|Born||August 6, 1924|
|Origin||St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.|
|Occupation(s)||Singer, songwriter, actress|
|Oral History, Ella Jenkins reflects on her childhood and the music she listened to. Interview date February 9, 2015, NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Oral History Library|
Ella Jenkins (born August 6, 1924) is an American folk singer and actress. Dubbed “The First Lady of the Children’s Folk Song” by the Wisconsin State Journal, she has been a leading performer of children's music for fifty years.
Family and personal life
Jenkins was born in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in predominantly lower-middle-class neighborhoods in the south side of Chicago. Although she received no formal musical training, she benefited from her rich musical surroundings. Her Uncle Flood introduced her to the harmonica and the blues of such renowned musicians as T-Bone Walker, Memphis Slim and Big Bill Broonzy. Her family frequently moved around the south side and, as she moved to different neighborhoods, she learned new children’s rhythms, rhymes and games. Gospel music became a part of her soundscape as neighborhood churches broadcast their services onto the street. She also enjoyed tap dancing lessons at the local theater and was able to go to the Regal Theater to see such performers as Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Peg Leg Bates. Cab Calloway is the person who she credits with getting her interested in call and response singing. While attending Wilson Junior College, she became interested in the music of other cultures through her Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican friends. In 1951, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology with minors in Child Psychology and Recreation from San Francisco State University. Here, she picked up songs of the Jewish culture from her roommates. Upon graduating, she returned to Chicago where she began her career.
Back in Chicago, Jenkins began writing songs for children while volunteering in recreation centers. She subsequently was hired as a Teenage Program Director for the YWCA in 1952. While working at the YWCA, she was invited to perform on the Chicago public television show, The Totem Club. She was soon offered a regular job as the host of its Thursday program, which she entitled This is Rhythm. She invited guests from diverse cultures to share their music’s rhythms on her show.
In 1956, Jenkins decided to become a full-time freelance musician, a vocation she has pursued for over 50 years. She began her career as a children’s musician touring school assemblies in the United States, often sleeping in a different place each night and encountering racial discrimination. As she performed in more varied venues, she began to write music about her experiences. Later that year, a friend recommended that she bring a demo tape to Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways Records. Asch was receptive to her music and in 1957, her first album, Call-And-Response: Rhythmic Group Singing, was released by Folkways. Since then, Folkways Records and, more recently, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings have released 39 albums, including the popular You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song. Her 1995 album Multicultural Children's Songs is the most popular Smithsonian Folkways release to date. She has not only been an important force in children’s lives, but in the lives of parents and fellow music educators as well. She has participated in many conferences on music education, and has offered workshops for music educators, parents, and caregivers all over the world.
As a performer and educator, Jenkins has traveled extensively, performing her songs on all seven continents (even Antarctica). As she travels, she not only shares her music and experiences but also learns about the cultures of the people she is visiting, taking with her musical traditions and languages that she then shares with her audiences. She has also made television appearances on shows including NBC’s Today Show, CNN's Showbiz Today, and PBS programs such as Barney and Friends, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, The Me Too Show, Look at Me, and in films shown on Sesame Street. She performed at America’s Reunion on the Mall in 1993, America’s Millennium Celebration in 2000, and at Smithsonian’s 150th Birthday Party on the Mall in Washington, DC in 1996. In collaboration with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, she has acted as a U.S. delegate to Hong Kong, the People’s Republic of China, and the former Soviet Union.
As a recording artist, Jenkins has gained extensive recognition. Her recordings have received Parents’ Choice awards and Grammy nominations in the category of Best Musical Album for Children. In 2004, she was recognized with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
As an educator
Jenkins' favorite people are children. She sees them as genuine, down to earth people who should be listened to and recognized as having much to offer. Fellow music educator Patricia Sheehan Campbell lauds her as “a pioneer in her early and continuing realization that children have something to sing about, that the essence of who they are may be expressed through song, and that much of what they need to know of their language, heritage, and current cultural concepts may be communicated to them through song.” Through her songs, she hopes to develop greater intercultural understanding and rhythmic-consciousness, and to help people discover the joy of singing and communicating through active participation in songs.
Jenkins' repertoire includes nursery rhymes, holiday songs, bilingual songs, African-American folk songs, international songs, rhythmic chants, and original songs. Drawing from cultures all over the world, she sings in many languages, exposing her audiences to diverse cultures and promoting greater cultural awareness.
Through her style of call-and-response singing, Jenkins promotes group participation. Found in cultures worldwide, from Greece to the Middle East to West Africa, call-and-response singing involves a leader or leaders singing a phrase and the rest of the participants commenting or responding with another phrase. Using this technique, she breaks the barrier between audience and performer, and turns everyone into a performer. By encouraging active participation, she promotes the development of a warm group feeling, cooperation among the participants, greater attentiveness, an enjoyment of singing, and a desire to sing. She also encourages children to lead songs, make up their own variations of songs, and experiment with fun and silly sounds. This allows children to think independently, develop leadership skills, and improvise, resulting in increased self-confidence.
In helping children discover music and participate in its creation, Jenkins provides them with a new tool of communication that they can use and enjoy for the rest of their lives.
- Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers Foundation (First recipient in the field of Children's Music and the first woman selected for the honor) (1999)
- Grammy Nomination for Best Musical Album for Children for Ella Jenkins and a Union of Friends (1999)
- Award from the Music Educators National Conference “in appreciation of her support for music education and the National Association for Music Education” (2000)
- Grammy Association Lifetime Achievement Award (2004)
- Honorary Doctorate of Human Letters from the Erikson Institute (2004)
- Inducted into the San Francisco State University Alumni Hall of Fame (2004)
- Grammy Nomination for Best Musical Album for Children for Sharing Cultures with Ella Jenkins (2005)
- Grammy Award for Best Musical Album for Children for cELLAbration: A Tribute to Ella Jenkins (2005)
- Voted 2005 Chicagoan of the year by Chicago Magazine
- Fellow Award in Music from United States Artists. (2009) 
- National Endowment for the Arts Grant, with Illinois Arts Council matching grant
- Named Honorary Citizen of Louisville, KY, during The Year of the Child
- National Academy of Recordings Arts and Sciences, Chicago Chapter, Governor’s Award, contribution in children’s recording and performance
- Proclamation of Ella Jenkins Day (December 12) in Chicago, IL
- American Academy of Children’s Entertainment, Best Variety Performer Award
- American Library Association Award
- 1957: Call-and-Response Rhythmic Group Singing  (1990) Reissue of FW7638 from 1957. SFW45030 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1959: Adventures in Rhythm  (1989) Reissue of FW7682 from 1959. SFW45007 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1960: African-American Folk Rhythms  (1998) Reissue of Negro Folk Rhythms FW7654 from 1960. SFW45003 (Cassette, CD).
- 1961: This-a-Way-That-a-Way  (1989) Reissue of FW7652 from 1961. SFW45002 (Cassette, CD).
- 1961: This is Rhythm  (1994) Reissue of FW7652 from 1961. SFW45028 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1964: Rhythm & Game Songs for Little Ones  (1991) Reissue of FW7680 from 1964. SFW45027 (Cassette, CD).
- 1964: Songs and Rhythms From Near and Far  (1997) Reissue of FW7655 from 1964. SFW45033 (Cassette, CD).
- 1966: You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song  (1989) Reissue of FW7664 from 1966. SFW45010 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1968: Play Your Instruments & Make a Pretty Sound  (1994) Reissue of FW7665 from 1968. SFW45018 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1969: Counting Games & Rhythms for the Little Ones  (1990) Reissue of FW7679 from 1969. SFW45029 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1969: A Long Time to Freedom  (1992) Reissue of FW7754 from 1969. SFW45034 (Cassette, CD).
- 1970: Rhythms of Childhood  (1989) Reissue of FW7653 from 1963. SFW45008 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1970: Seasons for Singing  (1990) Reissue of FW7656 from 1970. SFW45031 (Cassette, CD).
- 1971: And One And Two & Other Songs for Pre-School and Primary Children  (1990) Reissue of FW7544 from 1971. SFW45016 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1971: My Street Begins at My House  (1989) Reissue of FW7543 from 1971. SFW45005 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1972: Little Johnny Brown  (1990) Reissue FW7631 from 1972. SFW45026 (Cassette, CD).
- 1973: This-A-Way That-A-Way (1973) Folkways FC 7546. (Vinyl LP)
- 1974: Nursery Rhymes: Rhyming & Remembering for Young Children & for Older Girls & Boys with Special Language Needs  (1990) Reissue of FW7660 from 1974. SFW45019 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1974: Jambo and Other Call and Response Songs and Chants  (1996) Reissue of FW7661 from 1974. SFW 45017 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1976: Growing Up With Ella Jenkins  (1990) Reissue of FW7662 from 1976. SFW45032 (Cassette, CD).
- 1977: Songs, Rhythms And Chants for the Dance  (2000) Reissue of FW7000AB from 1977. SFW45004 (Cassette, CD).
- 1979: Travellin' with Ella Jenkins: - A Bilingual Journey  (1989) Reissue of FW7640 from 1979. SFW45009 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1981: I Know the Colors of the Rainbow  (1981) EA595 (CD).
- 1981: Looking Back and Looking Forward  (1981) EA596 (CD).
- 1982: Early Early Childhood Songs  (1996) Reissue of FW7630 from 1982. SFW45015 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1983: Hopping Around from Place to Place Vol. 1  (1983) EA613 (CD).
- 1983: Hopping Around from Place to Place Vol. 2  (1983) EA614 (CD).
- 1989: This-a-Way,This-a-Way"  (1988) SFW45002 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1989: My Street Begins at my House  (1989) SFW45005 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1989: Adventure in Rhythm  (1989) SFW45007 (LP, Cassette,CD).
- 1989: Rhythm of Childhood  (1989) SFW45008 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1989: Travellin' with Ella Jenkins:A Biligual Journey  (1989) SFW45009 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1989: You'll Sing a Song, I'll Sing a Song  (1989) SFW45010 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1990: We Are America's Children  (1990) Reissue of FW7666. SFW45006 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1990: And One and Two  (1990) SFW45016 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1990: Nursery Rhymes: Rhyming & Remembering for Young Children & for Older Girls & Boys with Special Language Needs  (1990) SFW45019 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1990: Counting Games and Rhythms For the Little Ones  (1990) SFW45029 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1990: Call and Response  (1990) SFW45030 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1990: Seasons for Singing  (1990) SFW45031 (Cassette, CD).
- 1991: Live at the Smithsonian  (1991) SFW48001 (VHS, DVD).
- 1991: For the Family  (1991) SFW48002 (VHS, DVD).
- 1991: Little Johnny Brown with Ella Jenkins and Girls and Boys from "Uptown" ( Chicago)  (1991) SFW45026 (Cassette, CD).
- 1991: Rhythm and Game Songs for the Little Ones  (1991) SFW45027 (Cassette, CD).
- 1992: Come Dance by the Ocean  (1992) SFW45014 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1992: A Long Time to Freedom  (1992) SFW45034 (Cassette, CD).
- 1994: Play Your Instruments and Make a Pretty Sound  (1994) SFW45018 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1994: This is Rhythm  (1994) SFW45028 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1995: Multi-Cultural Children's Songs  (1995) SFW45045 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1996: Early Early Childhood Songs  (1996) SFW45015 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1996: Jambo and Other Call and Response Songs and Chants  (1996) SFW45017 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 1996: Holiday Times  (1996) SFW45041 (Cassette, CD).
- 1996: Songs Children Love To Sing  (1996) SFW45042 (Cassette, CD).
- 1997: Songs and Rhythms from Near and Far  (1997) SFW45033 (Cassette, CD).
- 1999: Ella Jenkins and A Union of Friends Pulling Together  (1999) SFW45046 (LP, Cassette, CD).
- 2000: Song Rhythms and Chants for the Dance with Ella Jenkins ; Interviews with "Dance People"  (2000) SFW45004 (Cassette, CD).
- 2003: Sharing Cultures With Ella Jenkins  (2003) SFW45058 (CD).
- 2004: cELLAbration: A Tribute to Ella Jenkins  (2004) SFW45059 (CD).
- 2011: A Life of Song  (2011) SFW45067 (CD) 
- 2013: Get Moving with Ella Jenkins  (2013) SFW45073 (CD).
- 2014: 123s and ABCs  (2014) SFW45076 (CD)
- 2014: More Multicultural Children's Songs  (2014) SFW45078 (CD)
- 1991: Ella Jenkins Live at the Smithsonian  (1991) SFW48001 (VHS, DVD).
- 1991: For the Family!  (1991) SFW48002 (VHS, DVD).
- 2007: cELLAbration Live! A Tribute to Ella Jenkins  (2007) SFW48007 (DVD).
- Ella Jenkins, "Ella Jenkins and Adventures in Rhythm", http://www.ellajenkins.com
- Ella Jenkins, interview with the author, May 10, 2007
- Patricia Sheehan Campbell, “Recording Reviews,” Ethnomusicology, Vol.46, No.2 (2002), jstor.org (accessed May 2, 2007), p.357.
- Liner notes from Call-And-Response Rhythmic Group Singing, Ella Jenkins, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW 45030, 1998, CD.
- United States Artists Official Website
- "New Ella Jenkins Album A Life of Song Available February 22". Smithsonian Folkways. Retrieved 12 January 2011.