Looking to take a bit of a break after a long tour and giving birth to her son, Portland-based singer-songwriter Laura Veirs decided to do a kids album. But instead of writing a dozen or more songs with kid-friendly themes, she decided to research kid-appropriate folk songs. The result is titled Tumble Bee: Laura Veirs Sings Folk Songs for Children -- a simple, direct title reflecting the simple, direct music inside. Many of the dozen songs (plus an instrumental reprise) on Tumble Bee will sound familiar to a long-term listener of music for kids or anyone who has more than a couple Smithsonian Folkways albums. (There is but one wholly original track, the title cut.) "All the Pretty Little Horses," "The Fox," "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki Me O" -- these aren't songs that Veirs rescues from obscurity -- they're part of the (American) folk canon. Nor is "Jump Down Spin Around," which Raffi nicked from Leadbelly (and recorded it as "Pick a Bale o' Cotton"). But that latter track -- which Veirs credits to Harry Belafonte (she was struck by his version of the track) -- is given an extra boost of energy on the new album, with a chorus of friends singing along in response to Veirs' words and adding a few stomps for emphasis. I'd call Tucker Martine's production of his wife's music as unfussy, designed to highlight Veirs' voice and the classic melodies -- why get in the way? Bela Fleck provides lovely (but not showy) banjo work on on "King Kong Kitchie." Colin Meloy duets with Veirs on "Soldier's Joy," making it sound a little bit like a track from some Bizarro Decemberists album where all the song have happy endings. And perhaps my favorite vocal turn is from Veirs herself, yodeling on "Prairie Lullaby." Given the timeless nature of many of these songs, my typical suggestion of an age range is somewhat foolish, but it'll probably be more appreciated by kids ages 3 and up. (Though perhaps if you start younger, by the time they hit preschool they'll have all the lyrics to "The Fox" memorized.) You can sample the disk anywhere, but for a little while longer, go here to stream the album. Tumble Bee is a lovely album through and through. Fans of Elizabeth Mitchell's and Dan Zanes' family albums should be especially drawn to it, though this trawls narrower, folkier waters. But it also compares well to albums of Mitchell's Smithsonian Folkways predecessors like Pete Seeger and Leadbelly. Methinks Ruth Crawford Seeger, another one of Veirs' inspirations for the album, would be proud of it. It's a small gem, and while it's not actually a Folkways album, it's a kindred spirit to that tradition. Highly recommended.
On her forthcoming album Tumble Bee: Laura Veirs Sings Folk Songs for Children, Laura Veirs makes old folk songs sound new. It's a cliche, sure, but there is often a kernel of truth in a cliche. There is certainly truth in that one regarding Veirs' album, her first for families, on which she invigorates songs so that people who've never heard many of these songs might not necessarily think of them as "old folk songs." (And those of us who have many of these songs many times over can listen again with fresh ears.) I chatted briefly with Veirs recently (on her birthday, no less) about her musical memories, why she made the album, and what kinds of gifts a musician gets for a baby shower. Zooglobble: What are your earliest musical memories? Laura Veirs: I definitely remember Dad singing me to sleep. He plays very casually -- the piano, guitar, charango. By very casual, I mean almost "half-correct." It was nice not to have that pressure. I actually don't know how to read music, which, now that I'm a parent puts me in a bit of a dilemma. For me it'd be nice to play piano with my son and have him play along, but I'd prefer him to have the joy. Anyway, we listened to a lot of classical music and the stars of the day -- Olivia Newton-John, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young. It wasn't a big emphasis, more of a passing fancy. When did you start thinking about making this album? Before your son was born?
I think this is a first for NPR -- a children's music album streaming at their website. It's Laura Veirs' lovely album Tumble Bee, which is officially out next week. It's a half-hour of your time (and your kids' time) well-spent, maybe tomorrow or the rest of the week -- think of it as the antidote to the sugar rush they might just be on. Go here to stream the album. (By the way, go here to sign up via Facebook for a free download of the title track.)