Dan Zanes: Family Music Man
By Bill Lindsay

The former Del Fuegos frontman is redefining children’s music

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How does one go from being a successful rock star with an enthusiastic cult following to the vanguard of a movement to make a new kind of family-focused music?
If you’re Dan Zanes, former leader of the ’80s garage rock band the Del Fuegos, you return to your roots … and then give them a little twist.

For Zanes, this has meant reinterpreting traditional folk songs and complementing them with original compositions that embody the spirit of those classics. In so doing, he has recaptured the community spirit he relished during his early days with the Del Fuegos. Named “Best New Band of the Year” by Rolling Stone in 1984, the Del Fuegos were part of a vibrant indie music scene. That was before the young band (best known for their hits “Don’t Run Wild” and “I Still Want You”) started believing the hype surrounding them and fell victim to the typical rock and roll excesses.

“The spirit of it was lost” by the end of the decade, Zanes acknowledges, reflecting upon his brush with fame and how it fluttered away. “The lifestyle of it became more important than the music-making. A lot of the fun went out of it when the sense of community went.”

Today, Zanes’ trademark vertical mop of hair shows tinges of gray that betray his 41 years, but his bright smile and easygoing demeanor suggest a man with youthful exuberance for the new life and career he has found. Family and community now take center stage, with music serving as a powerful means of connecting people of all ages. Sitting in the small, lush back yard of the Brooklyn brownstone he shares with his video producer wife of 16 years, their 8-year-old daughter and his record label, Festival Five Records, Zanes enthusiastically discusses both his history and his passion for communal music-making.

It’s been quite a journey for the affable singer/songwriter. After the demise of the Del Fuegos at the end of the ’80s, Zanes and his wife, Paula, retreated to the Catskills, where he spent a few years gardening, rethinking his approach to music and listening to American gospel and Jamaican music.

“I didn’t really intend to leave pop music behind,” he says of this period. “I just stepped back for a while, and a while turned into a little while longer.”

Undoubtedly, one of the most momentous events during this “while” was the birth of his daughter, Anna, in 1994. With the impending birth, the couple moved to New York City and Zanes reconnected with Del Fuegos producer Mitchell Froom, whose wife, singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega, was also expecting a baby. With Froom’s help, Zanes released a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful solo record, Cool Down Time, in>br>Though the record showed the same stripped-down, sharp songwriting that sparked the Del Fuegos’ brightest days, Zanes personally had cooled down considerably from the reckless abandon of his rock and roll>Nevertheless, things were about to warm up for him in a whole new way. Spending time at neighborhood playgrounds with his young daughter, he befriended other parents and came across kindred souls with whom he could share music – a different kind of music, played in a whole different>br>He recorded a tape of family music – a more authentic and engaging alternative to the “corporate” offerings he found under the label of “children’s music” (think “The Looney Tunes Sing the Beatles” kind of thing).br>“I gave this tape out to kids in the neighborhood, and both kids and grown-ups were much more interested in this cassette than they were in my solo record,” Zanes recalls. “And because it had been fun doing it, I started thinking about doing more of it.”br>br>So Zanes launched his own record label, Festival Five Records, with the goal of recapturing the “handmade” spirit of the folk music he heard during his childhood: music by the likes of Leadbelly, Ella Jenkins, Bob Dylan and Gordon>br>“With every one of those records, I could picture a person in a room, or people in a room, playing music,” he recalls. “That’s what I’m trying to get at now.” At the same time, he’s taking these tried-and-true songs and “turning them on their head, putting different instruments to them and doing them in a different way to make them feel fresh.”br>br>Over the course of the four albums he has released since 2000, Zanes’ approach has attracted quite a few high-profile musicians to lend a hand. Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, Roseanne Cash, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Aimee Mann, Bob Weir, Philip Glass and others have contributed to his spirited reinterpretations of folk classics such as “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “King Kong Kitchie,” “Erie Canal,” “Fooba Wooba John,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Wabash Cannonball” and “Waltzing Matilda.”br>/span>div>br>span class="text1">When it comes to mining the traditional folk archive, Zanes says a song must not only “resonate with me personally, but it also has to resonate with my wife and daughter. It can’t just be my daughter. It has to be my wife, too.” This gets to the heart of what he is all about today: Families sharing music./span>/div>br>h1>span class="sub">All in the Family/span>br>

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Zanes is adept at coining catchy phrases to characterize his new approach: “hopped-up folk music,” “all-ages underground” and “age-desegregated folk music,” to cite a few. The key point being that this is not simply children’s music, though you will hear children (including his daughter) singing the choruses on a song or two. It’s “family music,” Zanes says adamantly. And while it is appropriate for preschoolers, it’s for older kids and parents, too.

It’s not that Dan is down on songs about learning to tie your shoes or brushing your teeth – there’s a place for those kinds of songs, he says. But he favors “songs that you can grow up with, that aren’t specific to the experiences of 4-year-olds.”

“It’s music that really can be enjoyed by all ages, but it has to be something that could be meaningful to kids on some level,” he explains.

“However, I don’t think that my younger audience needs to understand every lyrical nuance.”

On the Road Again

One carry-over from his Del Fuegos days is Zanes’ passion for performing live, though the venues today are often schools, libraries and daycare centers, rather than smoky barrooms and nightclubs. And while his audience now is much younger, the excitement is still there.

This fall, Zanes will embark on his second nationwide tour (as a family entertainer, that is), playing theaters to promote the release of his new CD, House Party.

“I love to play live shows,” the singer says. “What I appreciate so much about my audience today is that it is families. It’s an all-ages crowd. The kids are the starting point, but it’s very important that grown-ups can throw themselves into it. I like it to be like a little Grateful Dead show where we give people a reason to get together, but I never expect that we’re going to be 100 percent of people’s focus. I’m just as happy if people see a neighbor and go over to talk while their kids are running up to the front to dance, or vice versa.”
Zanes is accustomed to seeing old Del Fuegos fans showing up these days with their kids in tow.

“I run into people at every show who say that they heard me in what I call ‘another lifetime,’” he says. “And it’s great that we’re all here as parents, and we’re all so comfortable with this new life. We’ve got this immediate, common bond that’s similar, but it’s so different.”

When it comes to performing, audience participation – singing and dancing – are the highlights of the show, Zanes says. “It always starts with a lot of singing along, teaching people how the chorus might go and really encouraging everybody to just sing with gusto, and then letting it dissolve into a dance party.”

So, he adds, “if you like to sing, if you like to dance, if you like to hang out with your neighbors and have some pretty cool music going on, I really think this is the coolest band. I loved the Del Fuegos, but this, for me, is my coolest band. There’s a lot of switching of instruments. It’s not super loud. The singing is great. It’s a very soulful sound. It really excites me. And we generally travel with a Jamaican toaster (kind of like a rapper) to close the show. So, there you go!”

Communal Music

Whether he’s “retooling classic folk songs for the new century” or performing new compositions, Zanes says, “these songs are all recorded with the intention that they fit right into communal music-making. It’s really meant to be a springboard.”

Nowhere is this as evident as on House Party. The new CD captures the spirit of a festive gathering with music joyfully connecting all concerned.

“This idea of making music with other people is so important to me,” Zanes emphasizes. “I really think that there’s a lot that rests on these things we do. Music is my particular focus, but community theater, or the art people make together: That’s where it’s at. It’s the name of the game, I think, for the world coming back around in some way.”

“My hope is that when people hear the way I do it, they can picture themselves doing it,” he says. “They can plug themselves into the equation in some way and see how easy and exciting it is.”

Prompts to Participation

Part of what many of us parents have to gain from Zanes’ music is the encouragement to share our children’s lack of self-consciousness and to, well, get up and dance the hokey pokey!

But the performer is well aware that this isn’t always easy. “I know for myself, being a WASP from New Hampshire, getting up and doing the hokey pokey is not my natural state of being,” Zanes says. “So when I’m in the audience at other people’s shows, I have to try to throw myself into it and sing and dance along.”

As parents, we need to be willing to wear some egg on our face, Zanes suggests. We need to be willing to be beginners ourselves, to sing out of tune or go through the process of being comfortable just doing something in a goofy way.

“If I’m uptight about making music or singing out, my daughter senses that,” he says. “And she feels that maybe there’s something funny about it, something a little weird about just bursting into song. Whereas, the more I do it, the more she gets used to it and it’s just part of life. Burst into song! Who cares? Why not?”

In promoting this active participation in music, Zanes is quick to note that “a family band does not have to be a formal experience.” And although Dan himself plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica, piano, autoharp and more, family band members can simply sing, dance or play maracas or tambourine.

To illustrate this, Zanes recalls the time he spent this past summer leading music workshops at the camp he attended as a kid.

“I was playing with people of all different abilities,” he says. “There was never a situation where somebody couldn’t be worked into it in some way. If there’s a song to be played, and there’s people who want to be a part of it, there’s always a way to work them in, regardless of what age they are.”

As Kids Grow …

Much of Zanes’ focus has been building musical bridges between the preschool set and their parents, but what about the particular challenges that arise when kids get to be adolescents and teens and want to forge their own path when it comes to music?

Zanes again recalls his recent camp experience interacting with kids ages 8 to 14, some of whom hadn’t ever played an instrument before. One of the things he discovered with these kids, he says, was that “as soon as you got an instrument in their hands, the song became a whole new experience.”

“If you’re sitting there with a mandolin, and you’re learning to play ‘Skip to My Lou,’ which people have been hearing since they were born, it’s a great song to play, because you know it and it has just two chords,” he says.

“There’s a lot to the idea that as people become more engaged with the actual performing of music, their connection to all kinds of music can open up.”

As simple as this might sound, Zanes says part of the problem today is that we’re so used to seeing music videos and hearing high-level production that “there’s a sense that if you’re not making music that either sounds like that or is being performed on a big stage with colored lights and tight pants, then it doesn’t count, it’s not really music.” But Zanes says the music he heard in the camp sessions this summer was “some of the most incredible music I’ve ever heard in my life.”

In fact, despite his earlier brush with pop glory, Zanes believes he has now found his true calling.

“When I started doing children’s music, a lot of people heard about it and I think they felt somewhat sorry for me that it had come to this. Because, for people who didn’t know any better, it had a stigma, like we were doing just counting songs or that it was just about potty training or whatever,” he says.

“But to me, the music that we make and get to participate in now is just as cool and vibrant as anything I’ve ever done. In fact, I think it’s much more so. It’s much broader and more interesting than anything I’ve ever been a part of, by a long shot.”


Dan Zanes CDs

Rocket Ship Beach, 2000
Family Dance, 2001
Night Time, 2002
House Party, 2003

All of these releases are packaged in a unique board book format that features artwork by Zanes’ brother-in-law Donald Saaf and gives kids plenty to look at. Zanes is quick to point out that the packages are produced on 100-percent recycled paper using soy-based inks. These CDs are available from Festival Five Records,

Bill Lindsay is editor in chief of United Parenting Publications.
From United Parenting Publications, October 2003.