I‘ve never liked kids’ music. Growing up, I only listened to two albums: a live contemporary worship album called Songs from the Loft (I’m still not really sure how or why we acquired it) and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell (my mother’s all-time favorite record and the only survivor of a record collection that was left behind along with everything else she loved when she was a teenager.) The band at the summer camp I went to at age nine played Jars of Clay and Newsboys and that was enough to get me started on a lifelong love of music ostensibly written for people over the age of twelve.Good music for children doesn’t dumb anything down; it just uses simplicity and repetition to draw out universal truths.
Having never listened to much kids’ music, I didn’t feel a need to get any for my daughter when she was born. She still mostly enjoys listening to our music; her favorite song last year was probably Jason Isbell’s “24 Frames” and the year before that, it was “Go” by Sandra McCracken. I suppose you could argue this might have something to do with the fact that “Go” is very easy for a one-year-old to say, but that fact didn’t blunt our delight that our daughter was already developing such great taste in music (or our pride in ourselves for helping her develop this taste).
However, our favorite grown-up singer-songwriters like Sandra started releasing records for children, and being the dutiful fans that we are, we went ahead and brought the music of Rain for Roots into our home. Rain for Roots is a collaboration between several singer-songwriters (and their kids) and the work of Sally Lloyd-Jones, known for her Jesus Storybook Bible, also a beloved favorite in our house. (We’re a little less snooty about bringing books written for children into our house, although we’re still quick to chuck any books we don’t like.)
Their first record, Big Stories for Little Ones, meets what I consider the most important criterion for evaluating any music made for children: it doesn’t start to grate after your child demands to hear it again and again. The melodies are simple but not cookie-cutter and the lyrics are generally the sort of stuff that’s worthwhile to hear over and over; they draw from the Bible without being moralistic or smarmy like much Biblical literature written for children (and adults!) ends up being. We enjoyed it and still like to play the songs together on the guitar.
It was Rain for Roots’ second album, The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like This, that really started to get my attention. There were still some solid songs in the vein of the first record and some branching out into cutesy fare like “Good Fruit” that were well-written enough to withstand multiple listenings. There were other songs, though, like “Come To Me” or “The Lord’s Prayer,” that would have fit on any album meant for grown-ups. I found myself listening to some of these songs even when my daughter wasn’t around and including them in my own playlists.
Then we heard Sandra at a church concert in late 2014 as she was preparing to release her exquisite Psalms record. She played songs from all over her discography at the show, including Rain for Roots material, which mostly disappointed my daughter when she couldn’t just shout “Play it again!” and hear “God Makes Everything” again. Sandra also played “Leaven Bread” from The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like This and introduced it by alluding to the difficult year she’d had.
I hadn’t really thought much of this song when I heard the recording; it was just a bouncy tune about waiting for bread to rise. As I thought about the loss and longing that Sandra had introduced the song with, though, I saw it in a different light when she sang, “We wait/We wait/We wait while the Kingdom’s coming, coming.” Who among us, child and grown-up alike, hasn’t felt the ache of waiting mixed with the hope that God’s Kingdom will come make things right? And what better analogy than rising dough, imperceptibly working in the moment while we wait?
Rain for Roots’ third album, Waiting Songs, expands on this theme over 10 songs. Ostensibly an “Advent record” with 2 classic Christmas hymns and 8 originals, it’s still on heavy rotation in our house a month later because we still feel that ache of waiting and we love the way these songs capture that feeling.
I should note that our family moved across the ocean to work at a hospital for women and children a week after Waiting Songs dropped, which undoubtedly colors our impression of these songs’ poignancy. “Every Valley (It’s Hard To Wait)”’s second verse opens with “When the one you love/Leaves on a plane/And you know that she’ll/Come back someday/It’s hard to wait… So hard to wait” and yeah, that’s our life right now — but it’s also what Isaiah felt with Jesus’ birth a few hundred years away and what we all feel as we look at a world where things far more tragic than just separation from our loved ones happen every day. Working in a hospital in one of the world’s most dangerous places to give birth, we are constantly reminded that death is stalking us and preying on the most vulnerable among us. As a nurse and a doctor, my wife and I do all that we can to help, but it doesn’t always work and sometimes babies die. It’s hard to wait.
That song (and the rest of the album) keeps returning to the hope we have in waiting, the confidence that every valley will be raised. “Mary Consoles Eve” catches the tension of our age of waiting with its chorus: “Almost, not yet, already.” (This happens to be my daughter’s favorite line, which she usually sings when we ask her to get dressed or pick up her toys!) Every year, I see this image from a Trappistine nun in my social media feed and can’t help but think of how it pairs with this song, as Mary’s hope reaches back across history to sing about a promise made in the Garden of Eden finally coming true.
After adapting two of the Bible’s original Advent songs (Zechariah’s song and the Magnificat), the album winds down with a cover of Thad Cockrell’s “Great Rejoicing” from one of the most underappreciated albums of the last 10 years. It ends with a simple rendition of “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” that ends with the chorus “We are waiting/We are waiting/We are waiting for You.” Aside from the second track (which feels extraneous), the whole record burns with the longing and hope we find through the Advent story.
Our family has cherished this record at a time when grand reunions, harrowing births, and waiting for redemption are on our minds a lot, but families (and people without kids!) who haven’t just moved across the world will love these songs, too. Good music for children doesn’t dumb anything down; it just uses simplicity and repetition to draw out universal truths. Bad art for kids — whether in stories, songs, or visual art — is like Pixy Stix: it’s designed only to be consumed by people with no taste and meant to obliterate any ability to develop taste. Good art for kids is more like mashed potatoes or peanut butter smoothies: enjoyable at any age, accessible to everyone.
Dr. Kent Brantly, one of the American doctors who contracted Ebola, talked once about the songs he sang when he was lying in an isolation ward, unable to control his own bowel movements and delirious with dehydration and fever. As he wondered if he would survive and about the next time someone would clean up his diarrhea for him, he could only manage to remember the Scripture songs he used to sing in the car with his children. While most of us won’t ever contract Ebola, we all encounter times when circumstances eviscerate us and we need simple songs we can sing to ourselves when we’re alone.
At three years old, my daughter knows — and can tell me — how hard it is to wait for things. She knows how sad it is to move across the world and how important it is to make sure all the mommies and babies at the hospital here get their shots. (Fortunately, vaccines are the most gruesome aspect of medical care here she’s seen so far.) Even though her understanding of this world’s pains and joys is not yet as complete as mine, we can sing together about how we’re waiting for Jesus to come make things right and anticipate a grand reunion with the people we love — as well as the people we may not know yet but who need a little help, from me and the people I’m training, to come into the world safely.
Rain for Roots photo by Eric Brown.