Let Love Be Your Guide

Dan and Claudia Zanes Made ‘Let Love Be Your Guide’ for Young Listeners

If Let Love Be Your Guide doesn’t go down as the 21st-century kids’ music equivalent of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, it will most likely pave the way for it.

Let Love Be Your Guide
Dan and Claudia Zanes
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
28 July 2021

It was around the time of my eldest child’s birth that I became aware that Dan Zanes, like Mark Mothersbaugh, Evan Lurie, and They Might Be Giants, was one of those hip music industry veterans who had stumbled upon a career in family music. Parents were quick to embrace his new act Dan Zanes and Friends, probably because they were all grown-up Del Fuegos fans looking for music their children would enjoy. It wasn’t long before he was winning Grammys and recording with Elizabeth Mitchell, the unofficial queen of children’s folk music.

After more than a dozen albums with the Friends band, Zanes and his wife Claudia relocated to Baltimore shortly before the COVID pandemic put the brakes on modern life. Claudia Zanes, an accomplished singer, helped Dan record one song a day to upload to the outside world. The response was enthusiastic, even if reality was being ravaged by an airborne virus and incidents of police brutality. Being a racially mixed couple, the Zanes kept one eye on the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and decided that all of this could be a teachable, not to mention musical, moment.

Their first collaborative album, Let Love Be Your Guide, name-drops John Lewis in one song’s title and uses the word “reparations” in another! Folk music and protest have been traveling hand-in-hand before Woody Guthrie came along, so a children’s folk album concerning social (in)justice shouldn’t catch us entirely unawares. However, you can probably hear the detractors revving up their protests now, railing against an “agenda”. But as Bobby Womack once put it, “when you tell the truth, you never go out of style.”

The album opens with the bluesy title track, swishing in a 12-string Malian wind. The title is a continuing refrain through both choruses and verses: “Be your guide when you are weary / Be your guide when you’re unsure / The winds of change are on your side / Let love be your guide.” Dedicated to the late John Lewis, it’s downright challenging to imagine this message being one’s mantra as their skull was getting cracked open by the Selma police in 1965.

“Reparations Is a Must (4th of July Love Song)” is constructed similarly, with the title revisiting the listener several times in each stanza: “The statues and the glory / Reparations is a must / The story behind the story / Reparations is a must / All the children in their classrooms and the children they’re asked to trust / Can write it on the whiteboard / ‘Reparations is a must.’” “Coming Down” calmly explains that some ideas have overstayed their welcome, like white supremacy, capitalism, the patriarchy, voter suppression, and — oh, my — police departments. For parents who aren’t looking to have a list of hardships specified, there’s “In These Troubled Times”, where the Zanes trade vocal spots with guest vocalists from the Baltimore area. After all, no one can debate that these are troubled times.

Naturally, the whole album isn’t quite this heavy. “Arriba Means Up!” is just a chance for the Zanes to invite some kids into the studio to have them giggle about being tickled. “Open Windows (Here I Am)” is a cool and breezy organ tune sampling children identifying their sources of pride. The bounce of “New Beginnings” is understandably optimistic as it treats every new leaf as a chance for improvement. And as far as songs about mixed couples go, “Two Different Worlds” gets to be a guardedly happy one thanks to its easygoing island rhythm. “Long Hot Summer Nights”, for its part, is happy to just sit back and watch the dog days fade into evenings.

Had you told me 13 years ago that I would eventually be reviewing an album of family music that calls for the end of white supremacy and police brutality, I would not have known what to think. Then again, the younger me wouldn’t have known what to think concerning all of the world events that have occurred between 2020 and 2021. Troubled times, indeed. It would be remarkably easy to use family music to skirt around all these thorny issues. But even if you are indifferent to the kind of music Dan Zanes has been pursuing over the last 20 years, you’ve got to hand it to him and Claudia for taking such a bold stance — on the Smithsonian Folkways label, no less.

If Let Love Be Your Guide doesn’t go down in history as the 21st-century children’s music equivalent of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, it will most likely pave the way for one. It’s not an absurd idea.

RATING 7 / 10