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The Enchanting Ella Jenkins

By Beth Blenz-Clucas

Aptly crowned “the First Lady of Children’s Music,” Ella Jenkins has enchanted generations of children and adults with her signature call-and-response style of music making. Ella’s legendary magic has been known to get a room full of suited business people on their feet, shaking shakers and singing songs like “Miss Mary Mack” or “Did You Feed My Cow?”

As musician Michele Valeri notes, “Ella’s love for life is a rare and wonderful force. Her commitment to entertaining and educating children comes naturally.”

cELLAbration: A Tribute to Ella JenkinsElla recently celebrated her 80th birthday, and continues to make and record music, with dozens of her recordings available from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. She won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy, and a new recording, “cELLAbration: A Tribute to Ella Jenkins” won a 2005 Grammy award.

Given her stature in the music industry, one might be surprised to learn that Ella didn’t begin her career as a professional musician. “I love music and I like to make music. That’s the most important thing,” she says. Modesty aside, since she made her first recording for children on the Folkways label in 1956 (released in 1957) Ella has become a skilled baritone ukulele and harmonica player.

In her work, Ella draws on her experiences growing up on the south side of Chicago.
“I was raised with respect for my elders and teachers, which helped me throughout my life.” Her Uncle Flood played the harmonica and was her introduction to music. She remembers sitting on the floor and looking up at him as he’d play old blues records by T. Bone Walker and Memphis Slim on his jukebox. “Uncle Flood worked hard in the steel mill. Music was a nice contrast from all that hard work. That really impressed me,” Ella says.

Ella Jenkins QuoteGospel music and the sound of tambourines were often heard from the loudspeakers of churches across the street. Ella’s family relocated frequently. Rhythms, rhymes, and games were different in each new neighborhood. While volunteering at a Chicago recreation center Ella began to create songs for children. Through her work, she gained an understanding of children of various backgrounds, and today, at age 80, continues to learn a great deal from children.

“Music can’t be forced on children. The important thing is to expose them to all kinds of music, and see what they are drawn to. Even if parents aren’t musically accomplished, they can introduce their children to a variety of recorded music – classical, light opera, rhythm and blues, folk and children’s music. Parents do have to be selective, but they have a lot of choice,” Ella advises. “Parents’ Choice”, she adds with a wink.

Ella offers some tips for introducing music in a fun and natural way:

  • Go to the local public library’s children’s section and check out a few tapes and CDs. Listen to a few and see what your child likes.
  • Show your child various kinds of instruments at the local music store. Ella remembers taking children on regular field trips to Frank’s Drum Shop in Chicago, where they discovered a whole range of percussive instruments.
  • Explore the tones that your own body can make – clap your hands, stamp your feet, slap your legs and snap your fingers along to your favorite tunes.
  • Sing a few simple songs together – hum and sing ones with solid rhythm and lyrics that are easy to remember. Ella’s “You Sing a Song, I’ll Sing a Song” is always a crowd pleaser. Recall and share your favorite songs from your own childhood. “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” are great places to start. Children’s songs that encourage children to respect themselves are also good choices. Don’t worry if you’re a little off key or if you forget all the words. Your child won’t mind.
  • Try a few hand percussive instruments such as hand drums, cow bells, maracas and rhythm sticks (or even dowels and pots and pans!) and explore natural rhythms.
  • Take your child to see a concert or two – see what kinds of music your child responds to (but avoid highly amplified concerts - be protective of your child’s eardrums!)
  • As a child gets a little older, it may be time to try other musical instruments, but don’t force anything on your child, and remember, music is not about competition or comparison with other children. It should be fun!

Ella’s Legacy for Children’s Music

Many of the artists who make music for children today see Ella Jenkins as their guiding light. Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, producers of “cELLAbration!,” say, “Ella is the master and our mentor. Every artist on the tribute album had a story to tell about how her music has influenced them. Her signature style of using a strong percussion rhythm call and response challenges kids to listen, repeat and put their attention where the sounds are. These skills serve children for a lifetime.”

Fred Koch, teacher and founder of (, has known Ella for 25 years. He says, “One of her many gifts is the ability to involve adults, usually parents at a concert, in music making. This is no small feat since most adults are reluctant to be musical. Ella gets them up on stage with their children and before they know it, they are singing and dancing and enjoying music the way it is meant to be – as a community building activity. Ella’s easygoing way and her program selection of childhood favorite songs are tools she incorporates to create the welcoming aura that surrounds her.”

Fred Koch QuoteTom Paxton agrees: “What I love about Ella is that even as she was receiving a Lifetime Achievement award at the Grammys she was teaching the audience a children's song, complete with gestures. She had all the industry heavies (including, so help me, Van Cliburn) milking the cow. Nobody but Ella!”

Ella’s joy in music and exuberant interest in the world is evident in her everyday life. As Cathy Fink recalls, “Several years ago, Ella and I were having lunch and discovered we shared a love of yodeling and songs of the early cowboy and cowgirl singers. We yodeled our way through the meal. A few folks are probably still wondering what was in the dessert!”

Fred Koch sums up Ella Jenkins’ legacy well: “Ella is an institution – a national treasure, and a true pioneer of this overly saturated genre of children’s music. If you analyze her success, it comes down to the simple belief and philosophy that has guided her all of her career - music is something to be shared – be it as intimate as a mother singing to a child or as big as an auditorium filled with parents and children singing together.”

For more information about Ella Jenkins, visit

Parents' Choice Award-Winning Ella Jenkins Recordings:

cELLAbration! A Tribute to Ella Jenkins
Ages: All Ages
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, $12.00

Ella Jenkins, who has been sharing her love of music-all kinds of music-with young children for decades, was honored for her efforts at this year's Grammy Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Award, the first children's music artist to be so honored. This delightful CD, produced by family music veterans Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, pays lively tribute to this still-active children's music pioneer in another way. It features a host of Jenkins' noted friends and admirers singing 18 songs closely associated with her, some she wrote, some from her vast collection of folk and world music.

Sharing Cultures with Ella JenkinsSharing Cultures with Ella Jenkins
Ages: 3 - 10 yrs.
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, $12.00

Ella Jenkins has been making music (and recordings) for longer than most of the parents of today's young children have been alive. If anyone deserves to be called a legend, it's Ella. The 28 selections on this album are a blend of traditional and original songs, instrumentals, and poems in a mixture of Spanish and English. The performances by children from the LaSalle Language Academy of Chicago who participate in many of the cuts add an unstudied charm that invites young listeners into the circle of songs.

Growing Up with Ella Jenkins
Ages: 5 & Up
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, $15.00

One of children's music's early pioneers, singer, songwriter and song collector Ella Jenkins invites participation with her simple tunes, rhythms, rhymes and play along lyrics that are as much comfortable conversation as they are songs, warmed with Jenkins' deep respect and affection for children.

Seasons for SingingSeasons for Singing
Ages: 6 - 11 yrs.
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, $14.00

Ella Jenkins, a seminal figure in children’s music, has been recording for children since the 1950’s, collecting songs from around the world to enrich singalong times and broaden horizons. Here, Jenkins is heard singing with young children in 1969, and the session’s simplicity—a few instruments, the unpretentious blend of voices, the flowing rhythms and lyrics—invites today’s listeners to join in, too. Highlights: "Blue Walking," about a dog trying to find his master.

About the Author
A mother of two boys, Beth is a Portland Oregon- based writer and children's media consultant.


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