Our music collection was unassailable until I became pregnant with my first daughter. From Johnny Cash to Bruce Springsteen to the Ramones to Poi Dog Pondering, my husband and I had curated the soundtrack to our lives with care. Suddenly Raffi’s Singable Songs for the Very Young joined the mix. As parents, would we now be reduced to predictable three-chord ditties like “Aikendrum” and “Brush Your Teeth”?
We fought hard against this encroaching menace of “children’s music” with assistance from the quietest tracks of Joni Mitchell albums and Aaron Neville’s Warm Your Heart. But Raffi didn’t become a superstar for nothing. Infants turn into toddlers, and toddlers have an innate and urgent rhythm, and they like to drum on empty pots with wooden spoons, and they like to bop their Pull-Ups-diapered butts to silly songs with words they understand. That’s when Dan Zanes’s Rocket Ship Beach saved us.
The former lead singer of the Del Fuegos, an alt-rock band I’d loved in college during the ’80s, Zanes was a pioneer of music that a grown-up could play on the car stereo even after the kids were dropped off at preschool. He culled the gems from the great American songbook and recorded them with the musical sensibility of a garage-rock stalwart with help from a jovial Jamaican rapper plus special guests like Blondie, Roseanne Cash, and Loudon Wainwright.
Kids don’t want synthesizers and trance music. They need banjos, fiddles, accordions, and silly lyrics that instruct them to jump up, look up, and dance. They need goofy stories titled “King Kong Kitchie” and “Polly Wolly Doodle.” They need counting songs like “Go Down Emmanuel Road” that encourage them to interact.
Raffi certainly had that, but Zanes figured out a formula more palatable for Mom and Dad. “Hello,” a duet with bluegrass singer Barbara Brousal, had harmonies to melt for. His cover of “Over the Rainbow” made me tear up long before I heard Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s version. Rapper Father Goose aka Rankin’ Don had me chanting “Father Goooose, Father Goooose” while my mini music fans clapped along, delighted, in the back seat.
Other musicians came along to help fill that void of kid music that appealed to parents, too: They Might Be Giants, Taj Mahal, Buckwheat Zydeco. I appreciated them all, but Dan Zanes was there when I needed him most.
A “Dan Zanes and Friends” show was announced for a nearby theater when our youngest was three, so I bought two tickets, excited to see Zanes at last (I never caught him in the Del Fuegos). On the appointed day, we got dressed up and headed to the theater with friends. As we made the long climb to our seats, my daughter held my hand, wiggling with excitement. After we sat down, my daughter climbed up into my lap, her pink velour party dress spreading onto both of us like cupcake frosting. It marked our first concert together—a milestone, just like her first tooth.
As we waited for showtime, I felt her growing heavier and heavier in my lap. By the time Zanes took the stage, my daughter was snoring and I was pinned. She slept through his rousing rendition of “Sidewalks of New York,” “Erie Canal,” and even “Pay Me My Money Down” which, for the conscious children in the theater, culminated in a conga line that followed Zanes and his players—including Father Goose—in a snaking line through the whole theater. Me, I stayed pinned under a tiny captor in a size 3T trapeze dress. My hand tapped out the beat and I hummed along to music that I had truly grown to love for reasons that transcended mere music appreciation. Zanes was my accompanist for a time when the girls thought their parents were omnipotent and omniscient, back when I believed I held the power to protect them.
Now that my girls are all teens and we listen to grown-up music together, we haven’t put Dan Zanes on the stereo in years. While I’ve given away all their outgrown clothes and tattered picture books, I can’t bring myself to pass the Rocket Ship Beach CD on, not just yet. I buy it new for every expectant parent I know.
Zanes took fear out of parenting by neutralizing my worry that I would lose myself and wake up changed, a mom who willingly listened to Raffi and then progressed to Kidz Bop and Radio Disney. Dan Zanes allowed me to give my kids what they needed, without giving myself away in the process. For that reason, Dan Zanes, you will always have a special place in my heart.