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It’s educational: the Zucchini Brothers.

Not Your Father’s Children’s Music

Indie rockers get a second creative wind in making music for kids

By Tom Hilliard and Marion Jacobson

This 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 wild.

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.

“There’s 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 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 children everywhere.

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.

“We 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 the Internet.

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 can testify.

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.

“I like more metal in my music,” he pronounced.


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