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 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!
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.
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.)
Ears to the Ground Family is a group of friends in their early thirties, making music together in and around their hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Minimalist and totally acoustic, they sing songs of hope, sustaining faith, and resistance to oppression and empire. Their stylistic influences include the spirituals, soul, hip-hop, R&B, folk/Americana, chant, Taizé, and Anabaptist hymns, especially from the Mennonite tradition, to which they belong.
The band formed in 2010 and has “always preferred the outdated and peculiar model of the elusive traveling troubadour,” sharing their music in small settings, unplugged, locally or regionally. Its members first met during the Petrol-Free Jubilee, an annual two-week bicycle-powered music and art tour of the mid-Atlantic, which they went on to participate in as a group for seven years. Its purpose was “to promote peace, social justice, and a healthy planet.”
“We biked two hundred to three hundred miles with ten to twenty people on average, often several bands or musicians with us at a time, and our regular stops and show locations included a lot of farms, community centers, and Catholic Worker houses,” band member Nichole Barrows told me. “Just imagine twenty people rolling down Main Street in your city in the middle of a hot summer afternoon on their bikes, with drums and guitars in tow, ringing their bike bells and singing at the top of their voices! I mean, it was like summer camp on wheels; we brought the show with us!”
This small-scale approach and casual touring schedule, Barrows said, “enables us to root ourselves deeply within our home community and invest in the valuable work that inspires our music.” That valuable work includes church ministry, community organizing, farming, and outdoor education.
In June 2017 Ears to the Ground Family recorded eight original songs (written between 2007 and 2013) plus a traditional African American spiritual, but jobs, family, and other projects prevented them from being able to mix, master, and self-release until recently. Finally, on December 18, 2020, their debut album, Full Moon in June, came into the world, making their music available to a much wider audience for the first time.
“It’s funny,” Barrows said, “some people talk about ‘slow music’ (you know, slow food, etc.) to describe homegrown, independently released local music. But we’re so ‘slow’ that it takes us about ten years to release our first album!”
Infused with prophetic imagination, Full Moon in June denounces the forces of evil at work in the world on a grand scale—things like war, environmental exploitation, predatory lending practices, and the prison industrial complex—and casts a beautiful vision of all things new under Christ. Stop participating in that which is destructive, the album invites, and join instead with the creative work of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). These songs awaken my enthusiasm for the promised future of all that is and for our journey toward it, sowing seeds of Christ’s kingdom all along the way.
An exploration of “Almond Blossom”
My favorite song on Full Moon in June is the first one, “Almond Blossom” by Dimitris Campos, which uses the image of a tree to signal abundance and renewal. “There’s an almond blossoming in Jerusalem,” it opens. Almond blossoms are a harbinger of springtime, and in fact Israel’s almond trees are the first to bloom each year. The song’s second line, “The buds on a fig tree becoming tender again,” evoke the recurring comparison of God’s people to a fig tree in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Hosea 9:10; Jer. 8:13; Jer. 24) as well as the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree for failing to bear fruit, a symbolic act of judgment against those who reject his ways. The image here, though, is of a withered fig tree becoming healthy and vibrant once again.
The lyrics go on to note how the trees and other parts of the natural world appear to worship God; the “mountains are clapping their hands” (cf. Psa. 98:8; Isa. 55:12), and the trees reach toward the heavens. Humanity, by contrast, turns in on itself, and rather than living into the flourishing it was created for, invents new means of destruction—bombs dropped from drones, for example, leaving orphans in their wake.
In the song, Campos recalls a visit to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, the horror of families posing happily for photos in front of bombers, fighter jets, missiles, military avionics, and other tools of combat, celebrating national might. Campos contrasts the heaviness of those metal death-traps with the light feeling of floating on the “river of life” (cf. Rev. 22:1), and their sterility with a fructifying olive vine, delicately tended (cf. Rom. 11:11–24).
Empires fall—Egypt, Rome; America one day will too, and another will rise in its place. “I proclaim that Jesus, he will decide / If it is that Rome is on I-95”—the highway that the US capital is located off of. Earthly kingdoms that put their trust in arsenals and that deal in death rather than life may be in for a divine toppling. The same goes for corrupt systems.
Jesus himself said as much. For example, in Mark 13:2, he says regarding the Jewish temple complex, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” It’s because the religious establishment at the time had become oppressive and was rejecting Jesus as the Christ. They were trusting in all their rules and learned interpretations of scripture while failing to see the plain revelation of God right in front of them.
The penultimate stanza of “Almond Blossom” is excerpted from “Canticle of the Turning” by Rory Cooney, a paraphrase of Mary’s Magnificat, which is one of the Bible’s most radical songs:
From the halls of the power to the fortress tower Not a stone will be left upon a stone Let the king beware, for your justice tears Every tyrant from his throne
The song concludes with a reprise of the first two lines, circling back to the image of trees and their eschatological (end times) resonances. In Matthew 24:32–33, Jesus tells his disciples, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the very gates.”
“Almond Blossom” is a clever interweaving of biblical text allusions, spanning Genesis to Revelation, that calls America to account for its warmongering while inviting her citizens into the beautiful, lasting, life-giving way of Christ.
The following poem from the book of Isaiah, about the messianic age, was resounding in my mind as I listened to this song:
For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
All but two of the songs on Full Moon in June were written (or cowritten) by Dimitris Campos. Half Greek and half Peruvian, he was raised in a Latino culture in the United States, which itself has mixed Spanish, Indigenous, and African influences. His musical compositions are informed by this background.
“Recession Don’t Bother Me,” subtitled “No te compliques la vida” (Don’t complicate your life), reflects on a mother’s words of advice regarding not staking your identity on material things, and not climbing over others to get ahead. It was released with this statement:
We are releasing this album in the midst of the historic COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has left record numbers of people without work and we realize that in this moment, working-class people are suffering. With that in mind, we want to note that our song “Recession Don’t Bother Me” (which was written during the Great Recession of 2007 and 2008) is not saying “the recession don’t affect me,” because as the current pandemic has shown us, the circumstances and effects of the current situation do indeed have profound consequences for us all. Nor is this song saying that we are insulated from the economic effects of recession because of our wealth or privilege—although we acknowledge that in this current context, many people have had it much harder than we have. What this song is saying is that our current destructive and dehumanizing economy must, one day, collapse. And that we hope to be among those who welcome and rejoice at an exodus from an Egypt to a promised land, even if it means a journey through the desert to get there. We are praying for providence for all those suffering during these deeply trying times.
In downtown Harrisonburg, amidst hip college-town cafés, sits the Rockingham County Jail, right across the street from the courthouse. At certain times of day, men in jumpsuits and chains are very visibly marched to and from these locations. Disgusted by this flagrancy and following the arrest of one of his undocumented friends, Campos wrote “Prison Cells.” It’s a condemnation of America’s for-profit prison system and retributive (as opposed to restorative) model of justice. How does our lust for punishment cohere with Jesus’s blessing on the merciful (Matt. 5:7) and the apostle Paul’s insistence that “love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5)? We teach our kids to forgive offenses and to let go of grudges, and yet our criminal law teaches the opposite. Lord, have mercy.
Fourth up on the album is a new interpretation of the spiritual “Sheep, Sheep, Don’t You Know the Road?” from the Georgia Sea Islands, popularized in the 1960s by folk singer and African American music preservationist Bessie Jones, who learned it from her formerly enslaved grandfather. Ears to the Ground Family has expressed the indebtedness of their work to “centuries of creative Black resistance against slavery and oppression,” of which this song is just one example. Its lyrics describe the road of faith as one of pain but also bridges, a road where “there’s no price tag” (cf. Isa. 55:1) and “the sword’s beat down” (cf. Isa. 2:3–4).
On this track the djembe and shekere are played by Jay Beck and Tevyn East, two of the lead organizers of the Carnival de Resistance. “A traveling carnival, village, and school for social change bridging the worlds of art, activism and faith,” this organization seeks to throw off sanitized pieties and “provide a raucous expression of grief and longing and hope for Creation.”
“Painter” is a parable that shows how indulging in sin cuts us off from ourselves and can inhibit us from showcasing God’s glory.
“Moneditas” (Coins), which Campos wrote with Ana Maria Febres, is a Spanish-language song about the emptiness of riches. It echoes Matthew 6:19–20: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
The whimsical “Time, Time, Time,” with its coffee-mug and glass-bottle percussion, seems to me to be a celebration of the unfolding of time just as it is. May we not wish for time to move any faster or slower, but instead appreciate the now and live with an openness to whatever’s next.
“Walnut Textures,” by Campos and Lightning Lucas, encourages a closer relationship with the natural world. It remarks with regret how we have such a strong desire to explore the far reaches of the universe, and yet many of us hardly know the beauty and wonders of our own planet, or even our immediate environs—or if we do, we don’t care enough to protect them. Instead of stewarding nature we squander and abuse it, building highways (dirty paved “rivers”) through forests and then packing cars onto them, increasing air pollution and contributing to global warming. This dominating stance over God’s creation is vanity, and God urges us toward a better way—one of friendship with creation, in which we recognize our mutual groaning for redemption (Rom. 8:22–23) and take up our responsibility as caretakers, which includes adopting sustainable environmental practices.
Spending time in nature is refreshing and even liberating, a chance to experience the givenness of life. Living in right relationship with her now is great practice for the age to come, when all will be reconciled.
The last song, “Shade of the Most High,” was written by Nichole Barrows amid her grief following the death of her mother. It was inspired by the promise in Psalm 91 that we will find rest in the “shadow” of the Almighty God. She says,
I found great comfort in this image of grief as a dark place where God can still find us and bring us rest, because although we feel that we don’t deserve the bad things that are happening to us, we can trust that we are still in his “shade.” And this gift of trust in God’s faithfulness helps us not to fear disease or darkness or even death. I sang these words over myself that year [of my mother’s decline] and I sing them over you now: “With a hope like this, we are fearless, and with a love like this, I will not despair.”
Loss is wrenching and often unexplainable, but it can also be an occasion “to find new life, to find new eyes,” and to lean all the more firmly on the One who bears our sorrows in love.
Already and not yet
When I was talking to Barrows, she expressed emphatically one of the great paradoxes in Christian teaching: “that the kingdom of God is not yet here and that we are together longing for Christ to come make all things new, and also that He is already here, now, on this earth, in this place.” She mentioned how Ears to the Ground Family wishes to affirm not just the spiritual elements of faith (which, I will add, are the central preoccupation of the vast majority of faith-based music) but the physical elements as well, “such as care for the earth and the peace witness and the works of mercy.” This commitment is certainly reflected on their album, which is centered on holistic liberation. I love how it so joyously embraces the broadness of the good news of Jesus Christ, which is not just for individual souls but also for bodies and communities and for the whole created world—presently as well as futurely!
Full Moon in Juneis available for digital download or as a CD in a cardboard sleeve with handprinted letters (produced by Campos’s vintage, treadle-powered letterpress) and stamped with handmade rubber stamp art. The latter option is a limited edition of 200.