Jack White’s tunes and turntable for kids: five-year-olds give it a spin

Who wants sticky-fingered nippers around their precious vinyl? Jack White and the Light in the Attic label, that’s who. We asked Ralph (5) and Elvis (4) to give their verdict on the new LP and turntable custom-made for raving kids

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The needle and the damage done … Ralph, 5, left, and Elvis, 4, get to grips with a magical new technology. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Eyes fixed on the hypnotic spin of the LP’s colourful label, my five-year-old son seems lost in a reverie as the idyllic, wistful 1970s folk of Vashti Bunyan’s Diamond Day fills the room. Do you like it, I ask hopefully. He looks up. “No. It’s a silly song. And she’s got a silly voice.”

If you ever wanted confirmation that tastes can never be imposed on a younger generation, try playing them some music and asking their opinion. Fortunately, such reactions were anticipated by the creators of a new compilation of songs intended to entrance young children and their parents, which, if you wish, comes with its own bright yellow, child-friendly portable turntable.

“That always backfires, with music or anything,” says Ben Swank from Third Man records, the Nashville-based label and shop set up by the fiercely analogue Jack White of White Stripes fame. “With my daughter, I just put things there – and if she likes them, great.”

On first sight the joint venture – Third Man created the turntable, Seattle-basedLight in the Attic the album – could resemble the nightmarish vision of some slightly ageing, newly reproducing music industry hipsters. The record-player itself is styled to resemble a 60s Dansette , right down to the artfully retro graphics.

The accompanying album, This Record Belongs To, is available on vinyl, and most of its child-oriented songs are of the very tasteful and slightly obscure variety, from people such as Carole King, Nina Simone and Donovan. If that wasn’t enough, the man who picked the tracks, Zach Cowie, forms half of a vinyl-only DJ duo with actor Elijah Wood.

Van Dyke Parks performs Allen Toussaint’s Occapella – as featured on This Record Belongs To.

But such misgivings evaporate on talking to Swank and Cowie. For the latter, an LA-based DJ and music consultant for film and TV, the project is almost literally a labour of love, originating in a mixtape he made about five years ago when some friends had their first child. “I thought it would be fun to pull together stuff that would be cool for a kid,” Cowie says. “I ended up getting really into it, spending way more time than I thought I would.”

The approach to that tape, he says, was as much philosophical as musical: “I think it starts with intention. When people are setting out to make a record to be a pop star, or to have a hit, in my opinion they’ve blown it at the beginning. I really like stuff that is pure, comes straight from the heart. And that’s a nice thing to look for in music you play to children.”

Cowie sent the tape to other friends when they in turn became parents, and one found its way to Light in the Attic founder Matt Sullivan, who suggested Cowie trim the selection for an album release. The fact that all the songs originated on the tape is key, says Cowie: “That’s why, ultimately, I’m so happy about this record. I don’t think I could have made it this way if someone had just asked me to [compile some songs]. I’d have come from a very different headspace. I didn’t overthink anything.”

Among the new parents who received the tape was Swank, who was already working on the idea of the children’s record-player. “I loved that mix, and my daughter loved it too,” Swank says. “So we thought, we should pair them up.”

Whatever the parental worries about small hands scraping a needle across vinyl, Swank argues that records are a paradoxically suitable format for children: “I think kids love to learn, and you learn more from a tangible object, anything they can pick up, or feel. With my daughter, she loves a record as it’s hers. There’s no ownership to an MP3 for a child.”

Lula, his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, has already got to grips with LPs, Swank adds. “I was playing that record for her and I went into the other room to do something. The record finished and I heard it start up again – she’d picked up the needle and dropped it at the first track to play over. She just kind of figured it out.”

My own son, five-year-old Ralph, has grown up with CDs, a technology he prefers to operate solo, using discs picked from a low shelf. His first joy was endless replays of Alan Bennett reading Winnie the Pooh, an obsession that culminated in him asking, in a barely discernible Leeds accent, if we could “stop at a cafe for a little something”. He swiftly moved on to music and is currently, and mysteriously, gripped by Beck’s patchy 1999 disco-pastiche opus Midnite Vultures.

He thus eyed our Third Man record-player with initial suspicion. Luckily, we tested out the turntable and album with friends, among them four-year-old Elvis, whose vinyl-obsessive musician father has a living room lined ceiling-high with records. The findings? If you ask a group of reception-age boys what they think of a specific song, they’ll probably be rude. Far better to let an album play in the background and quietly gauge the reactions.

Under the latter conditions, the Pointer Sisters’ almost absurdly funky Pinball Number Count promoted an outbreak of spontaneous dancing, possibly because of its use on Sesame Street. The sudden switch to Woody Guthrie’sDance Around brought contrasting shouts of: “Can we have the good song again?” Carole King’s One Was Johnny and Harry Nilsson’s Me and My Arrow, also brought approval, as did the more familiar tones of Kermit the Frog’sRainbow Connection. But arguably most popular thing of all was the book accompanying the record, co-written by Cowie: a briefly plotted but beautifully drawn tale about assorted woodland creatures discovering an LP.

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The book that comes with This Record Belongs To, about woodland creatures who discover an LP, proves a hit with Ralph and Elvis too. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

That reflects a wider challenge for the music industry: while sales of kids’ books are booming, modern school-age children have immeasurably more musical choice than in the days of the traditional pop 7-inch single bought with pocket money. “We’re in the YouTube era, and that’s now almost certainly the No 1 destination for kids to discover and play pop music,” says Tim Ingham, who runs the Music Business Worldwide website. “But it’s not a great place for the music industry, because the revenues aren’t very meaningful.”

Can one album, however lovingly curated, help change perceptions and get kids into the habit of listening to actual physical music? Cowie is under no illusions. “It’s not like a crusade or anything,” he says. “I just wanted to put out a little reminder that this is also an option.”

Cowie, who as yet has no children, would love to mirror the role of unofficial “musical uncle”, the sort who in his youth nudged him towards still-cherished musicians like Brian Eno. “I kind of grew up in record stores, and I was given so much by people 15 or 20 years older than me, who set me on invaluable paths.

Now I I can see another generation coming up, it’s my turn to start handing stuff over. I like to offer people the clues. They can roll with them if they want. They’re things that have made me very happy, that I hope will do the same for other people.”

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