Dan Zanes is the big daddy of family music
Inside Davis Square’s Somerville Theatre, there’s a packed house, an adoring crowd, and Dan Zanes – an icon of Boston rock – up there with a full band.
To tell you the truth, it’s been a while since I’ve felt so out of place at a pop concert. The reason? I’m not a parent, I’m not a youngster and, well, I’m not wearing pajamas.
Monica, a sprightly 5-year-old, is seated two seats away for all of 10 seconds before Zanes and his band inspire her to run down front and dance. She asks her mother, Anne, why I’m not wearing a bathrobe or slippers.
Anne, from Belmont, isn’t quite sure why I’m there either – this is, after all, Dan Zanes and Friends’ specialized brand of family music kicking at full blast in pajama party mode, and I stick out like the only guy who missed the dress code memo.
I explain to Anne I’m a reporter, and her demeanor relaxes, until Monica starts bouncing around with the legion of other youngsters in front of the stage. But Anne is quick to get swept up in Zanes’ rock-solid song-and-dance, too – Monica is singing along heartily to “Pay Me My Money Down,” an ancient work song whose sociopolitical subtexts take a backseat in this instance to how easy it lends itself to call-and-response.
Childrens’ music with a purpose? Fun? Engaging? Non-pandering?
“Isn’t he great?” Anne asks, mesmerized.
It’s no secret that Zanes, formerly of the Del Fuegos, has in recent years carved out a fascinating second act as an award-winning purveyor of top-flight family music. His proclivity for the friendlier, multifarious sounds began when he and his wife and daughter (“now a 13-year-old punk rocker” he says, laughing) moved to New York and a group of dads turned a West Village playground kinship into a musical act called the Wonderland String Band.
Zanes’ first family album, 2000’s “Rocket Ship Beach” (released with the name changed to Rocket Ship Revue), turned out to be the start of something really good, and Zanes, who won a Grammy in 2007 for “Catch That Train” (2006), has released six albums of family music.
The latest, 2008’s “Nueva York!” is a characteristically engaging collection of Hispanic styles, with each track sung in Spanish and aided by Hispanic musician friends from New York.
“It’s great to be able to do what I love and get attention for it,” Zanes said. “The landscape has definitely changed since I started doing this around 2000. I remember, there were a number of people who actually felt sorry for me singing songs about using a fork and learning to tie your shoes and stuff like that.”
The form, which Zanes calls “all-ages social music,” has definitely grown in popularity over the past decade among artists not previously known for their contributions to the genre.
Zanes is but one torchbearer; great albums of sophisticated family-friendly and childrens’ music have in 2008 alone come from folk icon Ellis Paul, goofy popsters Barenaked Ladies, acid jazz mavens Medeski Martin & Wood and many others, just as the established names in the genre, including Zanes and Justin Roberts, are releasing some of their best work.
“I think that it’s music particular to the young experience,” said Zanes, who added the biggest misconception about what he and these other artists do is play “kids’ music.”
Rock of ageless
“There is music that’s geared specifically to young children of course, but this is all ages social music and wild folk music,” Zanes said. “It’s so great to find that people, families, want to share this experience together. The segregation (the idea that there’s a line between kids’ music and adults’ music) is a newer phenomenon. I mean, old music is so inclusive – and it’s fantastic when everybody’s dancing and having a good time.”
“That it’s artless, puerile didactic pap – and even worse, that it should be so,” said Michael Heyman, a professor at Berklee College of Music who teaches a class on music and literature for children.
“The former is, unfortunately, often true, but the latter is the most dangerous idea. Because children are often considered to be simple, fragile, shallow-thinking, and innocent, with short attention spans, adults make music for them accordingly, and much of it comes out as this kind of drivel.”
When it comes to creating music for children, Heyman said they are not much different than adults.
“Children are complex human beings, as complex as adults, and though there are some differences, successful art for them always treats them as participators in the human condition, with its joys and its difficulties,” Heyman said. “Children’s music that treats them with this kind of respect naturally comes out as better aesthetically.”
Kids’ music grows up
A great “family song” is not the easiest tightrope to walk, said many of the musicians to whom we spoke. Both kids and parents can sniff out something false or untowardly pandering, and with attention spans being what they are, it’s also easy for children to lose interest.
“The first time I performed for kids, after about 80 percent of my audience wandered away, I realized you have to keep everyone engaged,” Justin Roberts said.
Claire Green, president of the Parents’ Choice Foundation, which has awarded Roberts and many others with silver and gold medals for excellence, said all good children’s music has a common factor: respect for the audience and the medium.
“The best of today’s children’s music gives kids a break from an over-scheduled world,” Green said. “It gives them a chance and opportunity to laugh, to commiserate, to wonder and to think. And sometimes, it just gives them a reason to get up and dance and have fun.”
Sometimes a brilliantly realized family music album can be both poignant and a good listen, with an emphasis on deeper social importance. That’s true of Dan Zanes’ work and definitely “The Dragonfly Races” by Ellis Paul.
“I wanted (it) to be a record that parents could enjoy without being slighted for the amount of time they spend listening,” Paul said. “The goal is to create a dialogue with kids and parents. I wrote it for our daughters, and it’s something they could grow up with. I wanted to create a bridge between parents and their kids so they can talk about community involvement and peace. There is definitely stuff between the lines, and they can talk about subjects that might be beyond the scope of normal children’s songs.”
Heyman of Berklee College pointed to adult artists such as Carole King and Vince Guaraldi, who, 30 to 40 years ago, were proud of their compositions and performances for children.
"Many thought jazz for the ‘Peanuts’ was a huge mistake – that it was too complex, too subtle, too ‘adult.’ Of course, he proved them all wrong, and that music is still popular today amongst adults and children.”
The Patriot Ledger