Dan Zanes’ Upbeat Refrain: Take the Music Home with You!

The star of our Family Concert, Dan Zanes is a musician on a mission: not just to put on a foot-stomping family dance party, but also to inspire everyone in the audience to go home and throw their own family concerts. As he says, “What I love the most is being able to spread the message that music-making is something everyone can do.”

To find songs that both adults and children can find their jam to, Zanes mines the rich seam of traditional folk music. “When I think of folk music, I think of … basically any kind of music that can be passed by one person to another, you don’t need training … the music that’s gonna get everyone in the room singing along or engaged in some way.” As he sees it, the folk experience “is about inclusion and participation—welcoming people in. That, to me, is the crucial component, the communal, inclusive spirit of it all.”

Zanes has always had an enthusiastic, DIY approach to making music. At age 20 he started a garage-style rock band, the Del Fuegos, which had a great run in the 1980s. After his daughter was born, Zanes started playing songs on the banjo for families in the playground. His first album of family music was Rocket Ship Beach in 2000, which he put together in his home over three weeks, using the talents of neighborhood kids, family babysitters and a local string band. “We were bringing in friends from the neighborhood. Sheryl Crow lived around the corner. Suzanne Vega came in to do a tune. It was just real homemade community fun.”

Since the success of Rocket Ship Beach, Zanes has made 13 more albums of family music, all showcasing his ethos of spontaneity and open-armed collaboration with a very diverse range of artists. His 2006 album Catch That Train, which won a Grammy for best family music, featured the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Nick Cave and the Blind Boys of Alabama, each putting a unique spin on a traditional song. While putting together Nueva York!, his 2015 album of cumbia, son, baquata and merengue rhythms, he discovered he had “accidentally” learned Spanish. Over the years, he has cheerfully taught himself to play tuba, mandolin, ukulele, piano, bass, harmonica, jaw harp and spoons as well as guitar and banjo. Most recently, he helped create a “sensory-friendly,” sing-along opera about space travel, Night Train 57, a commission from the Kennedy Center to welcome and engage children with autism and sensory sensitivities.

Now Dan Zanes is bringing his trademark leonine hair and infectious energy to The Children’s School, happy to show that singing and stomping around together are all you need to do to create a musical household. “You don’t have to play an instrument to have a band. Sing and clap your hands!” And if you do play an instrument, use it to enthrall your children. ‘‘Being able to sit down and play an instrument for young people, you might as well be pulling a ferret out of your sleeve,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s that amazing.’’

Zanes’ dream is to help revive a proud heritage of community music-making. “I think people have so much creativity in them. Everybody does. One way to bring it out is music.… There’s a tremendous amount that can come out of two kids on a stoop clapping their hands and singing.” As he witnessed years ago while playing folk songs in a Brooklyn playground: “Music can open people’s hearts. It can build bridges between cultures. It can also make people dance like wild beasts!”

His last word on the importance of homemade, handmade music? “It is an incredibly joyous experience, and why leave that to the professionals?”

Why, indeed? The families of TCS are ready to join the celebration!