educational: the Zucchini Brothers.
Your Father’s Children’s Music
rockers get a second creative wind in making music for
Tom Hilliard and Marion Jacobson
is one club where the band totally rocks. The lead singer
croons songs with polished lyrics and catchy hooks, backed
up with guitar riffs straight out of the Grateful Dead
stylebook. The bassist has excellent chops and a line
of between-songs patter that keeps the audience cracking
up. The drummer thinks nothing of getting out from behind
his drum kit and walking around the house, drumming on
everything. When he drums on a woman’s head, she smiles
the fixed smile of the good sport, and the crowd goes
That’s because it’s not actually a club. It’s the cafeteria
of an elementary school on New Scotland Avenue. The woman
is a teacher. And the audience—yes, you guessed it—kids.
A school assembly of hyped-up wiggly kids between the
ages of 5 and 8. They’re here to see the Zucchini Brothers,
a kids’ music band based in Saratoga Springs. As per the
assembly tradition in elementary schools everywhere, the
students have been guided in by grown-ups for an hour
of mandatory musical performance.
But there’s nothing mandatory about their reaction. The
kids are mesmerized. Every call gets its response. “How
many of you have glow-in-the-dark toothbrushes?” asks
guitarist Jack Zucchini. A scattering of proud hands goes
up. “How many of you have toothbrushes?” Every hand is
up now, straining for the ceiling. Once in awhile, Jack
has to call out, “bottoms on the floor, everyone!” to
keep the excitement from overflowing into anarchy.
The Zucchini Brothers started out in 1990 as an independent
kids’ music band. They started jamming together as students
at the State University at Plattsburgh, writing their
own music and borrowing from the music they loved: Crosby,
Stills and Nash, the Band, and the Grateful Dead. In those
days, there was no such thing as a children’s-music scene,
as such, just Raffi and Barney and Sesame Street.
In the 1990s came breakthrough kid-rockers—acts like Dan
Zanes, Laurie Berkner and They Might Be Giants. Today,
the Zucchini Brothers belong to a mighty musical fraternity
of kids’ musicians.
been an explosion in the number of people making kids’
music and the attention devoted to that,” says Stefan
Shepherd, owner of the children’s music Web site Zooglobble.com
and expert on the children’s music scene.
Multimedia corporations like Disney, Viacom (which owns
Nickelodeon), and Comcast, (which produces the popular
Kidz Bop series) have mastered the multiplying distribution
channels by which music is pumped to the ears of young
children. That’s why bands like the Wiggles and the Dirty
Sock Funtime Band have become inescapable among small
Don’t expect that to change anytime soon. “Children’s
music—or kiddie rock—is increasingly becoming the ray
of light in an otherwise dreary period for the music industry,”
crowed CNNMoney in 2006. “Experts expect more and more
large corporations to reach out towards kiddie rock as
the market grows.”
More corporate kids’ music? That’s a prophecy to chill
the blood. But the Zucchini Brothers are in the vanguard
of an entirely different children’s music genre: independent
kids’ music. These musicians have found popularity by
riding many of the same changes in society and technology
that brought us the Wiggles, but they sound . . . well,
let’s just say, very different.
You won’t see the video for Uncle Rock’s “Picnic in the
Graveyard” on the Disney Channel. A young girl is looking
through a family scrapbook with her parents. Then mom
has a great idea. They pack a picnic basket, and the whole
family is off to the graveyard, where they eat, dance,
play music and talk about their family. Then the girl
spots her dead grandmother (who, for a ghost, is looking
quite well) and they hug. More dancing, and the chorus
of “Dia de los muertos” swells up around them.
were doing a class project about Mexican Day of the Dead,”
explains Uncle Rock’s alter ego, Robert Warren. “In Mexico,
they take one day each year to bring out pictures of family
members who have passed away and remember them. So I thought
it would be interesting to write a song about that.”
A hallmark of independent kid’s musicians is that they
tackle subjects you never thought a kid could—or should—listen
to. The Zucchini Brothers sing about the joys of recycling.
The band Dog on Fleas complain about bankers who make
it hard for farmers to earn a living. Justin Roberts has
a song about how kids struggle with divorce.
In fact, writing for children can liberate a musician’s
creative energies. “Stories about romantic trials don’t
appeal to 4-year-olds,” says Zooglobble’s Shepherd. “So
it’s an opportunity for musicians to tell stories about
the other 90 percent of the human experience.”
A theme that comes up repeatedly among musicians is the
joy of breaking through the genre boundaries that often
seem to imprison adult musicians. “There are people doing
music in virtually every musical style,” exults Boston-based
Ben Rudnick, who got his start playing at his daughter’s
4th birthday party. “There are no rules!” He’s exaggerating—there
are a few rules. No cussing. No hourlong instrumental
jams. No ear-assaulting sonic storms. But independent
kids’ musicians think nothing of hopping from rock to
folk to bluegrass to reggae in a single album. And why
should they? Record labels may guard the boundaries of
musical genres, but the kids don’t care. They just know
what they like.
The polyglot mélange of cultural influences also flows
from the interests of parents, who are, after all, the
ones buying the music. Today’s parents have witnessed
the birth of world beat and the folk-music revivals of
the 1990s. As a result, musicians can go deep and wide.
“Parents feel like we need to expose our children to lots
of different experiences,” says Shepherd. “Folk, rock,
and hip-hop are part of our heritage.”
One especially free spirit in the kids’ music scene is
Woodstock’s Liz Mitchell, who has achieved success with
a quiet, rootsy style and a talent for connecting to children
and parents alike. Mitchell, a classically trained singer
and pianist, had her epiphany listening to folk singers
like Elizabeth Cotten, the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie.
“There’s a timeless feeling about these songs,” says Mitchell.
“They speak directly to the listener.” It’s a harder trick
than it sounds, but Mitchell shows how with covers of
songs like the Carter Family’s “You Are My Sunshine” and
Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”
Certain themes emerge in the background of kids’ musicians.
Mitchell, Warren, and the Zucchinis have all taught preschool
or elementary school, steeping them in the obsessions
and expectations of their audience.
Another theme is rock & roll. Scratch a kids’ musician,
and you’ll usually find a former rocker. Warren used to
play bass guitar for East Village garage-rock band the
Fleshtones. Dan Zanes started out with ’80s rockers the
Del Fuegos. Mitchell plays in the alt-rock band Ida and
recorded her first children’s album while on tour. The
list goes on and on.
The reality is that musicians get to a certain age and
they just can’t smell that teen spirit anymore. “A lot
of rock musicians have kids,” notes Warren. “I can’t write
a song about how I broke up with my girlfriend last week.
Stories about having a booboo are what’s real to me now.
That’s what engages me creatively.”
Plus, playing for small children means no more bar gigs
entertaining drunk patrons until the wee hours of the
morning. That was part of the attraction of kids’ music
for the SUNY-Plattsburgh band that evolved into the Zucchini
Brothers. “The whole bar thing wasn’t working,” recounts
Jack Zucchini. “We realized that we could get married
and have families without giving up music.”
The worm in the apple? Respect. Every kids’ musician has
a story about being dissed by friends, acquaintances,
club owners, and former colleagues in the industry. “Dan
Zanes says that when he was starting out, his friends
secretly pitied him. My friends openly pitied me,” recalls
Warren. “Openly!” Jack Zucchini remembers being booked
for kids’ events and getting questions like: “Can you
make balloons, too?”
Increasingly, though, everybody wants to sit at the kids’
musicians’ lunch table. “Whatever stigma there was about
making children’s music has been totally erased,” declares
Zooglobble’s Shepherd. Famous acts like Barenaked Ladies,
Sheryl Crow and Green Day are making kids’ music now.
And plucky independent musicians are holding their own,
thanks to the democratizing influence of PC software and
But the technology doesn’t matter to kids. And it matters
only slightly to parents. What really counts for parents
is being able to listen to their kids’ music without gagging,
as any parent who has ever wanted to rip a Wiggles CD
out of the minivan stereo and throw it into heavy traffic
Kids’ music has grown into an alternative-music movement
in its own right. As 21st-century parents, we expect musicians
not just to entertain our kids, but us too. That may sound
self- indulgent, and to some extent it is. But as entertainment
companies beam their offerings to narrower and narrower
demographic slices, the idea of parents and kids listening
to the same music starts to sound pretty good. Of course,
the moment is fast approaching when our own children will
turn away in disgust from the music that once rocked their
worlds. Last week our 6-year-old daughter put on her favorite
Uncle Rock album for her brother, a jaded 8-year-old veteran
of many kids’ music concerts.
like more metal in my music,” he pronounced.