Strummin’ along with Bob and Jeanne Zentz

September 8, 2022

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Fun fact: Johnny Cash listened to local folk musician Bob Zentz’s debut album Mirror and Changes and praised it as one of the finest things he’d heard by any artist. The album, which features The Ramblin’ Conrad Story, is now on Smithsonian Folk-Legacy (now under Smithsonian Folkways).

So how did this creative and accomplished musician, who for many years has been composing and performing with his wife Jeanne, get into folk in the first place? According to Jeanne, he was “bitten by the bug” in summer camp just in time for the big folk wave of the 1950s and ’60s.

Zentz grew up in a household full of music with his mother, Margy, playing piano at home and his dad, Jerry, playing sax and clarinet in combos in jazz’s postwar heyday as well as songs from the shtetl à la klezmer. Zentz himself took piano lessons for three years and learned banjo from Pete Seeger’s book, How to Play the 5-String Banjo. Today, he plays guitar, harmonica, jaw harp, banjo, ukulele, hurdy-gurdy, concertina, dulcimer, accordion, noseflute, and “just about anything within reach,” and Jeanne, who considers herself his “backup band,” plays string instruments, percussion, and recorders.

In 1969, Zentz was a writer for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in Los Angeles, “just in time to get fired along with the rest of the staff when CBS canceled the show—quite a story.” While Zentz was still in L.A., he won the William E. Oliver Songwriting Award from the Songmakers of California. Everywhere from Australia to the Netherlands has been graced with his music, and here in Virginia, he’s been a fixture at venues like Harborfest, the State Fair, and Ohef Sholom Temple.

Zentz was awarded the John Sears Community Service Award by the City of Norfolk and has a star outside Norfolk’s Roper Performing Arts Center on the Legends of Music Walk of Fame. Jeanne was named Outstanding Young Citizen of Norfolk by the Norfolk Jaycees in 1988 at the end of her radio career.

Music has strengthened their ties to Tidewater’s Jewish community. “We LOVE our Ohef Sholom family!” says Jeanne. “Bob’s parents were married there in 1939, and while Bob and fam attended Beth El during his early years and made his Bar Mitzvah there, the family returned to OST when Bob went to college and eventually to the U.S. Coast Guard, 1966-1968. Bob and I rejoined OST almost 10 years ago, and married there—in our beloved Rabbi Roz’s office—in 2017.”

Nowadays, they’re mostly performing outdoors. This year’s venues include the Watermen’s Museum in Yorktown and festivals such as Ocracoke Island’s Ocrafolk Festival (a name that Zentz coined), Hatteras Village’s Day at the Docks, and Beaufort’s Wooden Boat Show at the North Carolina Maritime Museum. They also sing at services at Beth Sholom Village every Friday.

Zentz’s advice to new musicians: “It takes really knowing where you want to go and what direction you want to take in music. You have to learn how to love the music that you play and play the music that you love.”

For more information, visit bobzentz.com.

-Debbie Burke


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