Smithsonian Institution
Winter 2011 - Jazz



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The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

Ella Jenkins: A Life of Song

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This was the beginning of Ella’s legacy of 32 recordings of music for children over the next half-century, where one Folkways recording led to another, then to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings beginning in 1987, and then to CD reissues and anniversary (and cELLAbration) collections. Her recorded repertoire resounds with nursery rhymes, bilingual songs, African American folk songs, and international songs, and nine recordings that pay tribute to “rhythm”—non-pitched rhythmic chants, rhythmic movement, and the rhythm instruments of classroom use. Some of her best-known tunes seeped into the standard school repertoire for children, too, so that children and their teachers have been singing for several generations the likes of “You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song” and “Did You Feed My Cow?” Ella also popularized African American heritage songs like “I’m On My Way to Canaan Land,” “Hambone,” “This Train,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” bringing them into her recordings and live performances for children, their families, and their teachers.

Through all her engagements, Ella remains thoroughly at home with children. She has long valued their inherent expressive ability, and she recognized early on that children have something to sing about. She has helped others see that children’s ways may be expressed through song, and that much of what they need to know of their language, heritage, and cultural concepts may be communicated to them through song. Her interest in children’s learning their world is genuine, and her understanding of how they learn is apparent in her lively and engaging interaction with them—live and on her recordings. Ella’s songs are replete with phrases short enough for children to remember and repeat.

She playfully works in call-and-response exchanges, the sort of classroom “first me and now you” repartee between effective teachers and their young students. She supplies songs that allow for children’s penchant to imitate and to sink into the musical matter when, verse by verse, as little as a single word will change while the melody stays precisely the same. She tells stories about her songs, too, giving them context and further meaning. Her songs beckon children to lift their voices in song, to share in the rhythms, and to join in a full and enthusiastic musical participation.

Ella Jenkins wears well the title of “First Lady of Children’s Music.” She has been a familiar voice—and face—on TV, including Barney and Friends, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. She earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, and her recordings have received numerous awards from the likes of Parents’ Choice and ASCAP. Ella continues with energy and verve well into her ninth decade as a leading singer of children’s songs, and as a rare model of the music that best suits the lives and learning styles of children.

Ella’s legacy is wrapped in a vast treasury of children’s music from near and far, and it reaches across cultural boundaries while also holding to the songful expressions of her own African American heritage. As she recalls her own childhood memories on Chicago’s south side, and her visits with grandparents still living in the rural south, Ella Jenkins sings and plays her way through some of the rich repertoire that have made her who she musically is. Ella’s legacy is her music and the child-centered ways in which she communicates it now, as she always has.

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Watch trailer for cELLAbration Live! A Tribute to Ella Jenkins (DVD)

African American Legacy Series: A Life of Song more info