IT’S 10 A.M. ON A SATURDAY at Club Passim, the storied Harvard Square folk venue frequented by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in the 1960s, and the place is packed. Strollers neatly line the walls of the club’s tight foyer, and the small tables inside are already littered with Starbucks cups, sippy cups, and baggies of Cheerios. Adult chitchat mingles with a — mostly — cheerful din of toddler noises.
In a tiny brick-walled back room, Alastair Moock, dressed in jeans, a blue checked shirt, and a newsboy cap, is seated on a stiff-looking chair. It’s a big day for Moock — it’s his 10th family show here, and he’ll be debuting songs from his new album, Singing Our Way Through: Songs for the World’s Bravest Kids. In the audience are his 6-year-old twin daughters, one of whom, Clio, is the inspiration for the album. Clio is undergoing treatments for leukemia; a pink headband adorns her bald head.
Many in the audience know the 40-year-old Moock, his music, and his family’s story. But others, who have come for a fun weekend outing, don’t realize they’re about to see a day in the life of childhood cancer. Is Moock nervous that he’ll be able to hit the right notes, so to speak, for his whole audience? “No,” he says simply. A beat later, with a thoughtful smile, he adds, “Not anymore.”
During the 45-minute show, cancer isn’t center stage — music is. Kids either stare or dance, clap or gape as Moock sings in his gentle, gravelly voice and plays the acoustic guitar and banjo. Jamie Walker, a sideman with deep smile lines and wild gray hair, plays the electric guitar, and musician Mark Erelli, here with his young sons, jumps onstage to play mandolin. The set list includes originals from Moock’s earlier kids’ albums, classic tunes like “Old Joe Clark” and “Chicken,” plus the new songs. Moock gets a laugh from parents when he describes “B-R-A-V-E,” a rap about going to the doctor, as “medical hip-hop.”
This is a concert for children, yet it’s not, well, childish. There are no puppets or princesses, no synthesizers or cutesy costumes. Even more surprising is that parents here are clapping along to the beat, and not in some ironic way. They have their smartphones out, sure, but they’re only snapping photos of their bopping kids. Many are even singing along. The parents get it. Moock is playing for them, too.
At this concert and others like it these days, parents are demanding more from their children’s music — at minimum requiring what Richard James Burgess, director of marketing for the record label Smithsonian Folkways, calls “music that doesn’t make you want to jump out of the minivan.” No one wants the same old “The Wheels on the Bus.”
Maybe it comes from a yearning for all things natural and authentic that has parents shopping local, eating organic, and limiting screen time. Or perhaps it’s a backlash against Barney, coming from an ever-so-slightly selfish generation of parents who just can’t summon the energy to clap or sing along to music they don’t like.
Whatever the reason, Moock and others like him have created a thriving kids’ folk scene in the Boston area, true to the city’s history as a folk music hub and replete with choices for the under-5 set. Trust me on this. As the mother of a 2½-year-old boy, there have been days when we can’t decide which singalong or concert to attend. Options include outdoor shows by the tie-dye-clad Ben Rudnick and Friends, and library and toy store singalongs, like banjo-wielding Jeremy Lyons’s Saturday-morning gigs at Stellabella Toys in Inman Square. Elizabeth Mitchell, a national favorite among kiddie-folk fans, played at the Regattabar in the Charles Hotel this summer while visiting from upstate New York. Club Passim’s frequent family shows are big hits.
Music is a powerful thing, the soundtrack to childhood (and parenthood), as well as a source of amusement, nostalgia, and connection for adults and kids alike. Even more important, music can be a shelter from many of life’s storms and a wellspring of healing. It’s been both of these things for Moock and his family.
ALASTAIR MOOCK DIDN’T START OUT as a children’s musician. He almost didn’t start out as a musician at all, majoring in economics at Williams College and imagining a career in Third World development, something both his parents did for organizations such as the World Bank while raising their only child in Westchester County, New York.
Moock grew up listening to folk music. His passion for it took hold one summer in middle school, when his father brought him to see Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie play one of their many concerts together at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia (a “magical place” that Moock felt awed and humbled to play himself in July). When Moock left for college, his dad’s guitar went with him. By senior year, economics was no longer his calling.Continued...