Baby Einstein notwithstanding, we have a tendency to pander to our children. Everything gets wiped down with sanitizer, we talk “baby talk,” and sneaky moral or social lessons hide in the song lyrics we write for them. We force a lesson instead of presenting information and letting children parse through it.
But before Clorox wipes, bubble gum-flavored amoxicillin, and Hum-V strollers, there wasn’t an especially wide gulf between children and looming mortality. Disgustingness and death hovered at our doorsteps every single day, so there was really no incentive for parents to edit the ickier aspects of life when it came to songs and stories specifically for children. In ensuing cleaner, healthier years, we’ve slapped nightlights in the corners of Grimm’s fairy tales, un-murdered murder ballads, used slickly-produced mandolins and G-Star jean jackets to sweep the cobwebs out of folk songs and lullabies.
By and large, the lyrics of traditional lullabies are unsettling, arcane, and/or nonsensical in ways that inspire imagination rather than merely drill information or force a thinly-veiled moral or academic agenda. Not to take up Andy Rooney’s mantle, but there’s just no comparing children’s music of the past to shit like “Blues Clues.” Which is why it makes sense to me that after the birth of her son, Laura Veirs decided to take matters into her own hands and record an album of traditional folk songs and lullabies.
To curate Tumble Bee, Veirs and her production partner Tucker Martine combed through centuries’ worth of American folk songs — some American permutations of British ballads, some from great songwriters of the 20th century. Her aims with the album are decidedly more commercial and less archival, but that’s not to say that Tumble Bee is all mommyblogger and no Smithsonian Folkways-style appreciation. “Jack Can I Ride” and “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” keep the traditional lyrics and feature no-frills arrangements. And her turn on the spooky “All The Pretty Little Horses” even includes the unsettling bridge, allegedly a veiled reference to a slave’s child neglected in the field while the slave tends to her masters’ children: “Way down yonder, down in the meadow/ There’s a poor little lambie/ Bees and butterflies/ Peckin’ out his eyes/ Poor little thing cried ‘Mammy.’”
Veirs’ interpretations of the 20th-century folk songs are by-and-large successful; her plaintive cover of Billy Hill’s “Prairie Lullaby” is one of the album’s best tracks, a gentle — yet substantial — arrangement of a gorgeous melody. Unfortunately, Veirs’ turn on Lord Burgess’ “Jamaica Farewell” comes off a little flat — but real talk, Harry Belafonte is a hard act to follow.
Folk songs are the great equalizer: simple melodies everyone can sing, lots of repetition so it’s easy to remember lyrics. And this is part of the reason why one of Tumble Bee’s greatest assets is Veirs’ voice, which possesses qualities endemic to the platonic ideal of a folk singer. Her voice is pleasant and pretty enough that you’re eager to hear her sing, but not so impressive that you’d be intimidated to sing along with her. Aptly, a lot of Veirs’ musical pals lend their talents to Tumble Bee, including Karl Blau, Basia Bulat, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and others, turning the album into a veritable Kumbaya session of indie luminaries. “Soldier’s Joy” (featuring backing vocals from The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy) is an especially successful collaborative effort, all sweet fiddle, playful mouth harp…and lyrics about kickin’ British ass in the Revolutionary War.
Tumble Bee does leave me wishing the production were a little less polished, if only because peaceful sound + accessible songs + pretty, sweet-voiced folk singer = Starbucks counter, and I’d hate to see several centuries’ worth of American folk music relegated to bland, sterile, corporate environs. But in a way this sort of treatment makes sense. There’s no “right” version of a folk song; they’re bastards of bastards of bastards, changing from region to region, time period to time period. The point of a folk song is that everyone can sing it, remember the jist, and customize it to their generation.
Even so, Tumble Bee is by no means something for everyone — hence the “songs for children” disclaimer in the title. It’s not the kind of album to pull out every day; but it’s also not one you specifically need to be a child, enjoy children, or have children to enjoy. It’s not chilly and academic, neither is it saccharine. Veirs’ delicate, informed touch makes the album a worthwhile listen for anyone interested in taking the first step toward delving into America’s back catalogue.