Robert Crumb, Jerry Zolten spin tales of their pre-war record collections on ‘Chimpin’ the Blues’

crosenbl@centredaily.comJanuary 24, 2014 

Imagine sitting in a spin session between serious record collectors as they enjoy rare blues, jazz and gospel 78 rpm records while swapping jokes, trivia and anecdotes.

If you’re a roots music fan, it sounds like heaven. But don’t pine for an invitation.

“Chimpin’ the Blues” lets you pull up a chair.

Released as both a CD and LP on the East River Records label, the new album features two friends — Penn State professor and Warriors Mark resident Jerry Zolten and legendary underground comics artist Robert Crumb — playing prewar records from their vast collections and discussing the music.

Like his famous artwork, the title springs from Crumb’s fertile mind.

“It means chattering about stuff that you’re interested in — chimpin,’ you know,” Crumb tells Zolten on the release, explaining that record collectors like talking about such minutiae as serial numbers and other discographical information.

“It’s chimpin.’ It’s like monkey chatter.”

Whatever they call it, the result is a marvelous package — starting with Crumb’s cover depicting the pair amid packed shelves and stacks of paper-sleeved discs, fawning over a Charley Patton blues record.

The session was recorded in the WPSU studios in 2003 as an hour-long radio program. For eight years, it remained in obscurity, until Zolten connections with producer John Henegan and Eden Brower, the leader of the East River String Band, led to the album.

So far, the collaboration has generated glowing reviews among blues aficionados, climbing to No. 39 on the Roots Music Report’s Roots Radio Airplay chart.

Crumb and Zolten banter back and forth in between digitally remastered tracks, offering erudite tidbits about the artists and the evolution of blues and jazz, and even providing a window into the friendly competition among passionate record collectors.

“Extremely rare record,” Crumb says before “Warm Wipe Stomp” by Macon Ed and Tampa Joe. “And I own it.”

Later, he asks in jest where Zolten bought a near-mint copy of “Walk Right in” by Cannon’s Jug Stompers, a tune that became a 1960s folk hit for The Rooftop Singers.

“Somewhere in central Pennsylvania,” Zolten replies as both chuckle. “I’m not revealing my sources.”

But Zolten was more forthcoming about his love for records on Victor, Columbia, Paramount, Champion, Gennett and other classic labels.

“One of the reasons I collect 78s is that you find recordings that simply don’t exist anywhere else,” he says.

Crumb and Zolten certainly weren’t monkeying around when they chose the album’s eclectic lineup. The jazz of Bobbie Leecan’s Need More Band, the gospel of Reverend J.C. Burnett and Congregation, and the deep blues of Geeshie Wiley: This music cuts across the decades with undiminished power.

Perhaps other anthologies include some of the tracks. But none will come with Crumb’s noting a cello solo in the Bobbie Leecan cut or recalling the sad tale of Gus Cannon being robbed of his royalty check from The Rooftop Singers’ hit.

Nor will any other albums contain anything like Zolten’s inquiring whether Crumb listens to tunes when he draws.

“No, I can’t,” Crumb says. “When I listen to music that I like, it takes my full attention.”

Chances are, if you’re into long-lost shellac, “Chimpin’ the Blues” will have the same effect.

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