Once referred to as “the pied piper of Louisiana music traditions,” Johnette Downing has spent the last 26 years performing what she calls, “Louisiana roots music for kids.”
A leader of her genre, Downing’s collection of 14 books and 10 CDs have garnered her 22 awards from parenting and family organizations and publications throughout the country.
“I have this passion for the music and culture of Louisiana, and I want to share it with children and families,” she says. “I don’t ever want our children to lose the simple things, like why we eat red beans on Monday and what it means to dress a poor boy.”
A proud New Orleans native, Downing grew up in a musical household. Her mother played piano and sax, while her father, a minister, played tuba and violin.
“I always had music and books around,” she says. “That’s why I think for me they go together and so many of my books are also songs.”
Throughout high school and college, Downing performed in folk bands, country bands – basically anywhere she could.
“Then one day I was playing at the Neutral Ground coffee shop and a friend of mine said, ‘you’d be great performing for kids,’’’ she says. “Well then this other guy jumps up and says, ‘Hey, I book performances for schools and I’d hire you.’ I said, ‘OK, hire me,’ and that was that.
This bell went off in me.”
Downing has since performed not only locally at schools, festivals, libraries and art centers, but also in almost every continent in the world.
“It always amazes me how much other countries love Louisiana culture,” she says. “Wherever I go they just love to hear about it.”
Parents and children around the globe will be excited to know that Downing has more creations on the horizon.
This fall she’ll be releasing her 15th book, entitled Macarooned on a Dessert Island. It will be followed shortly after in 2015 by a CD called Swamp Romp, which she produced with her new husband, Grammy Award-winning producer and musician Scott Billington.
Then will come another book that represents a slight departure for Downing.
“This one is the first time I’ve done something a little eerie,” she says. “It’s called The Fifolet, and it’s about these lights that come out at night in the swamp. Some call it swamp gas, but I say it’s the Fifolet.”
Pretty soon many, many children, are going to agree.
mentor: My husband, Scott. We’ve been friends for 10 years. Anytime I have a music industry question I ask him. He’s always really patient with me.
defining moment: It has to be when I released my From the Gumbo Pot CD, and the book that came from it, Today is Monday in Louisiana, which won the Silver Parent’s Choice Award. Those were career changers for me. It really kind of all came together as far as where I was going and what I wanted to say.
advice for young women: Follow your heart; I know it sounds cliché, but if you lead with your heart than everything falls into place.
goals: My goal is to continue to put out great books that children love and great music that is still meaningful and purposeful for families.
favorite thing about what I do: The children, by far. Listening to them laugh when they get it. That’s what I do it all for.