PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
May 17, 2005

Mr. Folk Music

by Jim Newsom

Bob Zentz has been “Mr. Folk Music” in these parts for as long as anyone can remember. I first met him thirty years ago when I played at an open mike night at Ramblin’ Conrad’s on Hampton Boulevard across from ODU, where the Ted Constant Center now stands. He was already a local folk icon, performing the music, promoting it, teaching it and selling it. Saturday night, he performs at the Virginia Beach Central Library.

His love for music goes back to the earliest days of his childhood in Norfolk.

“Probably the most influential person in my music beginnings was my grandfather,” he told me over lunch last month, “a traveling salesman who played the harmonica and the Jew’s harp. He showed me how to play the harmonica when I was four years old, brought me one of those little teeny Hohner Little Lady harmonicas that has four holes in it, and taught me how to play ‘Oh Susannah’ on it. Then my parents thought I should take piano lessons when I was eight years old. I took from Agnes Maloney, Pat Curtis, and a guy named Darrell Petty. He only had nine fingers and was a country-western player in a group called Joe Franklin and the Highlighters who played on WAVY television. I’d have my piano lessons there at the studio.

“Sometime in 1958 or 9, I was a junior counselor at a camp in West Virginia, and there was this guy there who played the guitar and the banjo. I loved the idea of instruments being portable…It was the time of The Weavers and Harry Belafonte, and the early Kingston Trio stuff was starting to happen.

“Around Christmas time of 1961, my grandmother financed my first guitar. That was the beginning of it. Six months later I got a banjo, graduated from Maury and went up to William & Mary. It was the folk scare of the ‘60s…Everybody had a guitar or a banjo.”

Zentz formed a quartet called The Minutemen at William & Mary, and began playing all the usual college gigs. He spent his summers in Virginia Beach, playing the club and coffeehouse circuit of the time---the Surfrider, the Lion’s Den, the Upstairs “and a place called The Place.”

“I came back to Old Dominion about halfway through my third year of college, and was really gigging a lot,” he recalls. “I was starting to do a lot of solo stuff. I wound up as manager of a place called the Folk Ghetto in downtown Norfolk, two doors west of Freemason Abbey. One of the regulars there was Peter Torkelson, who became Peter Tork of The Monkees.”

Zentz enlisted in the Coast Guard after college, spending much of his two years at sea writing songs.

“One of the persons that I had met during those ill-spent summers at the Beach was a fellow named Ken Fritz, who went on to L. A. to become one of the management team for the Smothers Brothers. I sent this stuff to him, and he passed it on to their music director, [who] wrote me a letter saying ‘as soon as you get out of the Coast Guard, you’ve got a job. Come on out to L. A. and be a writer for the Smothers Brothers.’

“Well, I was ready to do that after two years of taking orders! So I went out to L. A., sat in on a bunch of meetings in these rooms filled with people like Steve Martin, Mason Williams, John Hartford. I was all charged up and excited, came back to Norfolk and married my first wife. We drove out there and as we’re crossing the San Bernardino mountains, we hear on the radio, ‘the Smothers Brothers have just had this big battle with CBS over censorship and it looks like the show may be canceled.’

“And it certainly was. So, there we were in L. A.”

He stayed in Los Angeles for three years, working in music stores and teaching lessons, including classes in guitar and songwriting at Long Beach University.

“One day in a little shop called McCabe’s Guitar Store, I picked up a form to enter a songwriting contest, and I wound up winning. It turned out that the contest was being run by this group of old radical folkies who had been the originators of a thing called the People’s Songs Bulletin, which is where Woody Guthrie started writing. So I got to meet all these really neat, hard-core folkies.”

He might have remained on the west coast, but in 1971 the San Fernando earthquake hit, and he decided he didn’t want to live there any more.

“We were down at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, where we lived you could see that ‘Hollywood’ sign, and that sign was dancing during this earthquake. I remember seeing electricity arcing, it was really scary.

“So we decided to move back to ol’ Virginny.”

He opened the original Ramblin’ Conrad’s music store in 1972, later moving to Military Highway, opened a second location at Waterside in 1983, and ultimately wound up in Ghent in the 1990s. He also started an organization called Songmakers of Virginia that became Tidewater Friends of Folk Music, put on concerts in his shops and folk festivals at ODU and Town Point Park, and hosted In the Folk Tradition for 27 years on WHRO and WHRV-FM. But the business of music retailing is a tough one, and Ramblin’ Conrad’s wound up filing bankruptcy in 1995.

“I tell people it was 23 years in that business,” he says, “20 of them good. It’s the last three that will get you.”

Unexpectedly, the end of the store turned out to be a liberating experience:

“Suddenly I was cut free of the tether. Mike Seeger called me up and said, ‘Bob, can you do a program at Chesapeake Library, I’m sick and I can’t make this gig. Could you do an hour of train songs?’

“I had never thought of doing an hour of train songs. I had this one notebook that I have kept over the years with the names of songs I knew, but they were in no kind of order. I pulled out that notebook, and I had enough songs to do an hour and a half. I was amazed at how many songs.

“That experience got me to thinking, ‘I wonder how many other topics I could put together a thematic show on.’ I started writing them down. I call it a patchwork quilt made out of different hats. I’ve got about 2,000 tunes. One day I’ll be doing an elementary school program, the next day I’ll be working with elderhostelers, senior citizens, and then the next week at a science museum…I feel like it’s an honor, in a certain way, to be able to do something that you love doing.”

Now, 44 years after his grandmother got him that first guitar, Bob Zentz continues to make a living with the music he’s so passionate about. He has a mountain of memories from his life on the folk trail, like this one from the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the early ‘70s:

“One night at this festival, before I had ever recorded anything that I had written, somebody across the fire sang one of my songs. He said, ‘I don’t know who wrote this, but it’s called ‘I Want My Son to be a Country Boy,’ and he sang this song that I had written for Bryan when my son was born out in California. I was so excited by the fact that this song had made it to this campfire without anybody knowing who wrote it. And I was enjoying the moment so much that I never went over and said, ‘Hi, I’m the guy who wrote that song.’ I couldn’t bear to do it because I love the idea of folk music being music of the people, and the idea of the oral tradition. I just savored the moment and thought, it’s the song, not who wrote it, that’s the really important thing.”

copyright © 2005 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.