The Music of Dan + Claudia Zanes

Dan + Claudia Zanes are a husband-wife folk music duo who sing songs of joy, love, and justice for intergenerational and interracial audiences, harnessing the social power of music. Their first album together, Let Love Be Your Guide, was released September 10 by Smithsonian Folkways. Here’s the description from the label:

Let Love Be Your Guide, the first duo album by internationally renowned family musicians Dan + Claudia Zanes, is a collection of songs to spark intergenerational conversations about anti-racism, racial justice, and the joys of community. Conceived during the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings and coronavirus pandemic, the songs describe the new terms of togetherness—how we understand it, how we build it, and how we strive for more. Rooted in many different traditions, including gospel, R&B, and Haitian folk song, the eclectic, warm, and accessible music the duo makes reflects the kindness and openness that underpin their message: out of isolation and hardship we can learn how to accept and heal the wounds of the past, and how to change and face the future with grace and compassion, regardless of our age.

The title track, “Let Love Be Your Guide (For John Lewis),” is an homage to the late congressman and civil rights leader whose final New York Times opinion piece admonishes readers to “walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

(There are also music videos for “Coming Down” and “Reparations Is a Must (4th of July Love Song).”)

“The music made it possible for us to show up in our fullness, singing about matters near and dear to our hearts,” Claudia wrote in a release-day email. “The songs remind us that there are reasons to celebrate and laugh from the gut. There’s joy in unifying and coming together. There are things to ponder, and of course moments to pause and take deep breaths.” The album has a real invitational quality.

In the 1980s Dan Zanes sang lead for the critically acclaimed rock band the Del Fuegos. After his daughter, Anna, was born, he began playing family music with a group of other fathers he had met at the playgrounds in and around Brooklyn. This originally informal collective that distributed self-produced cassette tapes around the neighborhood evolved into the Grammy Award–winning Dan Zanes and Friends.

Claudia, who is Haitian American, is a board-certified music therapist who often works with children on the autism spectrum, both verbal and nonverbal, as well as geriatric clients. She has also toured internationally as a jazz vocalist.

She and Dan met in fall 2016 (at a dining-room singalong!), married in 2018, and moved to Baltimore at the end of 2019, shortly before the city shut down because of the pandemic. On March 15, 2020, they started what they call their Social Isolation Song Series, posting daily videos on YouTube—for two hundred days! The series includes a mix of folk songs, show tunes, and pop songs (Little Richard, the Beach Boys, Whitney Houston, etc.), as well as gospel songs, hymns, and spirituals, some of my favorites of which I’ve posted below. They’re so much fun!

Dan and Claudia Zanes (photo by Anna Zanes)

Both musicians have been heavily shaped by the Black church tradition, which Claudia grew up in and Dan came to faith in after meeting her. “I owe my spiritual focus, growth, and understanding to Claudia’s tremendous inspiration and to these Black churches,” he says, referring to Bethel AME in Boston, Lenox Road Baptist Church in Brooklyn, and Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, their current church home.

(Related post: “Songs of Lament and Justice by The Porter’s Gate”)

The couple integrates their music, activism, and Christian faith in a really beautiful way. “We try to go into it [music making] to do God’s work, whatever that might look like,” Dan said in an interview with podcaster Leo Sidran (I commend the whole interview to you!). Collective liberation is something they’re especially passionate about, so it’s a recurring theme in their music.

What follows are fourteen of their two hundred “social isolation” songs, in reverse chronological order (check out the rest on their YouTube channel). Sheet music for some can be found in Dan Zanes’ House Party!: A Family Roots Music Treasury (2018), a book that conveys “a love of songs as cultural currency—currency that tells us in poetic, emotional, nonsensical, sobering, and illuminating ways who we are and where we came from—and a belief that the joy of music making is something that’s available to one and all.”

“Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Jesus”:

“Freedom Is a Constant Struggle” by Roberta Slavitt:

“In Gratitude” (original):

“Peace, Perfect Peace” by Toots Hibbert, a Jamaican singer-songwriter who passed away last year from COVID-19:

“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” by Anthony Showalter and Elisha Hoffman:

“The Storm Is Passing Over” by Charles Albert Tindley:

“In These Troubled Times” (original, included on their album):

“Near the Cross” by Fanny Crosby (text) and William Doane (music):

“Go Down, Moses”:

“Salaam,” a Tunisian song from the Gnawa tradition, which the Zaneses learned from their Palestinian American friend, the buzuq player Tareq Abboushi:

(“Salaam alaikum,” Arabic for “peace to you,” is a traditional Muslim greeting.)

“This Little Light of Mine,” with a rap by Jendog Lonewolf:

“Come and Go with Me to That Land”:

“Daniel in the Lions’ Den”:

“How Great Thou Art” by Carl Boberg, with “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”:

To learn more about Dan + Claudia Zanes, visit their website, www.danandclaudia.com. You can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram.