Adding passion to the folk tradition
He has no formal musical training, but largely through word of mouth, Charlie Zahm is much in demand.
He sings for the storytellers of yore who put the joys and sorrows of their lives to music, and the children and grandchildren who kept those stories and songs alive through the centuries.
"I love the traditional aspect of folk songs," Zahm says. "The stories are timeless - songs of love, loss, exploration and adventure. Those themes are still with us today, and as relevant as they've always been."
Zahm, 42, is a tall, handsome man who lives in a spacious brick twin in Coatesville, Chester County.
Largely through word of mouth, he has become a folk performer much in demand on the East Coast. His calendar is booked through 2009, with as many as three events in a week. One day he may sing to a half-dozen people at a private house concert, the next to thousands of people under a tent.
A regular on the Celtic festival circuit, he has displayed his talent at the Spectrum, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Arenson River Theater in San Antonio, and Longwood Gardens. His music is available on two DVDs and 16, soon to be 17, CDs.
"Charlie represents an excellence in music that far transcends most of what you hear on the radio these days," says Ken Carpenter, a Nashville documentary filmmaker who produced and directed Zahm's second DVD, Charlie Zahm: An Evening of Classic Melodies, released last spring. Carpenter saw Zahm perform in San Antonio in 2005, and was so impressed by the simplicity of his music and his high level of artistry that he decided to feature him in a DVD.
Fond of security and health insurance, Zahm has a day job. He writes proposals seeking to entice schools and colleges to purchase administrative software from his employer, SunGard Higher Education of Malvern.
But what sustains his soul is music, specifically folk music - the traditional songs of Ireland and Scotland and the Maritime provinces of Canada, and the backwoods and mountain yeomanry of early America up to and including the Civil War.
"Folk music is my art. It's what I do," Zahm says. "I have no formal training. I never set out to be a folk singer. I just knew I loved music and wanted it to be part of my life."
Zahm sings in a clear, strong baritone that has been hailed by more than one rapt listener as "coming along once in a generation."
"For me, he is the ideal Celtic singer," says Gene Shay, host of a folk music program on WXPN (88.5 FM) and co-founder and emcee of the Folk Festival. "He's big and handsome, and he sings with a robust, virile baritone that sounds like he should be working on a whaler or doing something on the high seas."
Besides playing the acoustic guitar masterfully, Zahm is facile with the five-string banjo, mandolin, flute and pennywhistle.
Despite his German surname, Zahm's veins course with copious amounts of Irish and Scottish blood, and he's a congenital storyteller. Three of his CDs consist of stories and songs he composed, told and sung in the traditional mode.
One of the old folk songs Zahm sings is "The Ballad of Barbara Allen." It's about a man who dies of a broken heart after he is spurned by the woman he loves. When she realizes what she has done, she, too, dies, of remorse.
"It's a song for the ages and all ages, a complete story that appeals to the head and heart," Zahm says.
For Zahm, composing a song is rarely intentional. "I can't sit down and write a song," he says. He can barely read music and plays strictly by ear. Melodies ambush his brain. Sometimes, while out and about, he'll call home and record a spontaneous tune on his answering machine, so he can retain and perfect it later.
His ancestors on his mother's side migrated from Ireland to Nova Scotia, then moved farther west to Ontario. His affection for the Maritimes is "mystical," he says, and the music inspired by that rugged coastal seascape and ancient way of life seems rooted in blood memory.
Recently, Zahm performed for a chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Scranton. While he was singing "Loch Lomond," a woman in the audience began weeping.
"She told me her father was from Scotland, and the song brought back memories of when she was a little girl listening to her daddy sing," he says.
Born in Michigan, Zahm grew up on the Atlantic coast of Florida in a house filled with music. His mother played the piano and sang, and his parents took him to see Pete Seeger and folk groups such as the Kingston Trio and the Irish Rovers.
Infatuated with the fast, snappy sound of bluegrass, Zahm taught himself to play the five-string banjo at age 14. Two years later, he took up the acoustic guitar. He continued practicing in high school and college, studied folk music on his own, and played with a couple of bands.
After graduating from the University of South Florida in Tampa, he toured Japan and Europe with the music ambassadors Up With People. During five weeks in Ireland, he tried to learn and perform a new song in every town he visited. He learned "The Rose of Tralee" from a maintenance man in the boiler room of the town theater and sang it on stage just hours later.
Not long after college, Zahm landed a job at TV Guide in Radnor, where he wrote programming notes.
"I fell in love with Pennsylvania," Zahm says. "The state has a big feel and it's in the middle of everything. I love the history and scenery, and the folks are great."
Zahm, who is divorced and the father of an 11-year-old daughter, lived in Narberth and Havertown before moving to Coatesville, where he shares his house with a cat.
"I love Chester County - the rural unspoiled landscapes, the beautiful stone buildings," he says. "You know a home when you find it, and I have found a home here."
The pull of the past is evident in Chester County as well as the folk songs Zahm cherishes. He is fascinated by the links between traditional Appalachian music - the songs that have endured in the mountains of North Carolina, West Virginia and Pennsylvania - and the folk songs of Ireland and Scotland. They share the same DNA because the back hollows of 19th-century America were settled by the sons and daughters of the Scottish highlands and the Olde Sod.
"The music was kept alive by people who couldn't read and write, who worked in coal mines or walked behind a plow," he says. "At night, they'd come home and take a fiddle off the wall, and tell the stories their grandfathers told and play the tunes their mothers played.
"It takes only one generation for something to be lost, and I don't want to be part of that. I feel it's my duty to sing these songs and to do it in a way that makes others love the songs, too."
Contact staff writer Art Carey at 610-701-7623 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about Charlie Zahm, his music and his scheduled performances, visit www.charliezahm.com.