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Zentz ho!
Shanties, mariner tunes and a little bit of seagoing history
"I've always had a real soft spot for appreciating the value of the water," Bob Zentz says. "The things we do to it, and could do for it."

Bob Zentz must be doing something right, because he's been booked for two shows, over two nights, this weekend.

A folk music veteran whose specialty is maritime songs and sea shanties of old, Zentz is also an historian, an environmentalist, and a guy who's prolific on several dozen instruments - some of which he's made himself.

Zentz says his shows are drawn from a catalogue of some 2,000 songs. He's an instructor for the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, a program developer and leader for Elderhostel along the Intracoastal Waterway, and a guest educator in the Virginia public school system.

And, once upon a long ago, he was hired to write for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

His first show is Friday at the Trustees Theater, just before the first movie unspools at the Gray's Reef Ocean Film Festival.

On Saturday, Zentz will be in the outdoor courtyard of the Ships of the Sea Museum.

History, ecology, conservation, entertainment. In this native (and resident) of Norfolk, Va., you've got it all.


"It's such an interesting time right now for this music, because the last person who really sang sea shanties on an old sailing ship is long gone. And yet the tradition persists - it's even sort of come back to a lot of these sailing ships that make their rounds to the tall ship festivals and all. It's not like a museum piece. It's substance from a life from the past, and yet it translates into what we're doing today. A great example is that so many countries use tall ships as training vessels for their naval officers. There's a thing about the sea, and the wind and the weather, that you don't get from sitting in front of a computer screen."

The show

"When I perform, part of it is telling the story of where the song came from, part of it is actually making the audience become a part of not only the listening process, but the participation process of singing along on a chorus or doing a call-and-response type of work song and so on. It's a real thrill to do what I do."

The songs

"They all sort of link to the sea in some way or other. The sea shanty was the actual work song that sailors sang while they were hauling on the lines to raise the sails of a ship, or heaving on the capstan to raise the anchor and so on. So in teaching those songs, you also teach a bit of the physics of how an old sailing ship operated."

Water value

"The film festival night will definitely be songs about the environment. I've had the wonderful opportunity to sail with Pete Seeger on the sloop Clearwater, and they really did a good job raising the awareness to clean up the Hudson River, to make it swimmable, to make it so you could actually eat the fish and live to tell about it. When I came off that experience, I became really involved in the Tidewater up here, in efforts to raise the awareness of the Chesapeake Bay and its 3,000 miles of shoreline. One of my many majors in college was marine biology, so I've always had a real soft spot for appreciating the value of the water - the things we do to it, and could do for it."

A whale tale

"One of the songs I do is called ‘Ocean Station Bravo.' I was on a Coast Guard ship that sailed between the United States and Europe for 30 days at a time. I was a sonar operator, so I was used to listening to sounds, in a dark room with radar screens all around. I had a wonderful conversation with a pod of humpback whales back in 1967. On the ship, we had this thing called the Gertrude, an underwater p.a. system - and what I wound up doing was singing to them and playing the harmonica. And these whales were trying to imitate my sounds. I was trying to imitate their sounds. And it was just a really cosmic experience. It was the ‘60s! I told that story so often that it just sort of became a song. I was so aware of the intelligence of these whales, and how amused they were at this great white ship floating above their heads and the sounds it was making. It was communication, and that whole thing about music being the universal language was certainly hammered home."

Bob Zentz

Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.

When: At 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23, part of the Gray's Reef Ocean Film Festival

Admission: Free


Where: Ships of the Sea Museum, 41 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

When: At 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24

Admission: Free

Artist's website: