organization, the Folklore Society, and by the late 1960s in his senior year, was elected its president. He was also a founding member of a jug band, The New Old Time Wooley Thumpers, the name borrowed from a 1920s ensemble. During this period, Zolten found mentors in several university faculty members. Stan Sheppard, a physics professor and brilliant musician from Jamaica, took Zolten under his wing and coached him on guitar playing. The Wooley Thumpers were also often invited by Penn State Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication Gerry Phillips to perform as an object lesson in one of his popular class on semantics. As Zolten recalled, “for students campuswide, his was a uniting and empathetic voice in a time of turbulent social protest, and our job was to perform as a way to illustrate the power and message of music.” In 1968, the Thumpers opened for Janis Joplin at Rec Hall.

Graduation was quickly approaching as was one very real concern: the Vietnam War draft. In 1969, Zolten received notification that he had been drafted. As fate would have it, he was rejected by the military due to severe allergies — an event that changed the course of his life. He returned to Penn State to pursue a post-graduate education and his love for making music and producing musical events. With Phillips as his mentor, he completed a master’s degree and doctorate in communications at Penn State, his research themes including how language helped define social identity and how humor functioned as communication within interpersonal relationships. But the world of music was always at his fingertips.

Zolten reunited with former Wooley Thumper David Fox in 1971 to perform as the duo Dave and Jerry. He also began producing local concerts featuring early roots musicians who had begun to see a revival in their music. Artists such as Olatunji, the Carter Family, Wade Mainer, John Jackson, Bo Diddley, Otis Rush, and Hank Ballard would grace the stages of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in downtown State College over a succession of summers.

During this time, Zolten also began writing freelance articles about American roots musicians such as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and another of his undergraduate mentors, Penn State faculty member and internationally renowned folklorist Samuel Bayard. These mid-1970s articles were published in the magazine Sing Out! They illustrated Zolten’s humanist approach to communications studies and his research into how roots music was, in fact, a window into a culture at a time and place he couldn’t experience himself.

Through the years, Zolten has traveled extensively to seek out incredibly rare recordings for his collection, see performances and interview musicians. It was during one of his trips to Virginia in the 1980s that Zolten met legendary blues singer John Jackson. Zolten developed a close friendship with Jackson and would often visit and travel with him, eventually writing the notes for one of his albums, "Deep in the Bottom"(Rounder Records, 1990). Their friendship, alive until Jackson’s death in 2002, would plant a seed that would grow into some of his most significant work.

“In 1985, my wife and I were in Washington, D.C., for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival,” Zolten describes. “We happened upon an a cappella group from Tennessee and were blown away by their performance. Later, as we were walking the mall, I spotted them and walked over to introduce myself. I asked who they were, and they said, ‘The Fairfield Four.’ They had reunited after a 30-year hiatus from performing, and this was their first appearance away from their home base in Nashville. I was ecstatic, having known them from a few of their old 78 RPM records in my collection. We exchanged addresses, and a partnership evolved. I invited them to perform at the Central PA Festival of the Arts and eventually hooked them up with State College native Lee Olsen who became their manager and remains so today.” Zolten often toured with them as their road manager and historian, helping to promote them and resurrect their career. In 1989, he produced the group’s CD, "Wreckin’ the House/Live at Mt. Hope," in front of a live audience in a small black church in Mount Union, Pennsylvania. He also produced a critically acclaimed CD by their bass singer, Isaac Freemen, titled "Beautiful Stars." The group received a Grammy in 1988 and a share of another Grammy in 2001 for their contribution to the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack.

Zolten’s work with the Fairfield Four led to involvement with another of black gospel’s pioneering groups, Philadelphia’s Dixie Hummingbirds — widely known for their collaboration with Paul Simon on the No. 1 1973 hit “Loves Me (Like a Rock).” The Birds, as their fans affectionately called them, were one of the groups that influenced Zolten as a teenager when he heard them on Pittsburgh’s black radio station WAMO. The Birds’ powerhouse lead singer, Ira Tucker, had been a primary influence on Stevie Wonder, and Tucker’s son Ira Jr. was Wonder’s publicist and confidant. Zolten invited the Birds to Penn State to perform. This led to joint appearances with the group, Zolten serving as emcee and providing educational presentations as a prelude to their performance. Ira Tucker then invited Zolten to write an authorized biography of the Dixie Hummingbirds. Fortunately, most of the original members of the group were still living. What began as a few phone calls turned into a six-year writing project—a book of rare photographs and inside stories chronicling seven decades of this Grammy Hall of Fame gospel group. Zolten’s "Great God A’Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music" was published by Oxford University Press in 2003 and received a full-page review in The New York Times. Zolten received the Association for Recorded Sound Collection Award for “Best Research in Recorded Blues and Gospel Music” for his publication.

Another Joyful Noise Around the Corner

A career spanning more than 30 years has given Zolten the opportunity to participate in American roots music in multiple capacities: collector, educator, advocator, storyteller, producer, critic, promoter, and, most importantly, listener. With a list of American roots music acquaintances and contacts that nearly surpasses the number of albums in his collection, Zolten is never without the next project. His prolific body of work earned him the Kjell Meling Award for Distinction in the Arts and Humanities in 2010.

In 2013, he joined underground cartoonist Robert Crumb in producing and hosting "Chimpin’ the Blues," an audio collection of conversation and rare blues recordings. Zolten followed this with entertaining educational presentations related to his work. Most recently, for attendees of the It Was 50 Years Ago Today! An International Beatles Celebration conference organized by Penn State, he interviewed Richard Langham, the recording engineer at Abbey Road Studios who worked with the Beatles during their 1963 and 1964 recording sessions. Add to this, organizing a Penn State conference marking Woody Guthrie at 100 that included Zolten’s filmed interview with Pete Seeger, a marquee presentation on “The Country Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll” at the Country Music Hall of Fame and the production of several Bruce Springsteen symposiums, and one gets a clearer idea of how Zolten’s serendipitous journey continues to produce incredible opportunities.

What’s next? As Zolten approaches his fall 2015 sabbatical, he looks forward to work on several projects. One is a book about the black folk preachers whose records were big sellers within the African-American community in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Zolten plans to include transcriptions of historic recorded sermons and to explore the brilliant use of metaphor and message, in many cases documenting some of the first voices within the black community to speak out forcefully against racism and discrimination. Zolten is also working with pop music legend and Beach Boys collaborator (and childhood friend) Van Dyke Parks on a collection of pre-World War II calypso tracks to be released on the Atlanta-based Grammy-winning label Dust-to-Digital. Additionally, he is working with the Pennsylvania-based Martin Guitar Co. on a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the acoustic dreadnaught guitar.

His calendar looks full; his research projects, plentiful. In the midst of it all, Zolten will always make time to search for that illusive and rare 45 or 78 which opens the window a little more to show him, his Penn State Altoona students and the world another important glimpse into the American experience. He is the participant listening for stories — waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.

  • Jerry Zolten with Fairfield Four and Dixie Hummingbirds

    Zolten on tour in the 1990s with the Fairfield Four and Dixie Hummingbirds

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated July 14, 2015