By Michelle M. Sharp, Founder and Content Creator of Meet the Minnesota Makers

Have you ever tried to imagine music about the climate crisis — for kids and their families?

How about a banjo riff for a song about land stewardship?

How can music provide the vehicle to address such hard topics in a way that children and their caregivers can engage and talk about it?

Welcome to Brambletown, where you can explore topics that are often skipped in children’s music—the thorny parts, the dark parts, the scary parts. 

How to write an album about climate change 

Released in 2023 by Minnesota duo Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing of The Okee Dokee Brothers, this album invites listeners of all ages to explore a new, fully developed world. Among the brambles, Weasels struggle with consumerism, Rabbit is trapped in the rat race, a Fox and a Hare fall out of love, and an Old Badger finds clarity after clearing the dust in his soul caused by a long dependency on maple syrup. 

Life, at times, is tough for the critters who live among the brambles. 

And yet this is an album of hope. There are friends who help. Dr. Mole brings wisdom to allow for healing. Raccoon and Possum come along to offer different points of view that lead to new paths, new ways of connecting. “The album is full of fun little interactions,” shared Joe. “The narrative happened naturally. There’s a land here that we can go to in our imaginations. We wanted to put out the idea of a space, but leave it open for you to fill in the details.”

Joe, singer/guitarist of The Okee Dokee Brothers said that he and singer/banjoist Justin set out to write an album about the climate crisis. As they sing in the chorus of “Trouble in Paradise,” “We have a Shangri-La, a utopia. But paradise can only give so much.” 

Listening to the full album of the songs that share the stories of the critters living in the forest, one might assume that this is an album about the importance of nature with some climate crisis warnings thrown in. Listen again and it’s about mental health. Then again, maybe it’s about love and loss. “Aren’t those all parts of climate change?” asked Joe. “The biodiversity of the planet, the relationships, our well being, our health, our energy, and our attitudes are part of this breathing super organism.”

“We tried over and over and over again to write a song about climate change. It’s really hard to do that, especially for kids,” explained Joe. “In the end the song ‘Trouble in Paradise’ reflected more than just climate change. It ended up surprising us that the song was about a world that was living by the narrative of separation.”

Foundational Relationships

The album jacket says, “Brambletown is a story of learning, or better yet, remembering how deeply all of us are connected. Into the forest we go!” Joe and Justin invite everyone into the forest to restore our foundational relationships. “We’re not putting out merely educational points about recycling or even getting out in nature,” said Joe. “It’s more like beginning a deep friendship with the natural world and the animate forces in it. We animate these characters. We also animate the trees, the moss, the mycelium, the mushrooms, and the spiders.”

Robin Wall-Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, is listed as a source of inspiration for the album, along with bell hooks, Wendell Berry, and John Muir. “No one thing gives you the answer. So you’re like, I wonder what that could be? Let me follow this little thread into the forest and see where it goes,” said Joe. “If kids are led like that, I think they’re more apt to figure out the messaging and their own lessons that come from within. That’s what we want to give them instead of the answers.” 

Joe and Justin found their musical harmony playing together around the fire as camp counselors in the Colorado Rockies. John Denver filled their evenings. They started writing their own music, often joke songs, and recognized how well comedy and music complimented each other. Tweaking folk songs and bringing people together led them to start a family band in Minnesota after college. “We might have played every library in the state when we were starting out,” laughed Joe. “I don’t know if we would have made it in other states. Minnesota really came out and told us that what we were doing was important. Minnesota made it possible for us to make a career out of sharing our music.” 

Building Community

The Okee Dokee Brothers see building community as a way to search for the answers we need. “We think that a key element to people being connected to their planet is to feel connected to each other,” said Joe. In his Minneapolis neighborhood this may come in the form of sing-alongs down at the creek where neighbors bring their own instruments and everyone shares song books. 

From their own personal brambles, Joe and Justin discovered that pursuing mental wellness through sobriety, healthy personal connections, and simply being present is what allows any meaningful growth, any change. “All of these things come to life because even the stones and the waterfalls and the rivers are vibrant and alive. We have to recognize that animacy. I think kids do already see it,” explained Joe. “What we’re trying to do is just keep that magical perspective alive. It could be the thing that really does help our consciousness as a species understand what this planet is.”

The life that’s in you – is the life that’s in me 

And the life in a bird – is the life in a tree

And if we can believe – in one thing that’s true 

It’s the life that’s in me – is the life that’s in you

—“The Life That’s In You” Brambletown

Ready to plan a visit to Brambletown? 

Purchase The Okee Dokee Brothers’ latest album on vinyl or CD on their website. 

Get excited—the Brambletown paper stop motion film premieres on PBS Kids July 26. Viewing party and Q & A in Minneapolis August 11 at the Riverview Theater. 

Visit www.okeedokee.org/shows/ for upcoming events including a July concert at The R.O.C. in St. Louis Park. 

Follow @okeedokeebros on Facebook and Instagram to start singing along. 

This feature is sponsored by the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota. Sturdiwheat Foods is one of several innovators in sustainability that Meet the Minnesota Makers and Forever Green celebrate in this maker series.

Forever Green develops and improves winter-hardy annual and perennial crops (including Kernza!) that protect soil and water health. These initiatives provide new economic opportunities for growers, industry and communities across Minnesota. Learn more about Forever Green and their community partners on their website.

Visit meettheminnesotamakers.com or follow @meettheminnesotamakers on Facebook and Instagram to discover the small business owners leading Minnesota on a tasty sustainable path forward. Meet the Minnesota Makers is a news site that connects you to the local food, farms, artists and artisans that make Minnesota thrive.

 

 

 

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