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Pickin' on history





No one minded that the campfire was missing from the campfire tales at Historic Fort Hays as the music and stories flowed Friday evening.

About a dozen people were entertained with colorful descriptions of Old West history performed by Manhattan musician and historian David "Zerf" Zerfas.

Besides inviting local history buffs, the Fort Hays staff distributed flyers at motels about the event, said Bob Wilhelm, director of Historic Fort Hays.

"It's a lot of fun. Zerf sings and tells stories," Wilhelm said. "He's written his own songs about what's gone on here historically."

"I'm from Manhattan way, but my relatives are from here, so I feel very comfortable being here," Zerfas said.

A prairie panorama set the scene, and a light breeze moderated the warm temperatures. With a "tent" as a backdrop, Zerfas performed strumming his acoustic guitar and wearing historically accurate cowboy gear that included a hat, a knickerchief of muted colors and knee high leather boots.

"I never know where I'm going, but I'm intending to do lots of cowboy songs," Zerfas said.

While some of the songs were newer, composed in the 1930s that is, others had roots in the late 1800s.

All of them would have sounded different when performed on the prairie, depending on who was performing, and the instruments available. Fiddles were more common in "cow camps" than guitars, Zerfas said.

Susan Cartier, Hays, a singer and songwriter of Kansas songs herself, was seeing Zerfas perform for the first time.

"I wanted to hear a soulmate," she said.

KayLynn Philip and her sister Sandy Sprague have been to a number of Zerfas' performances. They attended the campfire tales in June and returned for the second performance. There will be a third campfire tales in August.

"We really enjoyed it. We know Zerf, have some of his CDs, and (we) like to support the fort," Philip said

"We love to hear Zerf sing, and he's been a good friend of ours for years," Sprague said.

Zerfas started playing in bands when he was 13. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s playing rock music.

It was a desire to get better on the six string acoustic guitar that led him to Kansas songs.

He found a book of little known songs of history at the local library. The songs were in the public domain, so he copied them, and started practicing.

Those songs, coupled with visits to the nearby new Gene Autry Museum, piqued his interest in cowboy songs.

A move back to Manhattan brought his first job as a singing cowboy.

"Everything that I had done prior to this is strictly controlled," Zerfas said. "That's what's been great about this. I let go of that, and it just created itself. All I do is show up for the gig because something else is driving the car. It's been a real relief."