Ella Jenkins, beloved by young children throughout the United States and in many other nations, is widely regarded as the foremost proponent of children’s music. Her ability to connect with children through music and excite in them a sense of joy, wonder, and creativity is admired by teachers, parents, fellow performers, and music education professionals.
A self-taught musician, Ella was born in St. Louis in 1924 and grew up on Chicago’s South Side. As a child she listened to her Uncle Food play blues harmonica, she heard gospel music in local churches, and she learned dances, rhymes, and songs from each neighborhood where her family moved. Her role models were Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, and Danny Kaye.
By the early 1950s Ella was performing in Chicago folk clubs. In 1956 she quit her job as a youth worker at a local YWCA, “paid up all my bills, bought a little hi-fi, and created a job for myself.”
That same year, at the suggestion of folklorist Kenneth Goldstein, she took a demo tape of her songs to Moses Asch of Folkways Records in New York City. Asch auditioned her recording and immediately offered her a contract, saying, “You have something very promising here.” In 1957 Folkways Records issued Ella’s first album, a ten-inch LP entitled Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing.
Her innovative use of call-and-response to teach children came from her own African-American traditions and from her early encounters with the musics of India, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East—which she first heard on Folkways Records. Ella recalled that as a teen, “I spent a lot of time in the booth of one particular record store, listening to Folkways LPs of music from around the world. I was always interested in different cultures. I traveled around the world in that booth.”
Forty-five years and more than two dozen recordings later, Ella Jenkins is Smithsonian Folkways Recordings’ top-selling artist. Her albums (first recorded for Folkways Records and now part of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings collection) are a kaleidoscope of sound and sensibility. They reflect the quality, diversity, and authenticity that drew Ella to Folkways Records in the first place.
Today Ella is known and loved by children, parents, and educators across America and around the world. Long before “multicultural” or “special needs” became standard concepts in education, Ella pioneered the use of call-and-response not only to reach children from diverse backgrounds and those with special needs. She recognizes each child—regardless of ability, race, religion, or ethnicity—as an individual with something special to contribute to the world. Her global approach to music through sound and rhythm have opened up worlds of understanding and learning for generations of children near and far.
A legendary figure in children’s music, Ella has appeared with Mr. Rogers and Barney. She has appeared several times at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and other special Smithsonian events, including the Birthday Party on the Mall in 1998 and the Wolf Trap concert for the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music™. She has received dozens of honors and awards, including Lifetime Achievement Awards from ASCAP in 1999 and the Grammy Association in 2004, plus Grammy nominations for Ella Jenkins and a Union of Friends (2000) and Sharing Cultures with Ella Jenkins (2003). Ella has her own publishing company, Ell-Bern Publishing and has served as a valued member of the Folkways Advisory Board.
Ella continues to travel unceasingly, performing, giving workshops, and always believing that “it is never too early to teach children about different ways of speaking, different rhythms, and different ways of moving their bodies.”
Photo by B. Richter
“Children are very important in the growth of our nation. They will carry on our musical traditions, share our heritage with people of the world, and see to it that the words ‘freedom,’ ‘justice,’ ‘integrity,’ ‘liberty,’ and ‘equality’ be exercised daily in thought and action, projecting these principles to future generations.”
— Ella Jenkins