Local professor’s work gets play on new CD

When Penn State Altoona professor Jerry Zolten sat down with his good friend, cartoonist Robert Crumb, to record a radio show for WPSU in State College about the obscure blues music and rare records they loved, no one thought the program would continue to gain fans a decade later.

“I did the radio show originally back in 2003,” said Zolten, an American roots music historian and avid record collector. “But things have been happening lately, culturally, in American roots music. And even that music on vinyl. I don’t know if it’s a continuation of the interest sparked by ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ … I think it’s all part of a return to this honest kind of music – or seemingly honest music.”

That 2003 radio show, “Chimpin’ the Blues” – “chimping” being Crumb’s term for picking over the details of the music and artists – recently got new life in a CD/LP release by East River Records. East River Records is the self-publishing project of Eden and John’s East River String Band, a blues band fronted by John Heneghan and Eden Brower.

“Our band plays traditional American music from the 19th century to the early 20th century,” Heneghan wrote in an email interview with the Mirror. “We play songs we like from many different sources and styles. This was the way people played music in America until the mid 1930s, when the power of radio and mass media destroyed it when they created a money driven singer/songwriter industry.”

The duo also has a strong relationship with Crumb, who does the artwork for all of their albums.

“[Heneghan] heard ‘Chimpin’ the Blues’ and saw potential in releasing it as a CD/LP,” Zolten said. “The one thing he did was he divided the tracks. He also remastered the musical recordings. You hear what Crumb and I call the ‘chimpin,’ and then you can hear the tracks.”

The subject of the show immediately appealed to Heneghan.

“I heard about the show when Crumb gave me a copy on CD years back,” Heneghan said. “As a pre-war 78-rpm record collector myself, I love listening to and talking about old music.”

Heneghan said he met Crumb years ago, through the 70-year-old legend’s daughter.

“Eden and Crumb’s daughter, Sophie, met, and when Sophie came to our apartment she said she felt like she was in a smaller version of her parents’ house,” he said. “She introduced us [to Crumb]. We have the same taste in music and became friends.”

Remastering the old blues songs played during “Chimpin’ the Blues” was “easy” for Heneghan, an audio technician. And it’s the remastering of these songs that is the real draw, Zolten said.

“The point is that when you hear these recordings from the 1920s, you’ll hear nice clean, clear versions,” he said.

The CD/LP release of “Chimpin’ the Blues” also features extensive liner notes by Zolten about how “Chimpin'” came to be. The record is also special – it’s done in the highly collectible “splatter vinyl” style, featuring a multi-colored, swirled record.

Zolten said he and Crumb have discussed a sequel to their show, but nothing is set in stone. They’re still good friends – Zolten spent time in May 2013 staying with Crumb at his home in France – and may put something together “if time permits,” Zolten said.

Meanwhile, the professor of communication arts and sciences and American studies continues to work on getting roots music out to the masses.

“I am currently working on a project with Van Dyke Parks – one of the great behind-the-scenes figures in pop music,” Zolten said. “He and I [are] working on a collection of pre-World War II calypso records. There’s an audience out there for … music that wasn’t highly commercial, this music that was never intended for a broad market.

“I wasn’t surprised that there’s an audience, but I was surprised by the size of the audience.”

“Chimpin’ the Blues” is available on CD, vinyl and digitally online at Amazon.com.

Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick can be reached at 946-7466.