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From NORFOLK VIRGINIAN-PILOT, JUNE 12, 1992 (Daily Break, p. B1)

Copyright (c) 1992, Landmark Communications, Inc.

The Godfather of Folk

by Mike O'Orso

From humble beginnings, Bob Zentz and Ramblin' Conrad's Guitar Shop have been synonymous with folk music in Hampton Roads for 20 years

IT WAS A RAW, wet evening a week before Christmas, and the three college boys were headed home when they saw him, a small, slouched figure stumbling up the Hampton Boulevard sidewalk.

Maybe it was the way he leaned into the wind, bracing his wiry frame against the sleet. Maybe it was the beat-up guitar slung across his back. Maybe it was the beers the boys had had at the party they'd just left. But something made them pull over and pick him up. They took the old man down to the Domino Bar and Grill, bought him a drink and asked him to play them a song. He was happy to oblige, wiping the wetness off his weathered F-Hole Kay, but the bar owner said no, there'd be no guitar-playing in his place.

So they moved up the street to a laundromat, where the old man played and sang for more than an hour while the college boys listened like spellbound children. His sound was a rough blend of country and blues, his songs about days on the street and nights spent in jail. One of the boys pulled out a cassette recorder and got some of the old man's music on tape.

Then they found him a job, booking him at a couple of local coffeehouses, where the audiences were attentive and polite, and at some college fraternity parties, where they were not. The frat boys paid the old man in beer, and often as not he'd end the evening passed out beside a keg, the target of laughter and worse.

Still, he became something of a local celebrity. He appeared on morning television shows. He was interviewed by newspaper columnists. But after a year, the lights dimmed and he was back where he began, roaming the boulevard for a beer and a bite to eat.

The boys had scattered by then. One had gotten married. One had joined the Coast Guard. One had drifted into drugs and disappeared.

The one who joined the service spent two years at sea, manning a weather ship in the North Atlantic, writing songs and poems and thanking God he wasn't on the other side of the globe, in that nightmare called Vietnam.

The Summer of Love came and went while the boy sat at sea. Bobby Kennedy was killed. So was Martin Luther King. Richard Nixon was elected president before the boy finally came home. He tried to track down the old man but couldn't. The clubs had closed. The scene was dead.

So the kid, now with a wife and a kid of his own, left for California, where the scene was very much alive. But the West Coast was too big and too fast for the kid to keep up, and after two years he came home again, with his songs and his poems and his memory of the old man.

This time he found him, at the Veteran's Hospital in Hampton. But when he called, they told him he was a couple of months late. The old man was dead.

They didn't say where he was buried, but they said his possessions would be auctioned off at the end of the year, along with other expired patients' unclaimed goods.

The only possession the old man left was his battered guitar. The kid brought a hundred dollars to the auction to buy it, but he needed only three. There weren't many bidders in the room that December afternoon.

Six months later, when the kid opened a small music shop just up the street from the bar where he'd first bought the old man a beer, he hung that guitar in a place of honor and named the shop after the old man himself.

He called the place Ramblin' Conrad's.

It was 20 years ago this month that Bob Zentz opened Ramblin' Conrad's Guitar Shop and Folklore Center in Norfolk. In those two decades, both he and his store have rooted themselves as fixtures of the local folk scene.

One cannot be mentioned without the other, and both have been through some changes since they began.

Zentz is not as slim as he used to be, his hair is grayer, the scarf he once wore around his neck is gone. And his shop, which moved from its original Hampton Boulevard location to Military Highway about the time Ronald Reagan moved into the White House, is getting set to move again, not by choice but by necessity. The highway department plans to widen the road out front and has told Zentz that his store and small parking lot will have to go.

``We're in the way of progress,'' he says with a sigh and a smile, ``as folk singers have been, lo these many years.''

The singer is sitting at home on this sunlit Friday morning, a patch covering his left eye, the result of a recent operation for a detached retina. It's the sort of nagging irritation that pops up when a person's pushing 50, but Zentz shows no signs of slowing down. Beyond his shop's standard schedule of weekly concerts and sundry workshops, he's got a 20th anniversary show set for Wednesday, at which he, naturally, will be the headliner.

The patch, he hopes, will be off by then.

``Either that,'' he says, ``or I'll have to work some pirate songs into the repertoire.''

That repertoire includes more than 2,000 songs Zentz has collected or written over the years. He can play most of them on almost any instrument in his shop, from the hammered dulcimer to the squeezebox. Some are featured on the three albums he has recorded. The latest, ``It's About Time,'' will be released the day of the anniversary show.

But more than an opportunity to share his own music, the Wednesday event will be a celebration of all that Zentz's store, with its racks of arcane instruments, its legion of loyal customers, and its extended family of folk performers and fans alike, has come to represent.

That family includes the 300 or so members of the Tidewater Friends of Folk Music, which Zentz founded when he returned from his California sojourn in 1971.

It includes the crowds who gather for the annual Norfolk Family Folk Festival, which Zentz began in '71 as the Greater Tidewater Folk Festival.

It includes the avid listeners of ``In the Folk Tradition,'' a program Zentz created for WHRO radio in 1977 and which is now broadcast Sunday evenings on WHRV.

It includes the folks at Norfolk Festevents, who earlier this year gave Zentz their John Sears Award for community service, notably for his help in developing the annual British and Irish Festival.

But most of all, the web woven by Bob Zentz includes the thousands of diehard folk devotees who have inhabited his shop over the years both as patrons and as performers.

One of those patrons is George Bame, a 45-year-old management information specialist, a past president of Tidewater Friends of Folk Music, a self-described ``front-porch picker'' and a regular at Ramblin' Conrad's for the past 14 years.

``The place is a home away from home for a lot of folks in this area,'' says Bame. ``It's more a kind of club than a business, and that's a reflection of Bob's personality.'' Bame describes that personality as ``avuncular.''

``Bob,'' he says, ``is everybody's folk music uncle.''

Meade Stith, a 42-year-old civil engineer, a member of the local folk group Dramtreeo and a past president of TFFM, is even more succinct.

``I think folk music has survived in this area,'' says Stith, ``because of Bob Zentz.''

The performers Zentz has lured to his store's stage include a pantheon of American folk legends, ranging from Tom Paxton and John Hartford to Tom Chapin and John McCutcheon, as well as international acts such as the Battlefield Band from Scotland, Musikas from Hungary, Yolo Camba Ita from El Salvador and Lo Jai from France.

They all make Norfolk a must on their itinerary of folk circuit stops, they all have signed their names on the frontboard of Ramblin' Conrad's cozy stage, and most have slept in the Zentz home, eaten meals at the Zentz table and settled into the snug Zentz living room, singing songs late into the night with Bob and his wife Kay.

``Folk music has endured a lot of name-calling over the years,'' says Zentz, who will celebrate his 48th birthday the same night he celebrates his shop's 20th. ``There are lots of labels, but to me folk music has always been a barometer of humanity, something that reflects the efforts of common people to react and respond to a time and place in history.

``Whether it's Phil Ochs writing a song off a newspaper headline, or the Kingston Trio doing a Mexican song, or a song about chasing whales, or a cowboy song, or a railroad song, or somebody playing a Greek dance on a bouzouki - it's all folk music.''

It was to give that music a home in Hampton Roads that Zentz first opened Ramblin' Conrad's. There had been a burgeoning folk scene here in the early- to mid-'60s, with small folk clubs scattered from Virginia Beach to Norfolk, places with names like The Upstairs and the Folk Ghetto, The Place and The Alley.

``Some were no more than an extra banquet room that wasn't being used,'' recalls Zentz. ``Dress the waitress in leotards and burlap, put in an espresso machine, and you're in business.''

Zentz became part of that business before he was out of his teens. He had grown up in Norfolk, gotten hooked in the late '50s on the sounds of The Weavers and Pete Seeger, went to the College of William and Mary in the fall of 1962 with a guitar in one hand and books in the other, and soon dropped the books to journey up the coast, catching every folk act he could find.

He saw Ian and Sylvia at the Cellar Door in Washington, Phil Ochs at The Crack of Doom in Baltimore, and luminaries like Eric Andersen, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Leonard Cohen in New York's Greenwich Village. Folk had become a near-religion, these were its saints, and Zentz was a convert for life.

He formed his own group and named them The Minutemen, joining local acts like The Yays and Nays, The Coachmen and The Flight of the Ostrich on area folk stages. He became a manager at The Folk Ghetto. In the winter of '64 he transferred from W&M to Old Dominion College, to be closer to the music. And it was a year after that that he and two fellow Minutemen had their fateful encounter with the old man to whom Zentz has dedicated his career - as well as an entire side of his first record album.

``Once there was a man named William Conrad Buhler - a veteran, a wino, a handyman, an ex-con, a backstreet minstrel and a bar-room troubador.''

That's how ``The Ramblin' Conrad Story'' begins. Buhler had been dead three years when that song appeared as side two of Zentz's 1974 debut album, ``Mirrors and Changes.'' Zentz has gone on to share stages with the likes of Odetta, Dave van Ronk, The Roches, Mimi Farina and Steve Goodman. He's performed at folk festivals in Scotland, England and Belgium, as well as virtually every annual gathering east of the Mississippi. Late this month he'll be singing at Pete Seeger's Greater Hudson Bay Revival, along with Doc Watson and Peter, Paul and Mary.

But before that there is next week's birthday bash at the store. Plenty of customers who have counted on Ramblin Conrad's to find a reed for their bagpipe or a how-to tape for their African thumb piano will be there.

So will folks like Roland Lakey, a retired sheet-metal worker whose off-hand recitations and spoonerisms have become a mainstay at the shop's monthly open-mike nights. Zentz's parents might even show up - his home in Norfolk's Colonial Place neighborhood is only seven blocks from theirs.

Everyone is welcome to bring gifts, but it will be hard to top the present given Zentz last month by one of his shop's customers, a resident physician at the V.A. Hospital in Hampton. The doctor was able to dig up the medical file on William Conrad Buhler, and this is what it said:

He died May 5, 1971, of complications from Hodgkin's Disease.

He was 62 years old when he passed away.

He had no known or living relatives.

Along with his guitar, he left $88.65 in cash.

And most importantly to Bob Zentz, the record shows that the old man was buried in the City Point National Cemetery in Hopewell, Va.

So now there is a pilgrimage to add to the singer's summer schedule. ``I'll sit on his grave and play him a few of these songs, just in case he hasn't heard them,'' says Zentz, with another sigh and another smile.

``But I'm pretty sure he has.''

Description of illustration(s):
Staff color photo by MARTIN SMITH-RODDEN
Twenty years ago this month, Bob Zentz opened Ramblin' Conrad's Guitar Shop and Folklore Center in Norfolk. ``Bob is everybody's folk music uncle,'' one patron says.

Zentz's store is filled with racks of arcane instruments and, often, a legion of loyal customers.
1992- Virginian-Pilot


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