Review: A Life of Song - Ella Jenkins

LifeOfSong.jpgIt'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.

New Album from Ella Jenkins On Its Way

EllaWithUke.jpgIt'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)

Video: "Freight Train" - Elizabeth Cotten

Imagine, if you will, Mick Jagger performing "Satisfaction" at John Lennon's house, where John and Yoko record him for posterity. This is the kids' music equivalent. Elizabeth Cotten performing "Freight Train" at Pete and Toshi Seeger's house, as recorded by the Seegers. The sound quality isn't the best, and I've noted this clip before, but now it's been posted to YouTube. Given how little video we have of the early days of recorded family music, this is quite valuable. (Not to mention a great song.) Elizabeth Cotten - "Freight Train" [YouTube]

Stream Sarah Lee Guthrie / Johnny Irion's "Go Waggaloo" For Free

GoWaggaloo_sm.jpgYou know the deal. I really like Go Waggaloo, the first kids' music album from Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, but, then again, I'm biased. Anyway, the Smithsonian Folkways album is officially released next week, but for the next two weeks (through Nov. 3rd) you can stream the album in its entirety here. Just click on the pop-up player. But hurry, it'll be gone on Nov. 3rd. (Also, for you Facebook folks, comment here and get a free song download code from Folkways.)

In Memoriam: Sam Hinton

When I first heard of the death of singer/folklorist/cartoonist/marine biologist Sam Hinton today, the first person I thought of was NPR's Melissa Block, who in one of my chats with her showed her enthusiasm for an album from her own childhood, Whoever Shall Have Good Peanuts. The album was re-released in 2006 on Smithsonian Folkways (review) and was a fine example just how far a good voice, a guitar, and a sense of humor could get you. In Hinton's case, really far. I shouldn't have been surprised, then, when later today I heard Block chat on the air with Leanne Hinton, one of Sam Hinton's daughters, on Hinton's passing at age 92 last Thursday. By any measure, Sam Hinton led a full and wonderful life, managing to raise a family, give concerts, and help run the Scripps Oceanographic Institute. But of course, as is so often (sadly) the case, it takes someone's passing to truly appreciate a life, and that's the case here...

So, the New Sarah Lee Guthrie / Johnny Irion Kids' CD Is Pretty Good...

GoWaggaloo_sm.jpgAside from a few scattered mentions, there's been relatively little news regarding Go Waggaloo!, the upcoming kids' album from Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion. Well, now that the album's got an official cover (there to the left in near thumbnail sizing), a press release, and a release date (October 27), you're probably going to hear quite a bit more about it. Still not impressed (many albums, after all, are released with, you know, an album cover, press release, and on an official date)? Well, it's being released on Smithsonian Folkways (perhaps you've heard her labelmates such as Ella Jenkins, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, or Elizabeth Mitchell?). Oh, did I mention Sarah Lee Guthrie is Woody Guthrie's granddaughter, and she records new music for three of her grandfather's lyrics, a la Mermaid Avenue. Did I mention that Pete Seeger plays on the album? Well, there's another reason I'm particularly excited...