By Josh Langenbacher
To understand how music connoisseur Jerry Zolten has built a career for himself, perhaps a tale from the 1970s can be instructive. Zolten, an associate professor of communications arts and sciences at Penn State, had started chatting up a woman from Mount Union while he was teaching, with the two talking at length about their love of black music.
Also inspired by the tales of one of his teachers who had shared that details of going door-to-door in southern Pennsylvania looking for ballads and folk tunes, Zolten decided on one sunny day to hit the pavement in Mount Union, home of a large black community, and launch a grassroots effort to educate himself.
Door-to-door he went, holding up an old 78-rpm record in his hand, asking residents if they collected.
“How many people would go into a strange neighborhood and start asking people about rpm records?” says longtime friend, Richard Sleigh. “You’ve gotta be willing to have a lot of people look at you like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ If he wants to do something, he’s willing to crash and burn as far as putting out trial balloons with people, and so he ends up finding himself in a lot of interesting situations because he starts something and it takes on a life of its own.”
That summer day in Mount Union serves as a case in point. Zolten says “two proverbial little old ladies” met him at one door and, not having any records but having a granddaughter who could play the piano, asked Zolten to come back a week later. When he returned, he met the granddaughter, Diane McDaniel, and the two formed the group Body & Soul, an R&B group that would play regular gigs at Café 210.
“I still remember Diane taking me to the black Elks Club in Mount Union,” Zolten says. “She said, ‘Bring your guitar,’ which I did. I’m just sitting around a table playing oldies, and suddenly I feel like I’m at a Broadway musical. Maybe 10 people in the room suddenly are around me breaking in harmony, singing all this do-wop, and that’s really how the group got started.”
And it was through his record collection that he became introduced to The Fairfield Four, a gospel group that has existed for more than 90 years. A longtime collector of the group’s work, Zolten first saw The Fairfield Four live at a Smithsonian-sponsored festival in Washington, DC, in 1983. But the quartet was billed simply as “African-American gospel,” not as the group that formed in 1921, and Zolten didn’t realize whom he had witnessed until running into member James Hill at a mall.
Moved by hearing The Fairfield Four live, Zolten vowed to get the group back into the mainstream; the quartet had split up in 1950 until reforming in 1980. So he produced Wreckin’ The House, a live CD of the group performing at Mt. Hope Baptist Church in Mount Union in 1989, and became, in essence, the group’s tour manager.
Eight years later, the group’s 1997 album, I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray, won the Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Recording. Zolten speaks modestly about his promotional accomplishments, but did allow that he “sort of spearheaded their return to commercial performance.”
“It kind of choked me up when they won it,” he says. “These are guys who — they aren’t looking to be stars, they aren’t looking to do anything but what they do — make music and make people feel good about life. … Here are these guys who are at the tail end of a career that had begun in the 1920s getting a Grammy award. It was very emotional and gratifying.”
Zolten speaks confidently and enthusiastically. But even more than a decade later when relaying his emotions after he had heard the group’s name called as a Grammy winner, he becomes emotional again.
“It’s one of those undefinable eternal feelings. I just welled up and, you know,” Zolten says, his voice softening as he tears up, taking a few seconds to gather himself, “they’re all gone. Only two of them are alive. And I miss them terribly. We had close relationships.”
Zolten’s career — and life — has been about forming close relationships with people, mostly through his passion for music. Zolten, who is in his 60s and is married and has a 24-year-old son, still stays in regular contact with “Dickie” Freeman, a famous member of The Fairfield Four.
When he wrote a book about the influential gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds titled Great God A’Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music, Zolten landed an interview with Stevie Wonder. And, as a performer, he has opened for or performed with iconic names such as Janis Joplin, Bo Diddley, and Warren Zevon.
“For everything Jerry’s accomplished by writing this book, there was enormous behind-the-scenes work that he put in,” says Sleigh, who has known Zolten since the 1970s. “He persistently contacted people and had that three-dimensional or four-dimensional way of knowing who’s interested in what, who knows who, how do they know him, who’s getting along with who. Being able to work your way through that maze of personalities is quite a talent.”
Zolten is in the midst of another of his projects that stems from his ability to network with some heavy hitters.
About five years ago, in cooperation with Penn State Outreach and a senior conference planner from the University of Southern Indiana named Mark Bernhard, whose passion for Bruce Springsteen led to his approaching Zolten about an academic-conference symposium, Zolten helped bring in Springsteen expert Bob Santelli, also the executive director of the Grammy Museum. Earlier this year, a book titled Bruce Springsteen, Cultural Studies, and the Runaway American Dream was published. The collection of essays was edited by Zolten, Bernhard, and Kenneth Womack, associate dean for academic affairs at Penn State Altoona.
Two years after the Springsteen conference, Santelli told Zolten he was going to be overseeing a yearlong tribute to Woody Guthrie, the legendary folk musician best known for writing “This Land is Your Land.” The tribute, called the Woody Guthrie Centennial, has events happening throughout this year across the country, in Canada, and in Austria and Germany. Zolten is producing an event to be held at Penn State in September and that will be a part of this international celebration of Guthrie, whose birthday is July 14.
“I got to thinking that Penn State is in the heart of labor country,” Zolten says. “Farmers, coal miners, railroaders, steel making, iron making back in the day, the list goes on. I thought maybe this would be a great place to have a Woody Guthrie-themed conference called Woody Guthrie’s legacy to workingmen and -women, so that was the proposal I put together. Everyone on the other end loved it, and I got the green light.”
The event, to be held September 7-9, will feature a conference on September 8 at the Nittany Lion Inn followed by a concert later that evening at Eisenhower Auditorium. Although Zolten wasn’t at liberty to disclose the artists who will play that night, some of the names at other concerts included names such as John Mellencamp, Rosanne Cash, Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, and Crosby and Nash. Performers come on what is called a most-favored-nation basis, meaning their time is essentially donated for the cause of the concert, and Zolten says names for the September event could be revealed in July or August.
“Our concert will be of a similar caliber,” he says. “It will be something to see, absolutely.”
What makes Penn State’s event unique, Zolten says, is that it focuses not on a location but a concept. Other Woody Guthrie Centennial events either have taken place or are scheduled at USC (Guthrie spent part of his career in southern California), in Oklahoma (Guthrie’s home state), and Brooklyn College (a fit given that Guthrie began building his legacy in New York City).
“I’m so caught up in making this thing fly that that’s occupying all of my thoughts,” Zolten says. “I’ve been at it since last February. Part of what’s been going on is that Penn State Outreach is no longer what it was when I worked on the Springsteen conference. And so funding and sponsorships have been much more of an issue because somebody has to pick up the tab if money is lost, and these things cost a lot to put on. … Between trying to lay out a solid foundation monetarily, I’m also thinking about who can we have that would really bring something unique to the table.”
Still, despite being consumed by the Woody Guthrie Centennial, those close to Zolten say he still clears his schedule if they come to him with questions or looking for help. Recently, McDaniel was listening to Forever Gospel on XM Radio when she heard a couple do-wop tunes and thought her group could pull the songs off. So she called up her old friend.
“And within two days, I had the music,” she says. “He’s one of the few people who I know if I hear something from way back in the past, Jerry will say, ‘OK, I’ll get it to you.’
“He’s got great talent and he’s dedicated. But he doesn’t talk about that. He just knows there’s a job that has to be done.”
His commitment, his friends say, is steep once he jumps onboard a gig or project. McDaniel remembers one time when Body & Soul had a gig in Coudersport during the dead of winter and, having just bought a new Firebird, she was in no hurry to put her new sports car on the road for a gig on a snowy winter night.
“He said, ‘You signed a contract,’ ” McDaniel recalls. “So what I did was I found a driver. Being a female driving a sports car in the wintertime is not a good thing, but he let me know we made an agreement and the contract was signed. He was there and that was all it took. And this was in everything he did — whether it was a rehearsal, going to a wedding reception, to Coudersport way up in the boondocks — wherever he made a commitment, he would do it, and he would do it right. I’ve never seen him say he’s had to cancel.”
Even on-site, when it’s clear a gig isn’t panning out, Zolten goes to work to salvage the night. He and Sleigh formed a two-person group called the Jive Bombers, and they were booked on one New Year’s Eve where the bar owner wanted a dance band. Problem was, the Jive Bombers were anything but.
Sleigh says, “Even though we explained to this bar owner that we’re a duo and we don’t really play contemporary country-western, that’s what they wanted, and so we ended up in this place way out of town and Jerry had to kind of work the owner, who was not having a good night, and keep him from getting really out of control. Just by being persistent and diplomatic, he at least brought the vibes down to the point where we could play the gig and get along with each other.”
That persistence and dedication, plus the willingness to “really crash and burn,” as Sleigh calls it, can be traced to the formative days of Zolten’s career when he wouldn’t shy away from knocking door-to-door on strangers’ homes in a historically black town.
And as his career progresses, he finds himself applying one of Guthrie’s songs to his own life. The tune, called “Talkin’ Hard Luck Blues,” is about Guthrie’s hanging around because he can’t wait to see what happens next.
“It really is like that,” Zolten says. “I saw that with some of the musicians I was working with. They’re in their 70s and 80s, and accomplished everything, yet there they were still going. That’s what it was. There was still that thrill of connecting people in a unique way, and that’s what keeps me going.”
Josh Langenbacher has covered Penn State sports for several newspapers. He currently works the news copy desk at the Altoona Mirror.