posted October 4, 2006

I grew up with folk music. My parents’ first date was going to see Harry Belafonte when he was the darling of the Greenwich Village set. Their second date was a Pete Seeger concert. Early in their courtship, my mother taught my father how to play the guitar, and my earliest memories have to do with them harmonizing around the dinner table to “Banks of the Ohio.” The first record I remember playing was Peter, Paul and Mommy. And though I eventually rebelled and started listening to the Clash (oh, OK, Captain & Tennille), my first musical love will always be folk music. REAL folk music: not the pabulum served up in the late fifties (Mitch Mitchell, Burl Ives) but muscular leftist populist folk music, dark murder ballads, passionate gospel.

As you know, this led to creating a five-piece rock band with my sister, that at one point in time lived in a van and played in clubs all over the country. Now we tour more regionally and more frequently as a duo, but we still put out a new CD every year and a half and have not yet given away our black motorcycle jackets. We rode the line between the shiny hopeful music of the American left’s folk tradition and the alternative rock of the 1990’s, trying hard not to be sentimental without being too cynical. “When I am a mother,” I thought. “My children will love music. They will not listen to Baby Einstein. They will not have toys that sound like Casio keyboards. They will have authentic instruments and learn songs from all over the world. They will learn about hope from music. And if they can’t sing on key, that’s AOK.”

Moreover (Katryna and I plotted), music shall save the world! If all the kids were busy singing, maybe they wouldn’t hit each other! If only George W. Bush had done more of the hokey pokey as a child, maybe he wouldn’t be so obsessed with his nasty, unwinnable wars!

To this end, HooteNanny was born.

HooteNanny is Katryna’s and my answer to Music Together, (www.musictogether.com) a national franchise whose theory is that your child’s favorite voice is your voice; that the best way for children to have music in their lives in a positive way is for parents and children to experience it…together. So classes begin when children are pre-verbal and continue until they are five. There are lots of call and response songs, lots of international songs, lots of made- up-in-the-moment songs.

On Thursday mornings, I put Lila in the jogging stroller and we walk a mile and a quarter into town on a crisp fall morning. I stop by Starbucks and get the requisite coffee bevies for Katryna and me (a 5 shot Americano for yours truly, a mostly milk iced coffee for her, with 2 sugars.) We meet in front of the building that houses the Northampton Quaker Meeting Center and unlock the front door. Upstairs, the room is still cluttered with chairs for big people. We move these out of the way to the periphery and sit down next to the wall with the outlet, plug in Katryna’s boom box. I take out the guitar, tune up and place my capo and picks behind my back and safely out of the reach of curious two year olds. And then the parents and kids begin to arrive: mothers of all ages carry their babies, or hold the hands of their toddlers. Some of the kids are older—up to five years old—and these are the kids we keep an eye on. When we get to the parts of the songs that require participation, here’s where most of the good ideas will come from. Like finding out what Aikendrum’s clothes are made of (Aikendrum lives on the moon, you see, and naturally, all his clothes are made of food. His hat is made of cream cheese. Depending on the whims of the children in the group, his shirt could be made of spaghetti, his tie could be made of dino-nuggets. Once his entire outfit was made from yogurt. You get to find out what kids had for breakfast by how Aikendrum is clothed.)

We begin each group with a good morning song: Good morning, Lila, how did you sleep last night? Going through and greeting every parent and child there. During the forty-five minute class, we do some movement (like dance around the room to Dan Zanes’s wonderful “Pata Pata”), play with shaker eggs, tambourines, sing some lullabies while babies nurse in their mothers’ laps. We have given each family a CD and songbook with the music for the ten-week session, and part of the program is about spending time outside of class listening to the CD with your child to develop familiarity with the music. The idea is that the more the kids and parents sing the songs at home, the better integrated the experience becomes.

We end the class with a version of the old folk song “Sweet Rosyanne,” whose refrain, “Bye Bye My Rosyanna” gets turned into “Bye bye Lila, bye bye William, bye bye Amy and Zoe,” etc. So far, I can attest that five-month old Lila loves the class, spending it looking around at the other moms, dads and babies and sucking on her hand with a big wet grin. William, Katryna’s almost 2 year old spins around in a circle, suggests we sing about fire trucks most of the time and sings the songs on his own in the car when Katryna plays the CD. Emails from the other moms in the group reflect this, too. And the best endorsement of all, from the mother of 6 month old twins: “They always nap so well in the afternoons after HooteNanny!”

We pack up our shaker eggs, boom box, guitar, children, stroller, leftover iced coffees and head out into the noonday. I help Katryna load the van, and then I walk home with happy Lila, who is a complete lovey-loo after her infusion of folk music. And even though she is still preverbal and toothless, I could swear she was trying to sing the chorus to “Allee Allee O” as we passed under the falling maple leaves.

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  1. I definitely agree that your own voice is the most useful tool for instilling a love of music in the lives of your children. Whenever I take my daughter for walks or runs in her jogging stroller, I usually sing to her – she’s even started humming along! Great post!

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