When Johnette Downing and Scott Billington married, they each gained a partner in life and music. But Downing, an award-winning children’s entertainer, still plays her kids-captivating solo shows at schools, libraries and festivals, between making duo appearances with her lanky, harmonica-playing husband, Billington (a Grammy-winning roots music producer) at performing arts centers and larger festivals.
Special guest Irma Thomas will join Downing and Billington at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 27, to perform “Poor Worry Anna,” a song from the couple’s debut duo album, Swamp Romp.
Downing and Billington began performing together shortly before they married in 2013. “When we’re onstage together,” Billington says, “sometimes I’m distracted, thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a wonderful connection Johnette is making with these kids.’ And those kids leave with an appreciation for art and movement that they might not have had before.”
Children also get a lesson in Louisiana music and culture. That’s been Downing’s mission since 1988, the year she became a children’s entertainer. After over 30 years of performing, Downing has seen many of her fans become parents, bringing their own kids to her shows.
The couple’s duo performances, as well as Downing’s solo appearances, offer abundant opportunities for child participation. “It isn’t a stage performance of the kind that has no time for interaction or improvisation,” Downing says, adding thatcomments from the kids sometimes send the shows in unexpected directions. “That’s the fun in working with children,” Downing says. “They’re so creative and honest with you. Like the tiny little girl who came up front when we played at the Jazz Museum and said, ‘I’m tired.’ I said, ‘Your parents will thank me!’”
Like many of the children she entertains, Downing is a live wire on stage. “I’m a wiggle worm,” she says. “But that’s part of our Louisiana culture. I do a lot of dance songs because that’s the way I grew up. And the movement and dancing and interaction keeps the children engaged.”
Musically knowledgeable adults in the couple’s audiences are surprised when they see Billington, the Grammy-winning producer, in the role of children’s entertainer. “Many folks in Louisiana had no idea he’s a very good harmonica player,” Downing says. An amiable onstage presence, Billington also sings and strums ukulele.
New Orleans native Downing grew up with musician parents. “When they brought my siblings and I to the French Quarter,” she remembers, “we’d stand in the doorways of jazz halls and clubs and listen to ragtime and blues and jazz. I heard swamp pop music during visits to my grandparents in St. Amant. I learned about all of these different kinds of music in Louisiana.”
Billington, originally from the Boston area, began his life in music at eleven years old, when he received a harmonica for Christmas. He later performed blues and roots music in coffeehouses and subsequently became Rounder Records’ longtime vice president of artists-and-repertoire.
Downing and Billington met fifteen years ago at the Cutting Edge Music Conference in New Orleans. Although Billington still lived in Boston then, his production work frequently brought him to Louisiana. “We immediately bonded on so many different levels,” he says of Downing. “The more we talked, the more we realized that we shared the same passion and feeling for American roots music, particularly music from Louisiana.”
“Scott and I were friends for years,” Downing added. “We jokingly said, ‘If we’re ever single at the same time, we’re getting married.’”
In February, Downing and Billington released Swamp Romp, their first album as a musical couple. It’s a Louisiana dance party for children filled with Cajun, zydeco, jazz, brass band and gospel music, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. The album’s all-star guests and session players include New Orleans’s Irma Thomas, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Dukes of Dixieland, Washboard Chaz, sousaphone god Matt Perrine, and southwest Louisiana’s Roddie Romero, and Joel Savoy.
Swamp Romp continues the couple’s decades of roots-music and cultural advocacy: Downing’s eleven albums include Fins and Grins, The Second Line—Scarf Activity Songs, and Wild and Woolly Wiggle Songs. The recipient of the Louisiana Book Festival’s 2017 Louisiana Writer Award, Downing’s twenty-four books include Petit Pierre and the Floating Marsh, Why the Crawfish Lives in the Mud, and Mumbo Jumbo, Stay out of the Gumbo.
The producer of more than 100 albums, Billington received Grammy Awards for Irma Thomas’s 2007 album After the Rain, Bobby Rush’s 2016 release Porcupine Meat, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s 1981 album Alright Again!
“For me,” Billington says, “having all of these different styles of Louisiana music on Swamp Romp feels like coming full circle. I’m bringing my understanding of roots music to children.” “That’s what my show has always been about, but Scott has broadened it,” Downing says. “And because so many of Scott’s friends wanted to perform on our record, they brought an authenticity that’s really important for children to hear.”
“It’s real Louisiana roots music played by some of the best musicians in their genres,” Billington says. “The lyrics are child-centered, but I think the music is on the level with anything I’ve done in the past.”
Saturday, April 27,
Kids Tent, 2:50 p.m.