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The Dan Zanes interview

02/21/2008 5:17 PM ET
By Steven Goldman / Special to YESNetwork.com

Dan Zanes and Friends play at The Egg in Albany, N.Y.(AP)
Anyone who has had children since the millennium has probably encountered Dan Zanes, be it through his music, his videos, his books, or his stage show. The former Del Fuegoes lead turned from rock to folk — and, as we'll see, just about everything else in between — in 2001, with the release of Rocket Ship Beach, an album that was primarily aimed at children but was accessible to adults too, thanks to its combination of catchy originals, traditional folk songs, and old standards, all performed in a loose one-take-is-best-take style. Subsequent releases improved on the formula, and Zanes won a Grammy for his 2006 release "Catch That Train."

In between, he's released two extraordinary collections of archaeological folk, Sea Music and Parades and Panoramas, 25 songs from the American Songbag, a collection of found American roots music compiled by Carl Sandburg in 1927. His newest release is "¡Nueva York!" which is a collection recorded entirely in Spanish. Zanes is only partially joking when he calls it his "pro-immigration" album.

Zanes is currently touring. For those in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, he's appearing playing two shows in Princeton, N.J., on February 23, two more in Brooklyn on February 24, and then departs for just about everywhere else in the country.

At first, our conversation may not seem to have much to do with baseball (I am consciously embracing the "E" in "YES" today), but on some level it has everything to do with where baseball fits into our society, because I've always wondered: how do you take the anti-side in the immigration debate and still be a baseball fan given the incredible concentration of Latino players in the game? Can you go to the Stadium and cheer Mariano Rivera, only to go home and root for a border fence? It's a fascinating question — the human mind is unrivaled in its ability to embrace two completely contradictory points of view at the same time.

Dan, you play for children, but calling you a children's artist is to limiting given what you do. I believe you've called your style, "age-desegregated music?"

[Laughs] Yeah, then I came up with a simpler term, "Twenty-first century all-ages social music," just to make it easy for people.

That's almost like going from "shell-shock" to "combat fatigue." ...When I was a kid, there was a huge amount of kids' music out there. Some of it was Disney, some of it was Sesame Street, but beyond that there were a lot of options in terms of songs and stories. When I first became a parent in 2000, I don't know if home video killed it, but it wasn't there anymore. Is that what you saw when you first started looking at the field back around that time?

The thing that I was most sensitive to was just how much of it was corporate — which is fine, I don't mind that it's corporate stuff and I live in the real world so I know it's going to be there, but I thought there was going to be a balance. I ended up looking for stuff that I grew up with, which was the Folkways records, the Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Ella Jenkins, Leadbelly. I wanted the updated version of that stuff, songs that are both traditional and new. Basically, what I'm doing now. I just had this sound in my head and it was almost completely based on Folkways records. I just wanted a post-rock and roll take on that, drawing on different traditions, old and new, sounds like it wasn't recorded in a studio, sounds like it was recorded in whatever room of the house was free at the time, just something that was kind of handmade, just reflecting the world that we live in, with whoever was available whenever you got the time to record. I could hear the whole thing in my head and been doing it ever since, but it was really based on my own experience as a kid.

It's kind of weird how folk has been so many things. It's been political, it's been pop, and then suddenly it's children's music.

When I think of folk music I think of everything from hip-hop to beat-boxing to norteño, basically any kind of music that can be passed by one person to another, you don't need training ...the music that's gonna get everyone in the room singing along or engaged in some way. That to me is the crucial component, the communal, inclusive spirit of it all. That it's kind of wild and untamed. I think the more common concept of folk is the singer-songwriter people, but I think of it as when I hang out with the Ruby Theatre Company and they're all beat-boxing with each other, I'm thinking that that feels like folk music to me. So I just think of it as everyone is in it together, and if everyone's invited to the party then it's folk music. You know, when I first heard Chuck Berry, I couldn't quite see the distinction between Woody Guthrie and Chuck Berry. It seemed like they were coming from a very similar place to me.

That's a great observation about Guthrie and Berry. Maybe it's because they were at the very roots of what they did. Their music hadn't been absorbed and homogenized yet. It was still very organic.

That's the amazing thing, and that's the thing that I've felt so grateful for with what we do, because I know, having been in a rock and roll band, that I bought into that routine just like everyone around me did. At first it was very free because nobody knew what they were doing. But then as we all started to figure it out, it got less and less interesting because we started to buy into what's rock and what's not.

Are there songs that resist that inclusiveness, that don't lend themselves to everyone joining in?

Well, I always think about it as a party of a family reunion or something. We always look for the songs that are going to bring everybody in and everybody can sing along, but at any party or any gathering there's always a moment where you can take a break. I always call it the signature song. Who's going to stand up and sing their signature song? Because that's important too, that stories get told. If I could do a record of all sing-along songs I would, but I always have to find some others, so it's always a balance. But we're always trying to look at the end result. It's funny, I was just saying this yesterday to someone in the band, about how I can never think of these as just records. It always takes over my life. There's so much emotion behind it. I've experienced that to the furthest degree possible with this last one, doing all these songs in Spanish and collaborating with all of these Latino musicians around New York. It's been the most unbelievably emotional experience for me. It's also been the longest that we've ever worked on. It's almost taken us a year, because I never stopped to consider what learning a new language was going to mean.

You mean you weren't fluent in Spanish before you started?

No! I didn't know anything! All I knew was that all around me in the U.S. were people that didn't feel welcomed here, and they were bringing in all this culture! And all this insane talk about immigration and immigrants! It made me so mad to think of it, and at the same time I was learning so much about culture from Latin America, and I wanted to celebrate it — because I could, and because I had all these friends around me, and these songs, and it turned out to be this emotional, dream kind of party. But it took a long time because of the language.

I'm at a bit of a disadvantage there, because I don't speak the language. I've gotten to hear part of the new record and it sounds beautiful, but I have no idea what it is we're singing about.

[Laughs.] I know. The liner notes for the CD are going to help that a lot.

You have the new record coming out in an election year where immigration happens to be a big topic, and I was wondering, as someone who is considered a children's artist, are you supposed to be beyond politics, non-partisan? Do you worry about appearing to proselytize?

I think there's a big difference between proselytizing and saying where you're coming from. I don't feel like I need to tell anyone what to think about anything, because I hate it when they do that to me. When protest music becomes something more than telling a story, or telling the experience, I get kind of lost. I don't react well to that. But I also think it's important to say the way you're feeling and the way you're thinking. For me that's a big part of what we're doing. And I think that if you look at my band it's a pretty diverse collection of people. I think it's important that when kids are in the audience that they can look up on the stage and be able to identify. If it's Latino kids or African-American kids or Asian kids, they look at my band and they can see themselves up there.

That's not an accident — I live in New York and the most incredible people are all around me. I always felt that we had this incredible opportunity, and the opportunity is if at all possible to inspire people to think about the world around them and think about the music that can be made, and who can make it with who. In the 21st century we're becoming a bilingual country, which is just awesome. In this insane immigration debate, we have the opportunity to create a 21st century-style party where the Anglos and the Latinos are all making music together and telling each other the stories of where they came from. To me, it's gotta be fun or nobody will care. In the world I live in, if it's not fun, nobody cares. My political views are pretty clear to anyone who wants to tune in, but on the other hand, it's crucial that everything I do is in some way enjoyable. What a great job to have. It's unbelievable! But I can't get too carried away from myself or I'll lose my audience. That's a fact.

So where do you draw the line as a performer? You do "Down By the Riverside," but you can get away with it because it's an older anti-war song, and it's utopian rather than pointed. Could you play something like John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" or Woody Guthrie's "Deportees?"

We play "Deportees" all the time, not in concert but just because it's a great song. But unless I recorded it, I think the message of it would get pretty lost on stage. But whenever we do a song from our new record, I always take a minute to say, "This is a song from our new CD, it's our pro-immigration CD, then I say in Spanish that I'm learning to speak Spanish so I don't miss out on any of the fun around here, and then I'll say something along the lines of, "[Spanish]" — "The culture of the United States needs the immigrants." We're just focusing on the culture. The economy? I don't know. I can't talk about that. I know it's in shambles, I know that, but I can talk about the culture, I know plenty about that, and I know what I get when I hang around with my Latino friends and what I'm able to learn from them, and it's unbelievable, so it's really my own experience just looking around.

And just the fact that there are people here who feel unwelcome. The mean-spirited dialogue is so hurtful and so disrespectful and so out of reality. We have to fight back. We can't remain neutral, and I feel as artists, whether people are playing family music or anything else, as artists we have a responsibility to reflect the world that we live in. It's a social responsibility. So we take it to whatever degree that we can.

I sympathize because as a sportswriter who gets to talk about other stuff, people seem pretty comfortable if I go into music or movies or something, but when I talk about politics, I mean not in a partisan way, but in an analytical way, I get mail saying I'm a sportswriter so I'm not allowed to be political.

Well, you know, everyone does want you to shut up if you're an entertainer, but the fact is that people in that position, any of us who have a public, I believe the opposite. I think it's our responsibility. I mean, there's always going to be someone who mocks the idea of actors and musicians speaking about politics, but in the end we're all citizens, this is our show, and if we don't participate — if we don't participate, you can see where it goes. It certainly doesn't veer into the positive, that's for sure. Left alone, I think it always tends to go into the place of power and wealth, and ultimately that's always bad for the common person. It's good for the few and it's bad for the many. That's the way of the world, so, if we're not participating, regardless of who we are then we really have no right to complain. I say right now, "All hands on deck!" [Laughs] Sportswriters, folk singers, you know, everybody, speak their mind, do their part, speak their mind, do their thing. We all have to find out how we can be helpful and make a better world.

Having said all of that, I don't want to misrepresent what you do as excessively political. It happens that the Spanish CD is coming out at a time where it's kind of topical, but the main thing about your records that I find so much fun is not only do they not pander, but you have this thing in common with Pete Seeger, which is that your records are really eclectic, with a lot of different kinds of songs. You can do a song that Harry Belafonte popularized, like "Jamaica Farewell," and it might sit next to a Leadbelly song or a Frank Loesser show tune like "A Bushel and a Peck." You're able to take all these different genres, make them seem like their coming from the same place.

Yeah! That's really a fun thing about it for me too, and I really can't believe that I get to write my own ticket every time I do this. It's all way too good to be true, and yet it's true! And winning a Grammy was such a — I mean, it's nice to get a prize no matter what, but it's just something that helps us keep going for another year and be able to do things on our own terms, that's what that really meant, that we could do things on our own terms for a little longer. And that's what it's like at a party! When I'm at a party and we're playing songs together, we'll just go from one thing to the next, and it just depends on whoever is in the room. So we're just trying to reflect the neighborhood, reflect life as we know it, and it's always like that. It's not random, but it's drawing from everywhere. That's the fun thing about music for me.

Finally, I have a last question. Having done all this classic Americana, you still haven't done a baseball song.

Baseball song! [Laughs]

You know, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," or "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball," or "There Used to Be a Ballpark."

[Laughing.] I don't know any of those songs! I don't want to be a disappointment...

No, no, no. Not at all. I was just wondering. It would fit if you did more of the Sandburg thing. That book could support another 20 CDs.

I feel like it's so hard to go back for the part two of anything, but that is an amazing thing, and I'd love to participate in more Sandburg-ian events, but my interests keep moving forward at such a rapid pace, and we put so much into these things, so much energy that I can never — my list of what I want to do and accomplish is so long that I can't imagine going back to anything. I'd like to do a whole record in Puerto Rico. We were just down there a little while ago and we were playing with these amazing jibaro musicians, and they had never seen anyone play a five-string banjo before. And I thought, "Ah, there's my next record. I want to go down and bring old-time music down to Puerto Rico and have some kind of party down there with the jibaros and see what we can do. That's kind of what I'm thinking.

COMING IN THE PINSTRIPED BLOG
We continue with our tour through Spring Training goals, moving on to a plethora of pitchers, and I'll also be interviewing John Foti, a member of Zanes' band who takes his inspiration from, among others, The Muppets, Talking Heads, Waylon Jennings, Paul Simon, They Might Be Giants, The Band, Tom Waits, Randy Newman... and Greg Cadaret from the 1990 New York Yankees.

Steven Goldman's Pinstriped Bible appears weekly on YESNetwork.com. "Forging Genius," Steve's biography of Casey Stengel is available at Amazon.com and a bookstore near you, as is "Mind Game," about the intellectual conflict between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Steve's Pinstriped Blog is available weekdays on YESNetwork.com, and more Steve can be found at Baseball Prospectus Web site. Your questions, comments, suggestions welcomed at oldprofessor@wholesomereading.com. The opinions stated above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to anyone connected in an official capacity with the YES Network.
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