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.