How This Song Became My Family’s Anthem

Here’s my family’s history with the one song that never leaves our playlist. We've used it to embrace joy.

<p>monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images</p>

monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images

In the last weeks of the summer, my daughter and I walked into an amphitheater to see a show called Where Our Spirits Reside. The play was a collaboration between acclaimed storytelling collective Paperhand Puppet Intervention and Grammy-nominated mother-son duo Nnenna Freelon and Pierce Freelon. A series of connected vignettes about loss, grief and the joy we carry as we remember lost loved ones, Where Our Spirits Reside combined the movement of giant handmade puppets with poetry recitation, storytelling and original songs. I knew that music would be an integral part of the show but I had no idea the production would give my daughter and I one of our favorite songs of the year.

The first few numbers in the program seemed to ask a hush of the audience, as the words and songs invited viewers to invoke the names and faces of their family and friends who’d passed on. It wasn’t until about 15 minutes into the show that things became more uptempo and funky. A jazzy, keyboard-led song began to play as Pierce danced onto the stage to sing the opening lines of a new tune. “I trust you, little mushroom, to break it down, down, down/When a tree falls in the forest, you bring life and you flourish. Break it down…”

At the sound of his voice, a five-foot, white-bodied mushroom with a large pink cap danced onstage for a five-minute rendition of “Little Mushroom,” the 10th track on Nnenna and Pierce’s album AnceStars. As its title suggests, the songs on AnceStars, a soul-jazz fusion project, are dedicated to the generations of deceased family and friends who continue to watch over us.

At 13, my daughter has already experienced losses of her own. Her paternal grandfather passed away two years ago and the two shared a special relationship. He was ill for most of her life and due to his health condition, they were unable to speak to each other much. They could often be found giggling to themselves over something they’d watched together on TV, dancing to the theme and end credit songs. Music was a language they shared. The absence of spoken words. As a toddler, one of my daughter’s prized possessions was a battery-operated elephant that shimmied to Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance with Somebody,” a gift from her Pop Pop.

When she talks about her Pop Pop now, she does so with a faraway look and a wistful smile. I can tell she’s remembering something private, memories only she can retrieve, wordless conversations only she can translate. The closest I’ll ever get to understanding what delights that bond still brings her is through the unexpected things that remind her of him. “Little Mushroom” seems to be one of those things. She wore a similar expression when she heard it for the first time.

Pierce’s appreciative psalm for nature’s tastiest decomposers, explores the idea of legacy-bearing in a refreshingly accessible way: “Even when death is tragic/You're like magic/Reabsorb life and keep balance.” My daughter does that for her grandfather every time she points out a scene from a show she watched with him and laughs or shimmies to a song they shared. “Little Mushroom” reminds me of their relationship and introduces new ways for me to broach the subjects of loss and legacy. And when that’s too heavy, it’s also just a super-chill, super-fun tune.

It’s no coincidence that we first heard it at a puppet show about grief. It’s a song that’s meant to lighten the mood, even as it gives listeners permission to contemplate death and its aftermath.

None of that seemed front-of-mind for the parents and kids in the audience at Where Our Spirits Reside. We were too busy vibing to the song’s mellow groove and dancing to punchlines like, “Who needs Mario when you be a Toadstool?/Give me some portobello; you can keep your tofu!”.

I didn’t wait until we got home from the show to download the track for later listens; I added it to my mother-daughter carpool playlist immediately, and “Little Mushroom” has been a staple listen for us ever since. We play it when we’re missing family, when we’re feeling silly and whenever we feel a sudden urge to break it down, down, down.

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