The history of children’s recordings is literally as old as the medium itself: In 1877, Thomas Edison kicked it all off by test-mumbling a few lines from “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into his experimental “talking machine.” Somewhere along the way, things went to commercial hell: We ended up with “Veggie Tales” and Barney. (Cue gagging and screams of torture.)
So the more conscious members of the recent generation of new parents, weaned on indie rock and alt-culture, were faced with a problem: How could they give their offspring the joys of music without exposing the tykes to the mind-numbing spells of born-again broccoli and annoying, rube-voiced dinosaurs?
In 2001, help came in the form of New York’s Dan Zanes. That year, the ex-Del Fuegos front man released Rocket Ship Beach (Festival Five Records), a roots-centric album of originals, standards, familiar kids’ songs, and traditional country and folk tunes, all rendered in a manner that emphasizes the act of enjoying music as a family. The record took off, revitalizing the children’s folk genre. Little ones were delighted—but probably not as much as their folks, who at last had something they could play for their kids without having to leave the room to preserve their own sanity.
Bulbs soon began to light up above the heads of many perhaps identity-questioning rockers-turned-parents, young moms and dads who’d figured they had to dump the stage monitors to make way for the baby monitors. Through Zanes, they realized it didn’t need to be that way, they could reconcile the seemingly disparate threads of their new family lives with those of their artistic aspirations by remaking the rules; they could make cool music for kids (and grownups, too!). And their kids could join in, to sing and play on their records. A new scene began to take shape: underground children’s music.
Zanes cites Elizabeth Mitchell as his most cherished comrade in the movement. In the ‘90s, Mitchell played in New York sadcore outfit Ida with her husband, Daniel Littleton, while she taught nursery school during the day. Her third and most recent solo album, You Are My Little Bird
(Smithsonian Folkways), is a beautifully fragile, folk-based work with enough transgenerational appeal that children lucky enough to receive it may very well have to remind their parents to share. For Mitchell, the transition from indie rock to folk music was an organic one. “In Ida, we were kind of doing that anyway, playing this quiet folksy music in loud punk rock clubs,” she explains. “And I was also doing it in the classroom, too. To get the kids interested in music, I was teaching them songs by Elizabeth Cotten, the Carter Family, Leadbelly.” In addition to reverently upholding Smithsonian Folkways’ long lineage of preserving folk music for children, You Are My Little Bird
features some surprising covers, songs by Neil Young, Bob Marley, even the Velvet Underground. Mitchell and Littleton have a daughter, Storey, 5, and have been Woodstock residents since 2004.
The Hudson Valley has long been the most obvious Shangri-La for New York-dwelling artistic types in search of greener climes for their new families, a trend that has grown exponentially in the years since 9/11. “The arts community here is wonderful, and we just felt really embraced by it,” says Phoenicia’s Uncle Rock, aka frequent Chronogram contributor and former Manhattanite Robert Burke Warren. He and his wife, music journalist Holly George Warren, and their son, Jack, now 8, moved to the region in 2001. Warren, who sings and plays guitar and bass in his Uncle Rock guise, once worked with both Ru Paul and garage kings The Fleshtones and played the lead in the London production of "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story."
In addition to his duties as a father, writer, and musician, Warren works as a teacher’s assistant. As Uncle Rock, he has released two CDs of roots-rocking family fun, Uncle Rock Plays Well with Others
(Jackpot Music) being the latest. Warren describes playing for kids as being “way more fun than playing for any adult audience. Kids are already uninhibited; they don’t have to get wasted like most people in clubs do to have fun and get into the music.” He also points to how mass-marketed children’s music ill-advisedly shies away from darker topics. “Kids are drawn to the shadows,” he illustrates. “Look at Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, Roald Dahl, the Harry Potter books. Kids are fascinated by that stuff.” A standout track from Plays Well with Others
is “Picnic in the Graveyard,” which looks at the Mexican tradition of honoring one’s ancestors on the Day of the Dead.