Every two-year-old in Park Slope knows that Dan Zanes is a rock star. At Franny’s on Flatbush Avenue the other night, I watched one burst into Beatlemaniacal sobs the second he walked in—you can’t miss his elegantly clashing wardrobe of thrifted suits, shirts, and socks, accompanied by a penumbra of Don King–at-Woodstock hair. Even when the “family music” phenom is quietly buying apples at the Cadman Plaza farmer’s market, he looks like he just stepped out of the Sesame Street green room.
Parents realize the ringmaster of Dan Zanes and Friends is a rock star when they recognize a few of those “Friends.” Catch That Train!, released this week on Zanes’s own Festival Five label, features Nick Cave crooning the Lomax favorite “Sweet Rosyanne” and the Kronos Quartet fluffing up Leadbelly’s “Grey Goose.” Zanes’s cross-generational marketing is shameless—earlier this year in the Times magazine, Neal Pollack sneered that he was “for kids of parents who want to think they still know something about music but would secretly be happy listening to nothing but Norah Jones for the rest of their lives.”
Norah Jones fans can now decide for themselves. Through its Hear Music label, Starbucks is currently displaying Train at its registers—”by the shortbread,” notes Zanes, who calls the deal a “joint venture”—and thereafter in the rotating racks. Meanwhile, he’s developing a TV pilot with Playhouse Disney, and Festival Five has stealth-released Bright Spaces 2: Family Music to Benefit Children in Crisis, a benefit record for play spaces for homeless kids, with tracks by Woody Guthrie, maritime singers the Johnson Girls, and the avant-folk Wingdale Community Singers.
As for Train, it’s Zanes’s strongest effort yet, warm and buzzing in equal measure, with adult-friendly originals, right-on covers (like Rufus Thomas’s “Walking the Dog”), choice collaborators (the Blind Boys of Alabama and the South African choir Children of Agape), and for the baristas, a farm-labor organizing song called “I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister.”
Pollack says he and his alternakid prefer the chipper sock-hop of Laurie Berkner (also on Hear Music), but it’s apples and oranges. Along with Ralph Covert and They Might Be Giants, Berkner’s just divvying up a demographic; Zanes is campaigning for a better world in which every household is also a band. “You should turn off the CD player,” he suggests to parents while sipping tea on a sunny afternoon in the Flying Saucer Café’s garden, around the corner from his Dean Street office. “It’s great to sit around and play records for kids, but that doesn’t begin to compare to live music. The first time I took my daughter to a show she sat for two hours straight on a folding chair, and there were no colored lights, no tight pants, none of those things which I was later to adopt. If we have a message, it’s that this is unbelievably enjoyable, and here are some songs you could get together with other people and sing—you just have to memorize some words.”
Accordingly, Train‘s packaging includes both lyrics and chords. “It used to drive me crazy as a kid trying to figure out how to play the music I liked,” Zanes says. “If it was in E flat I was sunk. I’m trying to make it as easy as possible.”
His idea of “easy” is a rootsy, cosmopolitan mix of folk, western, and r&b—oh, hell, it’s rock ‘n’ roll—livened up with island sing-alongs, sea shanties, baby hip-hop, and Spanglish (although fluent speakers might not notice due to Zanes’s appalling accent). It’s a millennial brand of organically Brooklyn-grown folk music. He’s already recorded three of the songs recently glorified on Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions; Pete Seeger is one of Dan’s primary role models.
So what’s a 2006 New York City work song? The island stuff comes from nannies Zanes met on the job as a stay-at-home dad. “We’d be hanging out with these West Indian women on the playground, and they’d come over and sing,” he recalls. “The great thing about being in New York is everybody’s here and everybody has some songs in their head. It’s just there for the asking.” His new friends became a vocal group called the Sandy Girls, while his babysitter suggested he check out her son Wayne Rhoden, who already had a career as Rankin’ Don but now goes by Father Goose. (The other long-term Friends are St. Ann’s teacher and songwriter Barbara Brousal and Sea Ray drummer Colin Brooks.) Rhoden’s nursery rhyme toasting is the highlight of the band’s live show; at a recent benefit for the Montclair Co-op School, several hundred sunbaked tots crashed in the grass as their parents whooped it up with the Goose.
For Zanes, the biggest laugh is that he’s getting a second act. In the ’80s he and his brother Warren led Boston’s Del Fuegos into an arena-opening oblivion of booze and recoupment. Dan got married (to video director Paula Greif), fled to the Catskills, listened to a lot of gospel and Jamaican music, had a kid, and wound up in the West Village. His solo record went nowhere, but he met some other musical dads and cooked up a new act, the Rocket Ship Revue, which gigged every Sunday for eight months during Bloody Mary time at the Park on Ninth Avenue. He bought a house in Cobble Hill and recorded a diaper bag full of records in it. If the Disney pilot works out, the kitchen where the Blind Boys sang may soon be as familiar to kids as Dora’s backpack.
“I just really want to get my music out there so that I can continue to make it,” he says. Festival Five is profitable, but the proceeds go back into the label, and the band can only play so many weekend afternoons. “The old model was that the record company would pay to support the tour, but I’m the record company.” In the past he’s had more obvious sponsors like Stonyfield Farms yogurt, Annie’s mac and cheese, and of course the Mouse, but he’s cool with Starbucks. “We share the same values: We aren’t interested in marketing to kids.” Huh? “Look, I’m happy if kids see our videos on TV and want more, but it’s still the parent’s choice. It’s something everyone can agree on before they bring it into their homes. Starbucks is selling coffee—they’re not trying to build brand loyalty in eight-year-olds.”
He’s had plenty of time to think this stuff through. More than twenty years ago, on the eve of Live Aid, the Del Fuegos appeared in a Miller beer ad to universal derision. “We just needed new amps,” Zanes recalls. “We were so cavalier that anything we did would be fine because people loved us. We thought everyone knew rock ‘n’ roll history, that Otis Redding did ads for Coke, Elvis sold doughnuts, the Stones did Rice Krispies.”
He says he’s learned his lesson. “You work hard on your career, you have to tend it like a garden. Of course, now everybody’s crawling all over themselves trying to get into TV commercials.”
Zanes is venturing into activism himself, signing on to play a June 3 show for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn in its fight against Ratnerville. “What makes Brooklyn so special is not just the architecture, but the small-scale community,” he says. “Say goodbye to all that.”
For an artist who’s poised for global domination, Zanes remains homespun. “I went to see the Wyeth exhibit in Atlanta, and it looked like the guy never went more than four miles from home,” he concludes. “That could be me, 80, sitting on the stoop with a guitar, waiting for someone to come along and sing with me.
Dan Zanes and Friends perform June 3 at Hanson Place Central United Methodist Church.