March is Women’s History month, and we here at the CMN blog are writing a series of three Throwback Thursday posts on influential women in music history. It doesn’t get more influential than our first subject, the incomparable Ella Jenkins.
The “First Lady of Children’s Music” was born on Aug 6, 1924 in St. Louis, Missouri. She grew up on the south side of Chicago, and while she had no formal musical training as a child, she was surrounded by music. Her Uncle Flood in particular was a strong musical influence and taught her harmonica from a young age. I was lucky enough to see her play at Kindiefest and at 90 years old, she still plays a mean blues harmonica.
In 1951, she earned a Bachelor’s of Arts in Sociology from San Francisco State University, and returned to Chicago where she began to create songs for children while volunteering at a recreation center and during subsequent education-oriented jobs. She released her first album in 1957 and has since released 39 more.
Ella has a special ability to connect with and understand children the world over. In an interview in 2011, she said:
“I think a lot of children like to sing, many children, even a lot of adults. Sometimes I see children skipping on a sidewalk, and skipping is a happy rhythm. You don’t see children frowning when they’re skipping. . . . I don’t just sing to children, to have them sit there and listen. I try to get them to sing with me, or clap or make rhythms. It’s back and forth, like a conversation.”
In the same interview, to aspiring children’s musicians, she said:
“When someone talks about how they want to go into children’s music and they think, “Well, children are easy, because whatever you give them, they’ll accept,” I say, “Listen, children have their own ways. They pick and choose.”
When I’m on the stage, I try to think of what I’m going to do to please the young people who have come. You don’t take them for granted, because they are an audience. I want to be a performer who makes friends with children right away.”
To read that entire, lovely interview, click here.
A perfect example of this attitude is found in her song, You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song. Originally released in 1966, it is still the best selling album from the Smithsonian Folkways record label of all time.
I’ve been singing this song nearly every day since I first heard it, and I expect generations of children and their grown ups will be singing it for years to come. It perfectly encompasses the simple joy of sharing a moment, whether it be musical, playful, or conversational, with a friend.