My two-and-a-half year old daughter Lila asks for “that video with the little girl in pink” over and over again. That’s the one from Dan Zanes’s 2005 DVD All Around the Kitchen in which Dan ambles down the front steps of his Brooklyn brownstone with his nine-year-old daughter, Anna. Anna is holding a small banjo, and her father is playing a mandolin. As they discuss which chords are required for “Waltzing Matilda” and begin playing his original song, “Jump Up,” the other members of the band known as “Dan Zanes and Friends” saunter up with their instruments, and soon the neighborhood is alive with homemade music.
Dan Zanes is one of the best-known family musicians around today (he prefers the term “family music” to “children’s music”; nevertheless his 2007 CD Catch That Train won the Grammy for Best Musical Album for Children). He has inspired countless families to pick up guitars, congos, ukeleles and harmonicas and begin making music in their own living rooms and back porches.
His most recent projects, Nueva York! and The Welcome Table are inspired by his interest in the music of his own neighborhood: music from Latin America. This dovetails beautifully with his mission to bring his musical friends and his neighborhood friends together through playing music. Proceeds benefit the New Sanctuary Movement, a coalition of churches and synagogues who are called by their faith to respond actively and publically to the immigration debate. Babble caught up with Dan on the phone to talk about the his switch from rock to folk music, his immigration activism, and the importance of teaching kids the occasional depressing song. – Nerissa Nields
How do you feel when you hear a song that you know you want to do? What elements draw you toward it, or is it even a conscious thing?
We’re always trying to find another way into the song, so you breathe new life into them. Great songs can take a beating . . . I grew up listening to Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. So I always felt that family music had many, many emotional possibilities. For a lot of people in mainstream music or children’s music – which isn’t what we’re doing – anything that involves young people got a bad reputation over the years as being something that probably didn’t have a whole lot of emotion or depth.
Or maybe only one emotion. What I’ve been turned off by in children’s music is it’s just always got to be happy, whereas you’re not afraid to go to more ambiguous places.
I think kids like mystery. But I remember going into my daughter’s nursery school and playing “Deep Blue Sea,” and the teacher said, “Well, that’s enough.”
Yeah, that’s a painful song.
And it’s sort of like that sometimes with “The Grey Goose,” that Leadbelly song. But if we throw out these songs, we throw the baby out with the bathwater, because these songs really need to be told. These songs really meant something to people for a reason, and we have to have a sense of our histories and our traditions and our cultures. If we don’t have these songs, then we can’t tell our stories to people from another culture. The minute we lose that stuff, we can’t build the bridges we need to build to be able to connect with each other. So this stuff, it just serves a purpose that goes way beyond fun, but I think it’s a lot of fun too, and you can sing along with all these tunes.
People think of you as a solo artist, but you’ve assembled a really incredible band for these last two albums.
I love my band! It’s by far the most exciting group of people that I’ve ever played with. And it’s always been that way; I was in a rock and roll band, and it was a lot of fun, but you know, at the end of the day, it’s four white dudes, and that’s the basic rock and roll template. And, I think for girls looking up at the stage, the message becomes: this is what the guys do, and you ladies can play tambourine and sing back-up. I just felt like we were doing such a disservice to our audience.
What happens most of the time now, is that kids in the audience regardless of who they are and where they’re from, in one way or another, can look up on the stage and see themselves. I think that’s what this is all about. When you hear the CDs or see the band, you can picture yourself doing this. I think that the real success for us is when people go off and make their own music.
How do you balance performing life with your family?
Probably at this point the answer would be not very well. It’s not very easy, and I think for a long time, this is what I’m cut out to do. So my inclination is to say yes to everything. So that has been difficult. But yes, in general terms, my personal life has suffered for it.
Well, talk a little about the New Sanctuary Movement. How did you become aware of it, and how did this project come to be?
We were making Nueva York, and we were making it because I felt there was so much Latin American culture in the U.S. to be celebrated. And the debate about immigration – I won’t even call it a debate, it was such a mean-spirited conversation – it was happening around the country. So when I would introduce a song from the record at a show, I would say, “This is from our pro-immigration CD,” just to put a little more of a point on it.
The deportation issues are what’s really destroying families. People are living in so much fear. I had no idea what was happening, but I ended up meeting people from the New Sanctuary Movement and I said we wanted to participate a little more and see what we can do. Because one of the issues is the white middle class, the upper-middle class – basically our audience to a large degree, though it’s getting more diverse by the week – our audience clearly didn’t know any more than I knew. The first step is just to understand what’s happening. We want to steer our audience to the New Sanctuary Movement and help people become more informed. And I have to say, I really love our audience, because my experience is that people really do care about what’s happening in the world and they really do want a just society for their kids to grow up in. But we just don’t always know how to get there. So it was a way to turn our audience on to something that I though was really happening, and also a group that clearly, clearly needs support. It’s not like, “We give, um, a lot of money to Heifer International …”
And New Sanctuary does great work, but they desperately need people to support them in a different kind of way in order to survive. And they’re doing such good work. It’s not about going to Albany to lobby, because it’s not a political issue, it’s a moral issue. It’s a moral issue, I really believe that. Nobody wants me up on a soap box, everyone wants me to just be fun, and so making a CD of cool gospel songs . . . what could be more fun than that?
Speaking of gospel music: the first time I heard Catch That Train, the song “Welcome Table” (featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama) just reached out and grabbed me.
It was hard to find a song that the Blind Boys haven’t done already. I couldn’t believe it when they said, “No, we haven’t recorded this song.” They came over to my house to record, and had lunch, and we sat at the table while we were eating fried chicken, we sat at the table with my guitar and rehearsed. I wouldn’t let my daughter go to school that day. I said, “Once in your lifetime, one of the heaviest gospel groups of all time is going to be eating lunch and singing at your house and I don’t want you to miss a minute of it.”