Dan Zanes, Elizabeth Mitchell Make Music For Kids

Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell had only been playing for about 10 minutes when the stage was invaded.

The first to appear was a stuffed lamb. Then a cuddly dinosaur. Then all hell broke loose and kids on tiptoes were putting all sorts of beloved stuffed animals – and a collection of 19 neatly organized My Little Ponys – on the lip of the stage to get a better listen.

“Did they buy tickets?” Zanes happily teased from behind a guitar on New York University’s Skirball Center stage on Saturday. “Actually, ponies and dinosaurs get in for free.”

If most concerts these days are about twerking and pyrotechnics, a Zanes concert usually involves some gentle choo-choo dancing in the aisles, world beats and teddy bears. Plus, it’s often over by noon – that’s when the target audience naps.

Photo: Blake Zidell & Associates, Stephanie Mayers/AP
From left, Daniel Littleton, Storey Littleton, Elizabeth Mitchell and Dan Zanes, April 2013.

“We have wild dance parties before lunch,” he says in an interview a day before the concert. “Who else is going to say that, right? I don’t care how many records you’ve sold: Who’s having the dance parties before lunch?”

Zanes, a rail-thin, bushy-haired Grammy Award winner whom People magazine has called the “crown prince of contemporary kid’s music,” is a former member of the 1980s band The Del Fuegos who turned to children’s music after the birth of his daughter and never looked back, building a career with infectious sounds from all over the world.

Zanes’ globe-trotting music appetite ranges from elements of Tunisian Sufi, the Louisiana bayou, Appalachia, the Caribbean and South Africa to making a CD completely in Spanish. He likes to call what he does “21st-century, all-ages, handmade social music,” but everyone else calls them kiddie songs.

“I accept it. But I don’t think of it as children’s music,” he says in his comfortable two-story Brooklyn home nestled in a diverse neighborhood populated by Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants. “This is really music for everybody to sink their teeth into.”

Since his debut album, Rocket Ship Beach, in 2000, Zanes has recorded with all sorts of musicians, including Debbie Harry, Sheryl Crow, Natalie Merchant, Lou Reed, Ziggy Marley and Philip Glass. This month marks a new CD collaboration with Mitchell, also a giant among the nap set. To parents, the teaming up of Zanes and Mitchell is virtually akin to Paul McCartney and John Lennon working together.

In Turn, Turn, Turn, Zanes and Mitchell team up with Daniel and Storey Littleton – her husband and daughter – to create gentle folk tunes. Five are Zanes’ originals, and there are also several traditional songs such as “Sail Away Ladies,” “Train Is A-Coming” and “Wim Wam Waddle.”

The songs came easily when the four sat in Zanes’ living room for three days this spring to pick out songs for the CD, which was recorded upstate near Woodstock, N.Y. A tour will hit Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts this fall.

“Songs were just flying out,” he says. “We just drink from the same well. We all love music and I think we love the idea of bringing some of these songs sometimes kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”

He and Mitchell have been friends since they met at a maternity shop in SoHo when his album came out, and they’ve long wanted to record together. As a sign of how in synch they were, both showed up with a list of the same obscure songs, including “My Creole Belle.”

“That’s kind of odd, you have to say,” she says by phone. “It was just really fun and really natural. He and I have really been on this similar path since Day One. We share a similar approach that if the heart and soul are in the right place then that’s all that’s important.”

Zanes and Mitchell – her CDs include You Are My Little Bird, Catch the Moon and the Grammy-nominated Little Seed – each emerged around the same time and have seen the genre of family music explode. He estimates there are at least 10 times as many people making and performing music for kids now.

“A lot of people felt sorry for me when I first started doing this. They really thought I’d given up rock `n’ roll so I could sing `Old MacDonald’ every day,” he says. “People’s imagination about what family music could be was very, very limited.”

He gets inspired by his environment and recently moved into a new home not far from Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants and women passing by in burkas. One neighbor is Haitian, another Puerto Rican. (One song from the new CD is “Coney Island Avenue,” which is a street near his home.)

“I like to ask people about what they listened to growing up,” says Zanes, who was raised in New Hampshire. “I’m really appreciating the crazy quilt of cultures around me here. I just love that. I’m just a curious guy.”

Over the years, he has learned to play guitar, banjo, mandolin, piano, bass, ukulele, harmonica, jaw harp and spoons. But Zanes knows the sheer power of music on a toddler is the real beauty.

“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.”