2014 is shaping up to be a big year for Ella Jenkins. It marks the release of 123s and ABCs, her 34th album for Smithsonian Folkways since her first release on the label 56 years ago. She is also turning 90 this August. Exploring Americana and World Music long before either was a "thing," Ella Jenkins has provided incredible joy and guidance for generations of parents, educators, and children in their early explorations of music.
Ms. Jenkins' accolades include a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award, the ASCAP Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award, and a United States Artists Award, but more than anything, her accomplishments can be measured by her enduring influence on children's music and the way that we engage young kids in rhythm and movement.
Raised on Chicago's South Side, Ella soaked up the gospel from neighborhood churches along with the blues played by her Uncle Flood. After earning her degree in sociology at San Francisco State College, she returned to Chicago where she took a job coordinating kids' programming at the YMCA. She incorporated music into her work at the Y, which led to an invitation to perform on a Chicago children's television program. That appearance led to an introduction to Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways Records. Ella Jenkins recorded a demo, got a contract, and released her first album, Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing in 1957.
You may not know her recordings, but if you remember playing rhythms on sticks or engaging in call and response games in music class then you have been touched by Ella Jenkins' influence on American music educators. Over the years she has appeared on Sesame Street, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and Barney. Many of us lucky enough to spend our childhood years in Chicago have fond memories of her performances; my first concert was Ella Jenkins in 1977.
With her new release, 123s and ABCs, Ella Jenkins leads children through classic rhymes including "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" and "This Old Man," as well as counting in English, Spanish, Yiddish, and Swahili. The recording is classic Ella Jenkins, straightforward and inviting, with simple instruments and a chorus of kids singing along. As it entertains children it serves as a great guide for caregivers on engaging children with music, numbers, and letters.
(Image credits: Bernadelle Richter//Smithsonian Folkways; Smithsonian Folkways)