At the nation’s largest family music festival, children wiggle and giggle in a joyous dance as independent artists sing about “stinky feet” and “bop-bop dinosaurs” while sharing the kid-inspired genre of music known as “kindie.”
Fans in the audience shake maracas, pound drums and clap hands while founding artist Jim Cosgrove, known as “Mr. Stinky Feet,” urges them on from the main stage of the Jiggle Jam Family Music Fest in Kansas City, Mo.
“I like that he doesn’t just sing the song,” says 8-year-old Taylor Cozart while dancing to the beat. “He makes songs funny and fun. Dinosaurs do silly stuff; they dance in their underwear.”
Cosgrove, 48, of Prairie Village, Kan., helped found Jiggle Jam in 2008 to showcase a new generation of family-friendly music. Last Memorial Day weekend, the two-day outdoor event drew 21,000 people to Kansas City’s Crown Center to hear some of the world’s best kindie music by dozens of bands.
Not just for children, kindie also appeals to parents and grandparents, who appreciate how far the genre has come since the song “I’m a Little Teapot” was first recorded in the early 1950s. Scott Levich, 49, who listened to Disney tunes as a child, smiles broadly as his daughter Kristina skips to a lively bluegrass tune and later bops to the Cosgrove beat.
“We didn’t have any funny kids’ songs like ‘Stinky Feet’,” recalls Levich, of Overland Park, Kan.
Music for children has evolved during the last century and began shifting about a decade ago to appeal to entire families, says Mindy Thomas, 34, program director of children’s music for Sirius-XM satellite radio, based in Washington, D.C.
Thomas cites rockers and other artists who began having children and making music for their own families, spawning an underground kindie movement. “[Bands such as] They Might Be Giants, The Verve Pipe, Barenaked Ladies, and Dan Zanes of the Del Fuegos helped legitimize the genre,” Thomas says.
Not easily defined, kindie encompasses diverse musical styles, from folk to funk, rap to rock, bluegrass to international sounds. “Artists are staying true to what’s authentic for them,” Thomas says. “There’s a lot of quirkiness here; songs that are a little absurd in nature work really well.”
Kindie venues are equally eclectic and range from town libraries to urban nightclubs that open their doors for afternoon jams. Such exposure often leads young fans to start making music of their own, further expanding the genre. Thomas, who once struggled to find songs for the Sirius children’s playlist, says “now it’s hard to decide what to choose.”
With his raspy voice and untamed mane of hair, Dan Zanes is a leader in today’s family-friendly
folk music movement. Once the front man for the Del Fuegos, a 1980s garage-style rock band, the singer/guitarist began looking for music to play for his daughter, Anna, who was born in 1994. Finding few contemporary songs in the tradition of Lead Belly, Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie, Zanes decided to write his own.
“I wasn’t interested in making children’s music,” recalls Zanes, now 51 and living in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I was looking for a shared experience.”
In the years since, he’s encouraged children and parents to join in the fun. “Music is not just for professionals,” Zanes says. “Music-making is a joyous experience that brings us together. It’s a way to tell our stories to each other; we can use it to build bridges.”
His career evolution has brought rewards that Zanes never expected, including the 2007 Grammy for Best Musical Album for Children for “Catch That Train!” “The universe had a better plan for me than I had for myself,” he says.
The path to family-friendly music is different for every artist.
Frances England, 39, of San Francisco, recorded her first kindie-folk CD in 2007 as a fundraiser for the preschool attended by her son Liam. She never dreamed anyone outside of family and friends would hear it.
“I wrote the songs while my son was taking baths and we were talking about what we did that day,” recalls England, who burned that first CD on her home computer.
Her songs clicked with listeners, however, and three college credits short of becoming a librarian, England saw her musical career take off. Now sharing songs that reflect the points of view of both parents (“Oh, How You’ve Grown”) and children (“Mind of My Own”), she ranks among the top kindie artists.
The Okee Dokee Brothers are the Minneapolis-based duo of Joe Mailander, 27, and Justin Lansing, 28, who grew up as best friends and bandmates in Denver, Colo. After years of touring with their bluegrass band, they decided to take their folk music back to its roots—their childhood imaginations.
“We still think we’re kids ourselves. Not so much harkening back [to childhood] but maintaining a playful mentality,” says Mailander, during a break from performing at last year’s Jiggle Jam.
The duo wrote their album “Can You Canoe?” while paddling down the Mississippi River in 2011. This year, their effort won the Grammy for Best Children’s Album. “Our whole mission is to inspire families to get outside and explore together,” Mailander says.
Silly and successful
Songs inspired by children can produce surprising results for adult musicians.
Cosgrove grew up with a silly streak and, while in college, began writing tunes for his nieces and nephews. Years later, enthusiastic feedback when he sang at a Kansas City bookstore prompted him to quit his job in corporate public relations to make music with and for children.
“I always want to treat kids and interact with them in a way that honors their smarts, in a way that honors their intuition,” he says.
As Mr. Stinky Feet, Cosgrove often brings parents on stage during his shows. “Some parents don’t know how to act silly,” says Cosgrove, who is there to help.
Cosgrove travels with his wife, Jeni, and their daughters, Lyda and Willa, to shows across the nation, but one of his most memorable gigs occurred not far from his home when he performed with the Kansas City Symphony at the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts.
“I’m not a trained musician, and here I am playing in a world-class venue that’s nearly sold out,” he recalls. “It was overwhelming: 80 pieces behind you doing ‘Sammy the Snail.’”