THERE COMES A TIME when the idea of having children ceases to be completely terrifying. At some point these tiny humans are no longer perceived to be relentless, teat-sucking zombies, and for Laura Veirs and her husband Tucker Martine, this stage of life had finally arrived. The almighty biological clock became less of a medical concern—"What is this goddamn ticking in my ears? Is it pulsatile tinnitus?"—and more of a steady metronome to time the sweet music of child rearing. Enter wide-eyed, soft-skulled Tennessee Veirs Martine, gurgling softly from stage left.
Given both Veirs' and Martine's extensive backgrounds in music—she an inimitable folk-rock songsmith who took embryonic Tennessee on a full US tour, and he a distinguished producer—it was inevitable that the child would immediately be exposed to the uniting force that brought him into the world in the first place. Veirs explains the beginnings of her new children's album Tumble Bee: "When you have a kid, you just want to sing to them. But I'd run out of verses, I'd forget songs, I'd run out of ideas in the middle of the night."
Together, Veirs and Martine spent countless hours listening to Woody Guthrie, Peggy Seeger, and the hauntingly stannic voices contained on Alan Lomax collections looking for ballads and lullabies to remember and recreate. Tumble Bee largely contains Veirs' versions of old Folkways recordings and American traditionals, many of which were written specifically for children. "These songs are great pieces of art, and it raised the bar for me. Kids' music can be just as valid as any other art form in music. Some people will scoff when they hear that. People probably think, 'This is the beginning of the end for her, she made a kids' record,'" says Veirs, with a laugh. "But I think it's an interesting thing to do, especially from a historical perspective." Veirs goes on to mention that a lot of these songs, regardless of their saccharine packaging, reference mortality, physical differences, and other aspects of real life: "Stuff for kids these days is really watered down, and it wasn't like that in the past," Veirs says.
From the clarion and effervescent piano that lift old play-party song "Jack Can I Ride," to the choral arrangements and experimental jazz beats in work song "Jump Down Spin Around," Veirs takes a defibrillator straight to the chest of these time-ripened tunes and makes them fun. And with their reincarnation, she also drums up some perennial lessons for youngsters. "In so many cultures, music is a part of everyday life; everyone knows how to clap with a beat and sing a harmony. But for us, especially as church culture disappears, there isn't as much homemade music happening. So the kids will learn—they'll know rhythm, listening, movement, and they'll pick up ideas from the lyrics. They absorb everything."
A BUNCH OF GROWNUPS talking about a kids' record is fine and well, but we knew we needed to keep Tumble Bee's target audience in mind. So we sent guest interviewer Eliott Black on a special assignment. At a mere four and three-quarters years old, Black possesses the inquisitive prowess of a young Terry Gross, and it was his job to hold Veirs accountable to her primary audience. When Black wasn't demonstrating his invented dance moves to "Jump Down Spin Around," he really got to the meat.
ELIOTT BLACK, AGE FOUR AND THREE QUARTERS: "Tumblebee" is my favorite, and also "Jump Down Spin Around." At the first starting, it just shivered me, like this. [Eliott demonstrates.] Woh-oh-oh-oh!!! And I don't know what's going on! I think it's an earthquake! It just shivers me.
LAURA VEIRS: You get excited when you hear those first beats? There are a lot of voices on that song, and there are drums, so I think that's exciting.
What's Tenn's favorite song?
Well, Tennessee—that's my son—I would probably guess that he likes "Jack Can I Ride" because I play that one a lot on the piano. But he seems to like a lot of music, like almost all of the music that we play, so I don't know if he has any opinions about music yet. But he likes a good beat.
What's your favorite color?
I haven't thought about that in a little while, but I was noticing a lot of my clothes are blue. So I would say blue.
How many instruments do you play on the album?
I play guitar, banjo, piano, and I sing. I play electric and acoustic and nylon-string and Nashville-string guitar. And Tucker—my husband, Tennessee's dad—he plays a bunch of different drums.
Like bongo drums?
He didn't play bongos, but he played a full drum set. And he recorded it. He set up microphones in our house and I would sit down and play. We made it all in our house with really cool, old microphones. We would record four hours a day while the babysitter took Tennessee outside. Because you can't record with a baby right there. They make too much sound.
Like a noisy house! Did your parents sing those songs to you when you were little?
Yes! They sang "The Fox" and "Jamaica Farewell."
Do you have a favorite song that you sing to Tennessee?
I've been singing him "Prairie Lullaby" at night. It's so pretty, and I hadn't heard that song before. Jimmie Rodgers did a version, but I don't know how popular it was. Our friend June sent it to us, because we were asking all our friends what songs come to mind when you think about good songs for a kids' record that haven't been done 500 million times. "All the Pretty Little Horses" is a good bedtime song, too. But it's very sad, so I don't always sing that one.
It's not sad to me!
That's good! I guess the lyrics are uplifting, like "When you awake/You'll have cake/And all the pretty little horses," but it's in the minor key and that makes it sound sad.