The interior of the Hootenanny Art House on 15th Street tells a story — this friendly space displays the inviting aesthetic of the husband/wife partnership Pete Sinjin and Kira Smith. Pete (who goes by “Hootenanny Pete”) began his career as a songwriter and musician. Kira started out as a dancer and studied dance therapy. They created Hootenanny Art House in 2007, and it has been a second home for thousands of kids who have come to learn about music, and develop their own artistic skills. The Hootenanny Art House isn’t simply a space where kids learn — it provides an opportunity for the community to create. It’s a tabula rasa, of sorts.
Kira and Pete credit a beloved neighborhood friend, Theresa Wozunk — whom they refer to as “Saint Theresa” — for initially providing them an opportunity to work in and later lease their space at 428 15th Street, just off 8th Avenue, in South Slope.
“We couldn’t have been more fortunate,” says Kira. “There were not a lot of places at the time for parents to go to with their kids.”
“And it enabled us to keep our work local — within our community,” adds Pete.
Recently, Pete celebrated the album release of his new family album called House of Song. A party last month at Greenwood Park was wild, festive, and attended by almost 400 kids and their parents.
The adulation the community feels for Pete and Kira should come as no surprise. They are an artistic duo that brings a gravitas to their classes as well as to their personal artistic endeavors.
“They powerfully weave art and music into family and community,” explains Samantha Davidson Green, a resident of Windsor Terrace whose three sons studied at Hootenanny. “Our boys are now in elementary school, where they are learning instruments together and perform in their school musicals, gravitating to experiences that continue to fuse art and music with community. I credit Hootenanny in large part with giving them this lasting love of the arts.”
We had the opportunity to sit down with Pete and Kira (literally, cross-legged on the comfy Hootenanny Art House floor) and discuss the new album, musical tastes, and those art house kids.
CKC: You describe House of Song as an album for families, as opposed to a “kids” album.
Pete Sinjin: Yes! My hope is that this is an album that could be listened to, danced to, sung to, and talked about by the whole family, whatever age, as opposed to a “kids” album which is specific to a young age. With that in mind, the album has a wider emotional spectrum that gives any listener at any age something to take in. Something joyful, or thoughtful, or maybe even sad. Like traditional folk music, which was meant to be a mirror of life in all its myriad expressions.
One of the most gratifying things about releasing this record has been the wide range of reactions from adults and kids. It’s fascinating and wonderful to hear which songs become favorites to different listeners. I know the Lou Gehrig song [“Luckiest Man – The Ballad of Lou Gherig”] brought a couple adults to tears. One dad described his pleasure at introducing the life of Pete Seeger to his child through the “Poem for Pete,” and I’ve seen videos of a kid running around and singing proudly “I’m BIGGER…” to “Bigger’N I Usta Was” [another song on the album].
Kira Smith: The “Poem for Pete” Seeger is a eulogy, and tells the story of Pete Seeger’s life to pass down to generations that can only know him if we parents continue to tell his story. Pete recited the poem for the first time at a celebration of Pete Seeger’s life we did at Hootenanny right after he died last year at 94. We raised money for Seeger’s Clearwater Foundation, which works to clean up the Hudson River.
Pete: Hopefully it’s an opportunity for them to talk about him and what he created.
CKC: What’s the difference between writing music for a family album and an adult album?
Pete: The music I create for either is pretty intuitive and falls roughly within the category of Americana/Roots music. What makes the two different is that with the family songs, I tend to let everything and anything I ever loved into the mix. It’s a lot of fun to just break down the fence and follow whatever musical whim the song asks for.
I laughed a lot when writing and recording it because it’s a constant surprise. Maybe one song needs some banjo over a reggae beat. Or another might need some Beach Boys’ harmony over what would otherwise be a simple folk song. It’s just really fun to let the imagination kick in and take the songs on unexpected rides. And where an adult album might follow themes and ideas that I encounter as a man with a long history full of that content, the family songs jump from any point, young to old.
CKC: Where do your musical influences come from? On the song “Olly Ollie Oxen Free,” you really channel the “second linin’” sound of New Orleans.
Pete: When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to have the “cool Uncle” who left behind his amazing record collection in the attic for me to discover at the perfect age. That collection still informs everything I do. Soul, R&B, Folk, Country, Rock N’ Roll… It was a great starting point for me, and from there my musical discoveries were plenty!
With this record many of those early influences find their way. The song “House of Song” sounds like a New Orleans street parade. “Olly Ollie Oxen Free” throws together Joe Strummer, Buddy Holly, and the Sugar Hill Gang into a blender with a Bo Diddley beat… and throughout the record there’s always the great influence of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
The important thing though, is that I see all this music as part of a continuum. All of it is this unique poetry that is intertwined in history and culture.
[pullquote]”I have found that the parents that have come through Hootenanny and become our friends are hard working, creative, staying involved in the world, and trying their damnedest to do right by their kids.”
CKC: Brooklyn is very important to you. How about your particular South Slope neighborhood? What’s unique about working in it in relation to other places?
Kira: We were so incredibly fortunate to end up in this community. Over eight years, I have found that the parents that have come through Hootenanny and become our friends are hard working, creative, staying involved in the world, and trying their damnedest to do right by their kids. They have a sense of humor about the challenges that having little kids brings. They reach out, they go out, they talk to each other, they enjoy their kids — they care about the world. They supported what we were doing as soon as we opened the doors. We hardly advertised in the beginning. We had parents bringing their whole crew of friends, just insisting that they sign up for classes.
Pete: This neighborhood has been a gift to us. Both our kids and we ourselves are constantly exposed to a diversity of people and cultures that we otherwise wouldn’t have found anywhere else. We thrive on that. And Brooklyn creates its own particular mythology, which is a blast to live with and to write about. From the Brooklyn Bridge to Coney Island, so many great stories and people!
CKC: You already had the very successful album release event. Will there be other opportunities to see you perform the album and celebrate it a bit more?
Kira: We were thrilled with the release party. It was great to do something on that scale (much bigger than we’ve ever done before!). We are looking for locations to do a concert in Brooklyn in September, to welcome everyone back, and then hopefully House of Song will make its way out in the world to music festivals and family music venues in Manhattan. Meanwhile we are working on a music video so people can get more of a sense of House of Song at home!
CKC: How do you see Hootenanny evolving? Do you have a wish list?
Pete: Our community is very important to us, and we have a very strong connection to the idea of working locally to hopefully ripple out globally. With that in mind we are orienting ourselves toward doing more of the community services and fundraisers we’ve done in the past. Things like food drives during Hurricane Sandy, artwork for Doctors Without Borders, sing-alongs that have raised funds for everything from the Hudson River Clearwater organization to raising awareness about racism.
Our long-standing dream has been to start a little Hootenanny service brigade with an eye on improving the world around you. Cleaning up the beaches and parks for instance. All with a sense of fun and song, of course!
Kira: Wish list — yes! [The Hootenanny] community service brigade is a big one. I’ve been envisioning this for a long time.
Of course getting House of Song out into the world has been at the top of my wish list for this year. We’ll do another big push in the fall. I’d love to see it really make its way into the world. Even though it is a huge time investment (and doesn’t pay the bills!), it is an expression of what we create at Hootenanny that I truly believe in.
I’d love to build the yoga and dance program at Hootenanny. Recently I started teaching mother and daughter yoga with my 11-year-old, Zoe. That brought me a lot of happiness and inspiration to teach with my girl (who was 3 when we opened Hoot!).
I’d love someone to help me with my websites! I’d love to get us out of debt.
A new AC in the waiting room. Should I go on?
CKC: With your diverse musical tastes, we have to hear about your desert island albums.
Pete: That’s impossible to answer!
CKC: It is! But try giving us a few.
Pete: Okay, everything by The Beatles. Woody Guthrie’s folk tradition. He and Dylan essentially invented the role of contemporary singer-songwriter. People forget Woody was a visual artist as well. I know, I’m just naming artists and not albums. The Who’s “Who’s Next.” “I Hear a Symphony” by The Supremes is one of my favorite songs ever. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is a huge influence. Miriam Makeeba of South Africa, The Clash. Buck Owens, Steve Earle… and The Ramones’ first album, of course.
Pete Sinjin’s House of Song is out and now available for purchase. You can also look for Pete’s adult album, The Heart and The Compass, later this fall. More information will be available at his website. For classes and information about all events at Hootenanny Art House, you can visit their website or contact them at email@example.com.
About the author: Donny Levit is a writer, stage director, and guitarist. Donny is a news junkie and has covered stories locally and in Buenos Aires. He’s now a Kensington resident, where he lives with his wife and son – not too far away from his family’s Flatbush roots. His new book, Rock n’ Roll Lies, will be coming out this fall. He’d love to hear about your story ideas. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit thelevitunderground.com.