Deeply concerned with the hardships of the Northeastern people, Zé Dantas was a key figure when Luís Gonzaga was introducing the culture of his region to the nation through the baião. Dantas' social interests for the anguish of the Northeasterner were expressed in chronicle-like songs, such as "Vozes da Seca" (1953), considered precursors of the protest song of the '60s. Other aspects of Northeast were expressed in "ABC do Sertão" (peculiar traits), "Algodão" (the labor), and "Paulo Afonso" (the progress). One of Gonzaga's main partners, and perhaps the most eloquent, Dantas wrote classics like the xote "Cintura Fina," the coco "Derramaro o Gai" (also recorded by Quatro Ases e Um Coringa in 1950), the xote "Riacho do Navio," "Xote das Meninas" (also recorded by Ivon Curi in 1953), "Imbalança," "Forró de Mané Vito," "Sabiá," the baião "Vem Morena," the toada "A Volta da Asa Branca," and the toada-baião "Vozes da Seca" (all with Gonzaga); on his own, he also wrote hits like the rojão "Forró em Caruaru" (recorded by Jackson Do Pandeiro in 1955), "Farinhada" (recorded by Ivon Curi, who also recorded the xote "Dei no Pai e Trouxe a Filha"), the coco "O Bom Que o Coco Tem" (recorded by Marinês e sua Gente), "O Calango" (by Carmélia Alves), and the toada "Chegada de Inverno" (by Quinteto Violado). Dantas was paid tribute in three songs, two of them recorded by Gonzaga in 1963: "Homenagem a Zedantas" (Antônio Barros) and "Zedantas" (Onildo de Almeida).
Since his teens, Dantas was a composer of xotes and toadas, even though he never learned a musical instrument. Spending nights drinking and singing with other students, he listened to many cantadores (minstrels), having developed the habit of bringing along a tape recorder. In 1949, he graduated in medicine from the State University of Recife, moving to Rio the next year as an intern. Also in 1949, he approached Gonzaga (who was doing his second tour in Recife). Singing all of Gonzaga's song by heart and exciting him with his originals, Dantas caused such an impression that Gonzaga decided right then to record his songs. Dantas agreed on one condition: that Gonzaga didn't credit him for his compositions, as he, as a doctor, didn't want to be mixed with music. Gonzaga didn't keep his promise. With his association with Humberto Teixeira shaken by disagreements related to collecting agencies (Gonzaga having left UBC for SBACEN), Gonzaga took Dantas as his partner, launching "Vem Morena" (October 1949), "A Dança da Moda" (April 1950), "Cintura Fina" (May 1950), and "A Volta da Asa Branca" (August 1950). The partnership with the Pernambucan doctor ended with his precocious demise in 1962 at 41, with Dantas falling in the ostracism experienced by the baião after its overwhelming media success. At the same time, his songs continued to be hits among the up-country audiences visited regularly by Gonzaga and other Northeastern artists until the '90s, when the new forro movement came to celebrate his talent again.