Music for the ages: Alabama woman puts her lullabies into a new speaker for young listeners
By Alec Harvey
For more than 30 years, Mae Robertson has been singing lullabies – not just an occasional “Rock-A-Bye Baby” to her children, but an array of lullabies recorded as albums.
“It started in 1986 after my daughter was born, and a friend overheard me singing ‘The Water is Wide’ to her as a lullaby,” says Robertson, who has been singing since her college days. “He said, ‘That’s a really weird song to sing as a lullaby,’ and I said, ‘It’s perfect. You have to find interesting songs that you enjoy singing that are peaceful and calm.’”
And that’s exactly what Robertson ended up doing, recording five albums in her “lullaby and lovesongs” series that included such songs as “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “Hush, Little Baby,” “What a Wonderful World” and “All the Pretty Little Horses.”
That first lullaby album, released on cassette, was “All Through the Night” in 1994.
Cut to 2017, with Robertson, now a grandmother, putting together “All That Matters,” the latest lullaby album.
“I thought I was done, and then I had grandbabies, and I discovered I was singing a whole different group of songs to them,” says Robertson, who lives in Birmingham. “I wasn’t singing the same songs to them that I sang to their father.”
But she was singing, and it was while singing to her first grandchild that an idea occurred to Robertson. As owner of the children’s store Cottontails in New York and Connecticut in the ’80s, she was no stranger to entrepreneurship.
“My first grandson, Johnny, is 5 now, and I would sing songs to him every night, and I wanted him to have my music when I wasn’t there,” Robertson says. “I bought an iPod and a speaker, but it was very cumbersome. It just wasn’t working. It just sat on the shelf in his nursery.”
A granddaughter, Frankie, was born next, and early on, she was in a California hospital for about three weeks. “My son brought the whole get-up I had set up for Johnny to the hospital, and the nurses would come in and say, ‘This is so peaceful.’ The nurses kept saying they wished they had something like that they could put in all the hospital rooms. As I sat there holding Frankie, I thought, how hard would it be to invent a little speaker that comes preloaded with songs. Well, I learned how hard it could be.”
Filling a need
Like her children’s store, the Lullabuddy was born out of necessity.
“I think I’ve pretty much been the kind of person who said, ‘This is what I want to do, and I’m going to figure out how to do it,’” she says. “At the time I came up with Cottontails, there was not a baby store in Westchester, and every mother I met was getting on a train and going into the city to shop. … As for the Lullabuddy, music is available everywhere, but it’s not easy to make a playlist for your child and play it. It’s complicated. I thought I could make it really simple, and that’s totally where the idea came from.”
The idea took some time – about 2 ½ years – to become a reality, as Robertson and her partners tested various speakers and then remastered 33 songs specifically for the new product.
The Lullabuddy is a small Bluetooth speaker pre-loaded with songs from Robertson’s lullaby albums, including the singer’s take on songs from Mary Chapin Carpenter, James Taylor and Tom Waits. It’s available on Amazon and the lullabuddy.com website for $60 (as well as at A’mano and Once Upon a Time in Birmingham),
The speaker can shuffle songs or play them in order, or it can be used as a speaker for anything people want to play on it.
“I find it hard to explain what it is,” says Robertson, whose voice has been described as “luminous” by The New York Times. “But the minute you turn it on and hear it, everyone says, ‘Oh, I get it.’ It’s unlike anything already out there, and that has been a real challenge for me. My favorite description of it is when someone called it a 21st-century music box.”
Performing isn’t foreign for Robertson. It’s in her blood. The daughter of Virginia Samford Donovan – the namesake of Birmingham’s Virginia Samford Theatre – she has recorded 10 albums, including the lullaby series. Her great-nephew, Iain Armitage, is the star of TV’s “Young Sheldon” and “Big Little Lies.”
Already, Lullabuddy has earned awards from the likes of the National Parenting Center and the National Parenting Products Award, and there are rave reviews from customers on Amazon, too.
“We received this speaker as a baby-shower gift, and it is one of my favorite things we received,” one buyer says. “We play it for her each naptime and at night. I really love the timer feature that makes it shut off after a certain amount of time – perfect for her to drift off to sleep to.”
Robertson and her husband, Webb, attended a toy and gift trade show in New York in August, and they hope that, along with mentions in the likes of People magazine, will pay off.
“I’m super proud of how people are reacting to it and the awards it is winning,” she says. “I’m so excited to get it into retail stores across the country.”
In the end, Robertson’s goal with Lullabuddy was simple.
“The main goal of Lullabuddy was to make it really easy to play some sweet music for your baby,” she says. “Music you can play without giving up your phone or making a playlist or even having internet. Music you can take with you in the car or on a walk or on a trip. Music that will calm them and that parents actually enjoy as well.”