The high point in my list of the best kids music of 2011 is this, my list of my favorite kids music albums of the year. By "year," again, I mean albums with Nov. 1, 2010 through Oct. 31, 2011 release dates available to the general public. That means albums like Laura Veirs' Tumble Bee, with a Nov. 8, 2011 release date, have to wait another 12 months before appearing in this list. (I would be shocked -- albeit incredibly delighted -- if there were 25 albums better than that particular one in the next year.) I do use the word "favorite" advisedly. I receive something approaching 300 family music albums every year. I review maybe 20% of those. Last year I picked out 20 albums, and cutting off this list this year at 20 just seemed cruel. But, as it turns out, increasing the number on the list to 25 didn't make things any easier. Albums from folks like Laura Doherty, Chip Taylor, Todd McHatton, and ScribbleMonster -- albums I genuinely liked -- didn't make the list. That's what happens when albums in the top 10% of everything I heard this year can't fit into the number of slots available; I had probably about 40 albums I was seriously considering for this list. So the difference between what goes in this list and what stays off is as much about personal preferences as it is about "objective" quality. (That's why I came up with the idea for Fids and Kamily, thinking that the personal preferences of many folks would be a much better approximation of "best.") In any case, here are those 25 albums, ranked from most favorite to a little less most favorite, that I (and we) most appreciated this year. (As always, the top 10 reflects my Fids and Kamily ballot.) 1. Caspar Babypants Sing Along! [Review] "I really, really like Sing Along! -- the Caspar Babypants disks have been favorites at our house for a long time, and I see no reason why this new album won't join its predecessors in heavy rotation. If he can keep it up, Chris Ballew might just create a body of work for preschoolers to rival Raffi's."
It's not easy to review Ella Jenkins albums for a couple reasons. First, she is a legend. I know that people throw around the word "legend" too easily, but if you don't use that word for Jenkins, then you may as well not use the word at all, at least in the kids music genre. And it's hard to review a legend because their outsized reputation, no matter how well deserved (and it totally is in Jenkins' case), provides an odd context. The second - and trickier - reason is that her albums are not designed for listening idly to while zipping off to T-ball practice. Her albums generally feature Jenkins along with a group of kids -- Jenkins singing to the kids, the kids singing to Jenkins. It's like dropping in on a kindergarten music class with the recorder running. These sorts of albums are not the kinds of albums that a lot of casual listeners necessarily respond to. Jenkins' just-released album A Life of Song is her first album of new material in eight years. Over the course of almost 45 years and nearly 30 albums, Jenkins has been a mainstay of Folkways/Smithsonian Folkways recordings, and the new album is, in some ways, a retrospective of her career. Not in the sense of a greatest hits collection, because all the tracks here are new, recorded with elementary students enrolled in an after-school program. The album starts off with "Pick a Bale of Cotton," first popularized by another Folkways artist, Leadbelly. Ella tells a story in her gentle voice, and the kids trade off verses. You can hear Jenkins say, near the end, conducting the group, "A little softer," getting the kids' chorus to sing quieter as the song ends. Jenkins is a master of leading the kids, showing how sometimes it's better to talk quietly than loudly if you want to get kids' attention. And the kids enthusiastically respond in their call-and-response (they're kinda adorable singing out the names of various people in "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands"). Your family will enjoy the album more if you sing along, or even more so if you take the songs here and lead your own song circle. Jenkins moves on from playground songs to spirituals to songs made popular in the civil rights era, even onward through the blues and Gershwin. It's a nifty, albeit brief, survey of songs important to African American (and frankly, American, no qualifier needed) culture. This is to be expected since the album is part of the African American Legacy Recordings series, co-produced with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. (This focus means that another important part of Jenkins' oeuvre -- bringing songs of diverse global cultures back to the States -- plays no part in this recording.) As the album progresses, the children's chorus makes fewer appearances, which gives Jenkins more of a chance to shine. Jenkins' voice is soft but effectively displayed on tracks like "I Want to Be Ready" and "Somebody's Talking about Freedom." And tracks like "Summertime" and "The Cuckoo," where she lends a little more expressiveness to her voice, are simply wonderful. Praise must also go to her fellow musician Rita Ruby, who accompanies Jenkins on guitar on many tracks and has a lovely voice of her own (she even gets an a capella turn on "Amazing Grace"). The 36-minute album will be most appreciated by kids aged 3 through 8. You can listen to samples from all the tracks this video if you want to understand how much other musicians and educators revere her.) On A Life of Song, Ella Jenkins shows that, even at 86, she can capture audiences spanning generations. This is an album hat encourages you to turn off the CD player and sing with others. Luckily, it's good enough to listen to that doing so might prove difficult. Essentially mandated for early childhood music specialists and definitely recommended for everyone else.
It's a little hard to get a handle on exactly how many albums Ella Jenkins has released for the Smithsonian Folkways label. I've seen 28 mentioned; her Wikipedia discography suggests 30, if you include 2004's cELLAbration!. Really, the last proper Ella Jenkins album -- Sharing Cultures with Ella Jenkins was released in 2003, and I think we can agree than 7 years is too long to hear from her. But we don't have much longer to wait, as Smithsonian Folkways confirms it is indeed releasing a new Ella Jenkins album of, yes, newly recorded material. It's recorded, but the other stuff (art design, etc.) is yet to be finished. And so it'll probably take a little while longer, but between this and that new Pete Seeger album, 2010 is looking to be a very good year for the oldest of old school artists. Count me in that camp. (Photo courtesy Adventures in Rhythm)
I've been on a bit of a Smithsonian Folkways kick this week, working through some of their older stuff. In part that's because I know the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival is being held this week. I went to the Festival one summer about 15 years ago, and I thought it was one of the cooler events I had the chance to attend in DC. They always pick 2 or 3 folk traditions to focus on and one of the foci of the 2009 edition is called "Giving Voice: The Power of Words in African American Culture." As part of a family concert today, Ella Jenkins and Christylez Bacon performed and there's video. Non-embeddable video, but oh well... Go here to see video (right now it's at the top but I'm sure you'll have to scroll down as the Festival goes on). There's nothing particularly amazing about Jenkins' video except the fact that every single person is participating. Seriously, I've been to enough kids' shows to see how a lot of adults don't typically do all the interacting their kids do -- not here, which I think says volumes about Jenkins' command of an audience. (Look at all those adults up in front with her.) And Christylez does some pretty cool beatboxing mixed with go-go in his video. You can also watch Jenkins perform with Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer (and, I think Bacon) perform live in concert on Saturday starting at 5:30 East Coast time. Watch the webcast here.
We know Ella Jenkins is a living legend, and now comes one more proof of that -- her 1966 recording of "You Sing a Song, I'll Sing a Song" is now immortalized in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry, a list of "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" recordings preserved for all time. Other kids' artists are in there, though not for kid-specific songs -- Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene," Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," and Pete Seeger's "We Shall Overcome" all made the list in past years, and Elizabeth Cotten's 1959 recording of "Freight Train" was included this year along with Jenkins. On the list you'll also find some recordings that, if you're like me, you've probably never heard of, like "Tubby the Tuba" by Paul Tripp and George Kleinsinger, an incredibly popular kids music recording from 1946. But you're more likely to have heard the three most recent recordings on the list -- Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, and Nirvana's Nevermind. That's fine company indeed.
Ella Jenkins is a legend. There are rising stars, stars, and superstars in the kids' music world, but Ella Jenkins is a flat-out legend, even though she might demur at the use of such a word. Three weeks ago, just after her birthday, I talked with her about her start in the field of kids' music, her approach, and her long career recording for Folkways Recordings (now Smithsonian Folkways). Read on for her thoughts on all those things, plus find out one of her nicknames, how she chose the ukelele as an instrument, and be amazed by exactly how many languages she can use in one conversation. ********* Zooglobble: The first thing I wanted to say is Happy Belated Birthday. Ella Jenkins: Oh, thank you! I feel honored. I never tire of people saying it. So you had a concert on Monday? Yes. One of the branch libraries were celebrating their tenth anniversary. The person who had introduced me to that library, his name is Scott Draw. I had worked with him at another library, and he knew my birthday was on August 6th and he said, "That's when we're having our anniversary party, it would be nice if we could coordinate it. The Friends of the Library said they'd be happy to engage you if you could do a mini-concert." And everybody sang Happy Birthday to you, I hope? Oh, yes, they did that. We were trying to save it for the end, but somebody jumped the gun, I think [Laughs]. This is the fiftieth anniversary of your first album's release on Smithsonian Folkways [in 1957]... I went to New York City in 1956 and met Moses Asch, who had faith in me and felt there was a possibility [of releasing an album]. He said, send me some material. I had actually brought him a demo disk with about four different songs. He said, you can probably do a recording, but you need to expand a bit, add a little instrumentation, and maybe we can do an album with you. But in the meantime, let's sign a contract, which let me know he was really serious. That was in 1956, but in 1957 is when he released the album. It was a 10-inch [LP] and it was called Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing. That was my focus on how I would teach music, the call and response approach. How did you settle on call and response as the primary way you wanted to teach music and lead and sing music?