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An indie-rock mom rewrites the children’s-music canon

In the early ’90s, before her folksome indie-rock band Ida took off, Elizabeth Mitchell was a teacher in a nursery school on Roosevelt Island, a neighborhood sandwiched between Manhattan and Queens that had become popular with foreign envoys to the United Nations. There were more than a dozen languages spoken in her classroom, but Mitchell found that music was a universal tongue, and she played her children traditional tunes from around the world, encouraging them to act out the songs with hand motions and body language. She was listening to a lot of country blues at the time, but her epiphany came while visiting her then-boyfriend (now husband, and long-time Ida collaborator) Dan Littleton, who was living in Boston. While browsing at Stereo Jack’s in Cambridge, she found an original 10-inch vinyl pressing of one of Woody Guthrie’s children’s albums. "It blew my mind," she recalls on the phone from Maryland, where she and Littleton and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Storey, are spending the holidays with his folks. "There was such wonderful free-associative lyric writing, and the music was so joyous. It just really changed my idea of what I thought of as children’s music, elevated it in this beautiful way."

In the intervening years, Ida became indie favorites, Mitchell gave up teaching for touring, and what began as a collection of songs she and Littleton made as a present for Mitchell’s nursery-school class has blossomed into a pair of wonderful albums ostensibly for kids — You Are My Flower and its follow-up, You Are My Sunshine. The arrangements are spare, warm, and delightfully unkitschy (both discs were recorded by His Name Is Alive’s Warren Defever, who along with his wife will join Mitchell and Littleton for a pair of First Night performances at Hynes Convention Center). The song selection is inspired, with several Guthrie tunes — "Little Sack o’ Sugar," "1 Day, 2 Day, 3 Days Old," "Car Song" — joining music by the Carter Family, Leadbelly, Elizabeth Cotton, and, on You Are My Sunshine, songs by Bo Diddley, Cat Stevens, and Roy Orbison, as well as Sesame Street’s "Ladybug Picnic" and Schoolhouse Rock’s "3 is the Magic Number."

You Are My Flower, recorded in a single day, was originally distributed only to friends and family, but word of it spread far enough that Mitchell eventually released it through Ida’s Last Affair imprint. She began recording the second disc while pregnant with her daughter, and finished it when Storey was 16 months old. The last track recorded for You Are My Sunshine, "Alphabet Dub," was inspired by Storey’s learning to sing her letters and her love of reggae great King Tubby. It’s the lone "original" song on either disc (though Littleton is careful to ascribe the music to Tubby’s "Loving Dub"). More recently, Mitchell and Littleton worked on Lisa Loeb’s children’s album, Catch the Moon (Artemis), and they’re already working on a third album of their own, to be devoted to lullabies. "I like to seek out the old traditional songs," Mitchell says. "We wrote a few songs for Catch the Moon, but I’m so interested in finding the long-lost ones and bringing them into the world. I think there are so many wonderful ones."

Mitchell’s adult recording projects have kept her from touring her children’s music extensively. This year she and Littleton recorded a disc under the name Nanang Tatang, and Ida got back together for their first tour in three years — they brought Littleton’s mom along to help care for Storey on the road — after which they began recording a new Ida album at Andy Hong’s studio here in Boston. (Mitchell and Littleton live in Providence these days.) In concert, Mitchell and Littleton are learning to channel Woody and King Tubby, but they’re also taking cues from the Velvet Underground and Raffi. "He’s incredible," Mitchell says of the latter. "He’s very generous and very peaceful, and to find that place when you’re working with kids is a hard thing to do. The frenzy and the energy of children can be a sparkling experience, and to find a centered place for them, and with them, is a really special thing." It’s what Mitchell aspires to as well. "It’s very different [from performing for adults] because the way I connect with kids is a pretty intimate experience, more of a one-on-one thing. I’m learning how to make it broader, to incorporate a larger group, and speak more widely. We’ve added songs to make it more fun — we were doing ‘We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together’ by the Velvet Underground, but we switched to ‘What Goes On,’ which is even more fun. So we have nice quiet moments, and then we can really rock out and get free, which I think is really important for kids."

Elizabeth Mitchell performs Wednesday at 3:30 and 4:45 p.m. as part of the First Night Family Festival at Hynes Convention Center, 900 Boylston Street, in Boston. Admission is free with First Night button. Call (617) 542-1399.

Issue Date: December 26, 2003 - January 1, 2004
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