By Matt Arnett

Few names in music bring a bigger smile to the faces of children of all ages than Elizabeth Mitchell. When her name comes up, I am always amazed at how many of my friends who don’t even have kids love and listen to her music. Making music that families can enjoy together is not an easy thing to do, and few, if any, do it any better than Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower. On Nov. 10th and 11, Elizabeth and her band will be making their first appearances in the Atlanta area. To that, I could only ask, “What took so long?”

I found my answer to that question while trying to connect with her to ask her about her upcoming trip to Atlanta. She was shuttling between trains, airplanes, playing at the Newport Folk Festival, and touring out West, among other places (not to mention trying to raise a family. Her daughter Storey and her husband Daniel Littleton are in her band).

Elizabeth Mitchell was the first new children’s music artist signed in the 21st Century to the venerable music label Smithsonian Folkways. Her most recent release is “Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie.” The album was released in July to coincide with what would have been Guthrie’s 100th birthday.

In addition to her music for children, she also plays in the folk/pop band Ida. Her musical collaborators over the years is a group of people as diverse as Levon Helm, Ziggy Marley, Lisa Loeb, and Dan Zanes.

I finally caught up with Elizabeth on a train somewhere in the Midwest and she was happy to talk about her music, her family, and what she herself is listening to these days.

Liz, It is my pleasure to speak to you. I can’t tell you how excited I am that you will be coming to Atlanta.
Thank you. We are really looking forward to connecting with our friends and fans in Atlanta.

How did you get into making music for children?
I was working as an assistant teacher at a nursery school in New York City from 1992-94, and there found my passion for making music with children. In 1998, while on a day off from tour with my band Ida, I recorded the songs I had sung with my students- songs by Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Cotten, The Carter Family- as a gift for my nieces and nephews and the children of friends. That gift turned into our first kids music album, “You Are My Flower.”

We made that album in one afternoon and were not planning to even sell it, let alone imagine we were beginning a new career path. That path has led us to working with Smithsonian Folkways, a label that as a listener has changed my life many times over, to singing with beautiful children all over the world and to collaborate with artists including Levon Helm, Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger, Natalie Merchant, Ziggy Marley and more.

I work with my family. What is it like to have a family band and how do you separate work from family in that situation? Do you have any gossip you want to share with us about your band members?
I don’t normally like to talk about this but my husband has a pretty serious addiction to Edy’s Pineapple fruit bars. He likes to have about 4 a night. If we are on tour in your town, you will find us at the local grocery store at about 9pm, in the freezer aisle, looking for pops. I think its the bits of fresh pineapple that gets him!

We love being a family band. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do what we do, to be creative together and to share what we do with other families, hopefully inspiring them to do the same. I know I have been inspired by so many musical families that have come before and continue on, including The Carter Family, The Guthries, The McGarrigle/Wainwright Family, The Seegers, for me there is something truly magic about the sound of a family singing together.

I will alert our friends at The King of Pops to hunt Daniel down while you guys are in town. They have so many delicious flavors, all made right here in Atlanta. They have pineapple mixed with blackberries, or cilantro, or ginger, or habanero peppers, or lemon, or lime, and who knows what else. But I’m sure he’d find several to his liking.
Our whole family is actually kind of obsessed with Popsicles. We can’t wait to check out King of Pops when we are in Atlanta!

What was it like to program the Kids’ stage at the Newport Folk Festival? Is that something you’ll continue to do in the future?
The Newport Folk Festival has been a wild and unexpected ride for our family. They invited us last year to host a Kid’s tent and to be responsible for booking the stage – it was a first time experiment, basically we are the only “family music” group at the festival, and it is our job to convince performers from the other stages to come and play a set for the kids. I was blown away that they would put that much faith in me to make it all happen- and I didn’t want to let them down!

The first year was a challenge, going into the weekend we really only had a couple of bands that had agreed to play- but then as the weekend progressed everything fell into place and there were revelatory performances. Pete Seeger surprised and came twice and sang with us, the thrill of a lifetime for me, The Low Anthem played a beautiful set, David Wax Museum were amazing, but my favorite by far was the PS 22 chorus from Staten Island NYC. They sang “Rollin in the Deep” with so much soul, Adele is a fan!

After last years success we had a much easier time getting performers to come down to our little stage by the sea, and this year’s lineup was incredible – we had Conor Oberst come down and do a set specifically for the kids – he sang “5 green and speckled frogs” with total sincerity and tenderness and made everyone laugh and cry. There was a surprise Nickel Creek reunion during Sara Watkins beautiful set, the perfectly named Spirit Family Reunion, my heroes Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, Amy Helm had all the babies dancing and clapping along, The Sleepy Man Banjo Boys blew everyone’s minds and lots more completely uplifting and amazing music. We are very much looking forward to next year!

How did you get involved with Levon Helm’s Ramble? Where did the idea come from for the kids Rambles?
We got to know Levon while our band Ida was making an album at his home studio and he was one of our neighbors in Woodstock. We developed a friendship with him and he was excited to hear that we also made music for children. Levon expressed his desire to make music with kids, specifically to make sure children growing up today were exposed to real live music made on real instruments, and the idea of kids rambles was born.

We hosted many kids rambles over the years and each one was more fun than the next. We never rehearsed with levon, never discussed a set list with him, we would just set up, Levon would come sit down at the kit when the show began and we were off like a rocket on the greatest musical adventure of our lives. We had absolute trust in each other musically and knew that we were all in it for the joy, and it came every time.

What musicians out there today get you excited? My kids are older now, and thankfully have great taste in music, but what other musicians playing music for people of all ages would you recommend for parents out there looking for something to enjoy or share with their kids?
Frances England is a wonderful songwriter from San Francisco. Her work is both thoughtful and magical, I definitely recommend checking her out. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion have a gorgeous record for kids called “Go Wagaloo”- go and see them any chance you get.

What’s next for Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower?
Harry Potter world! No, seriously, we are going to visit there but not to perform, I wish we could though, wouldn’t that be cool?

Our next release is a collaboration with Suni Paz, a Smithsonian Folkways artist from Argentina. She and I have been collaborating on a Spanish language record, Suni wrote translations of many classic American Folk songs and we have had so much fun recording them together. Hopefully that will come out in the spring.

And we are working on a Christmas record that will come out next year as well. We are bringing new interpretations to many of the songs from the brilliant Ruth Crawford Seeger Christmas songbook. So far both Peggy Seeger and Natalie Merchant have recorded with us on these songs, and I am so grateful.

For ticket information about Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Family shows in Atlanta, visit www.eddieowenpresents.com
and www.eddiesattic.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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