Grab a Ukulele: Sharing Music With Your Kids

Talking with Heidi Swedberg about her music makes me want to quit my job, learn how to play ukulele and follow her on her latest tour singing and playing.
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Talking with Heidi Swedberg about her music makes me want to quit my job, learn how to play ukulele and follow her on her latest tour singing and playing. Swedberg is familiar to millions of people for her role as Susan on Seinfeld. She's gone on to develop a fantastically creative career focusing on songs for kids and families. We talked about her new CD coming out soon called My Cup of Tea and why making kid's music appeals to her.

My Cup of Tea is Swedberg's second album and she works with a lot of the same musicians from her first album Play. She plays ukulele, but the instrumentation is incredibly varied. Two of the lead forces on the album are Daniel Ward and John Bartlett from New Mexico. It's clear after talking to Swedberg that everyone comes to the new project with a lot of love and enthusiasm. Hopefully, her current Kickstarter campaign will bring everyone a little cash as well. I asked Swedberg about the players on the CD and how she characterizes My Cup of Tea.

"Most of the players I work with have a lot of Latin chops, specifically Flamenco. You hear it in the way they play. We don't actually have any Flamenco songs, but the way Daniel plays ukulele is completely influenced by his 20 years of Flamenco guitar. These musicians have a love of music and their craft and have a lot of different styles under their belt.

One of the things about this CD is its variety. There's a traditional Spanish lullaby, there's a Panamanian song. There's a funk song that sounds like Tower of Power meets The Tubes. There is a Haitian call and response song and one from Civil War Era that's said to have been Abraham Lincoln's favorite song. We do a song that Woodie Guthrie used to sing and a Shaker song.

What unifies them, besides the ukulele, is that they're all beautiful songs that connect, that invite you to participate in them. There are a couple of songs that I wrote as well. My Cup of Tea is a song that I wrote that sounds like bawdy vaudeville. It's jam-packed with innuendo. I don't make kids music that starts with an age demographic. All these songs work for kids because they're not inappropriate; they engage them. I think they equally engage adults. One of the things I find is that a lot of adults who are into ukulele are kind of going through a second childhood. They're really responding to the same songs that I sing with kids."

Music doesn't always translate to the page or words. Heidi and I struggled a little trying to articulate just what makes some kids' music enjoyable for adults and kids while other songs fall flat to parents. We ended up talking about some of the ways Heidi uses folk songs and how they engage people of all ages.

"Folk songs don't tend to be about things. A lot of people who write songs for kids tend to write songs about brushing your teeth and putting on your pajamas. It's not my style. Sometimes there's also a cute factor, which I don't swallow well. When you look at folk songs or even folk songs for children, they don't tend to be about anything. Mary Had a Little Lamb is a song that everyone knows, but what's it about? Is it really about what's appropriate behavior at school? They're songs about songs. They're not just on the nose in meaning. Look at My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, which is a song about death and longing. That's a song about grief, but no one's talking about processing and dealing with grief. You just get on with it. That's why those songs are so powerful. Once you learn that song, it stays with you.

My father died two years ago. When he died, I found myself singing in my head all these folk songs. All these really little tiny songs like My Bonnie. They're incredibly important for dealing with emotions. The songs that you know way back deep in your bones are really important songs.

Another reason why I love working with folk songs is that I think it's a tragedy that children are growing up with such a poverty of literary and musical vocabulary. That they have so little to call on when they feel things. You just can't call on pop songs to give you the same amount of comfort. There's a depth to folk songs. I don't quite know how to put it, but I know how important they are."

My Cup of Tea will include lyrics and music for those inclined to pick up a ukulele and play along. I've been walking around singing the title song for the past few days. It's a joyful piece that slips right into your head. Swedberg delivers what she sets out to do. Her music engages you, makes you want to stand up, clap, dance or grab the nearest ukulele. Her Kickstarter site previews a few of the new songs and from there you can jump into the fun.

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