SANTA CRUZ -- A Santa Cruz woman named Joya has led babes and moms in song for 20 years, encouraging them to join her odes to growing babies, Mother Earth and other natural wonders.

Joya Winwood, 56, plays guitar or drum while she sings, in a local tradition called Mothersong, projecting simple songs onto a large screen and urging mothers and their children to sing with her.

Part of Mothersong features mothers and children ages newborn to 3 sitting in a circle, with shakers, scarves, hats and other playthings in the center. Another includes songs with movement, like the Hokey Pokey.

The repertoire includes Ghanian harvest chants, Rumi lyrics and a Harry Belafonte song called "Turn the World Around." Winwood calls songs tools -- for rising to challenges, for rousing the energy of the group, for slowing down and joining with your child and community -- for many things.

One advises giving a little kindness to yourself and another proclaims "every little cell in my body is happy."

Winwood joined Mothersong when her 26-year-old daughter, Tierney, was a baby and she was pregnant with her son, Adam, now 23. It was created by Debra Bone and led earlier by Copperwoman, she said.

Part of what keeps her there is the way Mothersong helps her through life's challenges, she said.

"It's a fluid container for issues and challenges and joy," she said. "These parents are dealing with poop and tears, so I know I it's safe and that I can cry. I know it's weird, but it's a humble time of life."

Cherie Barkey, a Cabrillo College history professor, said new-parent angst was one thing that led her to Mothersong; first with Jules, now 8, and then with Mina, now 4.

"When you're not sleeping and your whole life is turned upside down, you go to this little island where everyone is like you and is happy," she said. "And Joya has a great sense of humor and brings so much love to it."

The songs still give them strength, Barkey said, including one about falling down and not staying hurt long. They are her family's rhythm, she added.

Mothersong has become the rhythm of many families it seems, as Winwood said the gatherings have gone from two to 26 per month, and groups have sprung up in Kauai, Los Angeles, Port Townsend, Wash. and Duluth, Minn. She has recorded two CDs and a DVD that double as teaching guides.

David Sullivan, Barkey's partner, said he started going to Mothersong before many dads were involved, but still found "an incredible sense of community" there.

"The songs aren't about performance or expert harmonies, they're about lifting up voices in joy," he said.

The couple's children wanted to express their opinion, too, and Mina said she loved handing the babies scarves to twirl, and Jules said it's "really, really, really fun and exciting," and that everybody helps make the music.

Winwood began playing guitar at age 12, and also teaches improvisational theater.

At a recent gathering, a mother of twin toddlers called Winwood a local icon. And that 5-foot-tall icon has no plans to wind Mothersong down.

"I just want young people to know that if you find something really groovy, you can stay with it a long time and watch it grow," she said. "And babies are always inviting you to begin again. That's why I stay."