Music for all ages

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Nancy Cassidy. Image from:
Nancy Cassidy. Image from:

Amid the patter of drums, notes ripple on the keyboard, like stones skipping. Then Nancy Cassidy's low, warm voice slips into the song:

"Red leaves fall; tumble down in the rain

Red leaves fallin', tumblin' down in the rain.

You're my umbrella protecting me from pain.

"And when I feel your love, surrounding me,

We're like a boat floatin' in the deep blue sea.

That's why I need your sweet, sweet love —

So much weather comin' down from above."

The song, "So Much Weather," is graceful in its simplicity, and there's something comforting about Cassidy's folksy alto, as though you're listening to the CD while snug in a favorite sweater.

It's fitting, then, that Cassidy wrote the song during a time when she wanted reassurance.

The war in Iraq was erupting, and Cassidy was feeling gloomy and anxious. Then one day, sitting with a friend, she suddenly felt a sense of kinship.

"I felt like we were on this little boat; I felt a sense of community... floating together. We're in this together," she said.

"So Much Weather" ultimately became the title track on Cassidy's latest album, joining the collection of original folk and blues songs she has performed, toured with and recorded.

The tunes have plenty of younger siblings. Cassidy, a former PTA president who is the mother of two adolescent boys, has also built a reputation as a popular children's musician. She does mostly traditional kids' songs, along with some of her own creations, and intersperses her folk and blues concerts with gigs at schools and children's museums.

Next Sunday, May 13, she's set to play at Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills, where she was once camp director.

Washington musician Dayan Kai, who has performed with Cassidy for audiences of all ages, including toddlers, calls the children's shows "a blast."

"The children just come alive when they see her," said Kai, who sings and plays keyboards, horns, mandolin and other instruments. "Kids come up and just hug her legs."

Cassidy has plenty of grown-up fans, too, including Bruce Springsteen, who recorded a version of "Chicken Lips and Lizard Hips," which Cassidy wrote with her husband, John. Lyrics include:

"Oh Chicken lips and lizard hips and alligator eyes,

Monkey legs and buzzard eggs and salamander thighs,

Rabbit ears and camel rears and tasty toenail pies,

Stir them all together, it's Mama's Soup Surprise."

After Cassidy recorded the song, one of Springsteen's children apparently became enamored with it, she said. So John Cassidy got a call one day, asking if Springsteen could record it to benefit pediatric AIDS research.

Nancy Cassidy grins when asked if she was a Springsteen fan at the time. "No. But I am now."

Cassidy's musical road began in the San Joaquin Valley, where she grew up on a farm with six brothers and sisters. She began singing and writing songs at an early age, and later learned to play the guitar. According to her bio: "As a child, she dreamed about Marian Anderson, the gospel singer, landing by helicopter in her cow pasture to whisk her away so she could listen to her always."

In her adult life, Cassidy got a master's degree in counseling and worked with teens. She also worked as a river guide, and spent a lot of time singing around campfires.

After becoming a mother, she took a class on children's music, and in 1986 recorded her first album, "KidsSongs." Shy about performing in public, she loved recording in Toronto with Ken Whiteley. She got a kick out of hearing her music in a professional studio with layers of instruments and vocals.

"It felt a lot like it wasn't me," she says, smiling.

"KidsSongs" was distributed, with a book attached, by Palo Alto's Klutz Press (her husband is co-founder of Klutz). "KidsSongs" ultimately earned a gold record from the Recording Industry Association of America for selling 500,000 copies. Cassidy followed it up with "KidsSongs 2," "KidsSongs Jubilee," "KidsSongs Sleepyheads" and "Hullabaloo."

Along the way, Cassidy developed a love of singing on stage and found a community of other musicians. She also began recording her own folk and blues songs for adults, starting in 1996 with the CD "Pocketbook Romance." Many lyrics recalled her days on the farm, with such song titles as "Country Road Drivin'" and "The Farmer."

Later, she recorded the CDs "You Reel Me In" and "Night Skies." She estimates she has some 200 original songs still floating around.

Kai, who played on "You Reel Me In" and "So Much Weather," finds Cassidy's music genuine and beautifully melodic. He's particularly fond of the sentimental farewell tune "Adios."

"And her voice is gorgeous," he added. "It's rich and it's low. So many women now have really high thin voices ... in our industry, women are encouraged to have a frail-girl character. She has a strong, maternal voice."

When she's writing, Cassidy often retreats to her studio, a sunny building behind her home with an upright piano and a pair of red conga drums. She has no formal voice training and barely reads music. Instead, she lets her songs simply flow into being.

"Some people are mathematical; they like the structure of music, the chord progression. I'm freer," she says, relaxing on a couch with her guitar. Her hands brush the strings, a simple wedding band glinting in the afternoon light.

"It's not even really writing music — I just hear music," she says. "I just sing all the time. When something's in my mind, it melds into a song."

Article from: Palo Alto Weekly Cover Story; Friday, May 4, 2007

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