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Laura Veirs detours into children's folk music

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veirssmile.jpgLaura Veirs made one of my favorite records of the last few years, 2010's "July Flame" -- a delightful record of breezy, pastoral hymns to nature. Somewhere between Fleet Foxes' "White Winter Hymnal" and Gillian Welch's "Winter's Come and Gone," Veirs' seventh album is a warmer celebration of the lushness of summer with surprisingly austere arrangements of piano, guitars and banjos, and Veirs' wondrous, sometimes childlike voice.

"I still like it, too," she says of the album. "Sometimes they don't hold up over time. I feel the songwriting's there. I can go back and play those songs and still feel connected. That's not always the case. Songs lose meaning over time. Those songs I can still put my heart into."

Veirs' latest album capitalizes on that childlike voice. "Tumble Bee: Laura Veirs Sings Folk Songs for Children" is a new collection of precocious classics once popularized by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Peggy Seeger, Jimmie Rodgers and Harry Belafonte.

3 p.m. (kids show, with the Tumble Bees) and 8 p.m. (adults show, with the Hall of Flames) Feb. 19
Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.
Tickets: $11-$12 (3 p.m.), $13-$17 (8 p.m.)
Call (773) 728-6000;

Her inspiration for the record was immediately clear when I tried to connect with Veirs on the phone. Jet-lagged and back in the country after a short tour, Veirs was "back in mom mode," rushing around to care for and transport her nearly 2-year-old son, Tennessee Veirs Martine.

The kids' record, she says, is not a bandwagon project. Just a one-off, a gift to the boy.

"I'm not turning to kids' music. I made a kids' record," she insists. "This is it. I've already written half of another record of my own. This was a fun detour, like a covers album. It was fun to do because we were new parents and wanted songs to sing to our kid, and to learn more about the genre of kids' music -- because it can be so terrible. It's a stigmatized thing, for sure. The bar is kind of low, but when you look into the history you find tons of great records."

The idea caught fire when Veirs encountered Ruth and Peggy Seeger's folk songs for children. Ruth Crawford Seeger was a composer who fell in with folklorist Alan Lomax and produced several transcriptions of children's songs in the early '50s, which her daughter, Peggy Seeger, recorded shortly thereafter.

How influential is the music we listen to as children on the music we enjoy or create later in life?

"It's a little hard to say," Veirs says. "If you took an African child in Mali who heard music of that area and brought them to the States in a different cultural context, would they forget the original music or go forward with that in their heart? My impression is that the first music goes in and informs and makes an impression. There's so much to be learned through music at a young age. I watch my child, at 2, learning rhythm and words. He can say, 'Mexico,' because we sing 'Jamaica Farewell' to him -- 'I've been from Maine to Mexico' -- and he always jumps in to say, 'Mexico!'"


On the current tour, Veirs performs two shows -- one for the kids, one for the grown-ups. The afternoon show finds her and her fellow musicians dressed in wild, colorful costumes. There's a bubble machine. The kids ping-pong around, almost slam-dancing.

"The kids run around like crazy, chasing bubbles. They go crazy for the bubbles," she says. "It's a punk atmosphere, sort of."

She sings for kids now, but Veirs started off in a collegiate punk band called Rair Kx!

"It was an all-girl punk band, my first coming-of-age time as a musician. Fortunately, we had a lead singer, my friend [Dava Hester], a natural front person. I don't feel that I'm that, even now. The diving-in-the-crowd stuff, that's not me. I was the primary writer and guitar player, in the background. ... For the kids, though, I kind of have to step it up. I have to get them to participate and get the parents clapping along. Plus, there are some musical moments that are pretty challenging. The singing, the yodeling, there are tons of lyrics to remember in these kids songs. And, you know, the kids kind of make me want to dive into the crowd, in a softer kind of way."

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on February 15, 2012 3:00 PM.

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