Ella Jenkins – First Lady of Children’s Music

Anyone who is involved in children’s music is familiar with the name Ella Jenkins. Given the honorific title “The First Lady of Children’s Folk Song,” Jenkins is an iconic American folk singer, multi-instrumentalist, and perhaps most impactfully, a beloved children’s music writer and performer. Her 1995 album of children’s songs, Multicultural Children’s Songs remains the Smithsonian Folkways most popular release. Jenkins has spent her life devoted to helping children find enjoyment in music, appearing on many children’s television shows including Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and Barney. And in 2004, Jenkins received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She remains an inspiration and mentor for many children’s music educators across the globe.

Ella Jenkins’ Humble Beginnings for a Children’s Music Icon

Jenkins’ was born in St. Louis on August 6, 1924, but grew up mainly on Chicago’s South Side. As a child, she loved games, especially those involving music, rhythm, and movement. Jenkins was introduced to the music of renowned blues musicians such as Memphis Slim, T-Bone Walker, and Big Bill Bronzy, by her uncle Floyd Johnson, a harmonica player. As her love and interest in music grew and her family moved to different neighborhoods around the south side, she explored various styles of music, rhythm, and children’s games in the streets as well as local black churches. During this time, Jenkins also enjoyed dance and performing, which allowed her to attend concerts at the local theatre. She often contributes her “sing and response” style of music by hearing Cab Calloway perform there. Graduating High School in 1942, Jenkins went on to earn an associate’s degree from Woodrow Wilson Junior College while working at a Wrigley’s gum factory. It was at Woodrow Wilson that she became interested in music from other cultures through her Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican friends. After graduation, Jenkins moved to California in 1948 in order to increase her opportunities and expand her musical repertoire.

From Music Acolyte to Accomplished Composer

While attending San Francisco State College, Jenkins continued her pursuit into the music of other cultures, learning Jewish songs from her roommates. After graduating with a B.A. in Psychology with minors in Child Psychology and Recreation in 1951, she moved back to her beloved Chicago. Despite having no formal music education, in addition to singing Jenkins learned over the years to play a multitude of musical instruments including the ukulele, pipe organ, harmonica, piano, and a variety of percussion instruments.  Jenkins began writing songs while volunteering at recreations centers, and was soon hired as a Teenage Program Director. While performing with young people on the street one day, she was asked to perform on a local public television show, The Totem Club. Jenkins continued to play various shows and events, and in 1956 decided to become a full-time freelance musician. Moses Arch, the founder of Folkways Recordings heard Jenkins and offered to record her songs. Her first album, Call and Response was published as 10-invh vinyl in 1957. She recalls, however, that times were not always easy in those days, as she slept in different places each night, often facing racial discrimination.

Composing and Performing her way to Beloved Children’s Music Icon

In the 1960s, Jenkins met Bernadelle Richter, who hired her to perform at an American Youth Folk Festival. They soon developed a relationship and within a few years were business partners, with Jenkins composing and performing while Richter handled the business. In 1966, Jenkins released the best-selling title in the history of Folkways (Smithsonian) Records, You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song. She has continued to compose and perform ever since, with her 32nd album Life of Song published in 2011. Other entities continue to publish her classics in different educational compilations, such as the Get Moving Ella Jenkins and recently released 123s and ABCs, which features her core principles of careful listening, singing, and improvisation.

Ella Jenkins is one of few artists to have recorded both for Smithsonian Folkways and for Moses Asch’s original Folkways label. She has enjoyed a long and prolific career distinguished by a genuine love and appreciation for the minds and hearts of children. Three generations of fans are still singing along with “Miss Ella,” while the next generation of children can learn the ground-breaking songs of Ella Jenkins on Smithsonian Folkways. The accolades Jenkins has received include, but are not limited to, a Pioneer in Early Television citation, the Parent’s Choice Award, a KOHL Education Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, Best Variety Performer Award from American Academy of Children’s Entertainment, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. She has also served as a U.S. delegate to numerous countries with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Generations of children have a deeper understanding of the world through Ella Jenkins participatory music.