Interview: Ella Jenkins


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?

When I used to go to camp, listen to music, or go to vaudeville, I used to hear people like Cab Calloway and Danny Kaye. Many times, the way they used to have the audience join in was like that.

Before then, I used to listen to some early Folkways records. It was back when they had listening booths, where you bought the record and listened to it there, and I would go around the world in that booth. I would listen to a lot of songs from India and Africa, and lot of that was call and response.

And then I was thinking of the music here in my own community -- I grew up on the South Side of Chicago -- and the black churches. Whether you went into them or not, the churches would have speakers out there focused into the street, and there was always this communication between the choral leader or the pastor chanting out and the congregation with a response. When you listen to gospel or spiritual music, you get a lot of that.

So when I went to camp -- I was a camp counselor -- that's how I used to lead songs with the children. And if they wanted to learn real fast, whatever they heard, they would repeat. And if they really learned, they could lead it themselves, or get a different response.

I particularly liked the way Cab Calloway did it with his "Hei-di-ho," so I wrote a song so children of today would know who he is and was, and it went, "I know a man, and the man that I know / They call him the king of the hei-di-ho" and then the children sing "hei-di-hei-di-ho." It's very freestyle, which means you can change it all the time.

One of the things I noticed in listening to a number of your CDs is that you have recorded with a number of different children's groups. You haven't picked a certain preschool and just recorded with them. I'm wondering how you go about picking which school or preschool you're interested in making a recording with.

First of all, I'm always interested in when there is a wide variety of backgrounds and children have many different kinds of experiences. They don't have to be rich children or poor children. I might go somewhere and hear a group of children singing. I'll say, "Oh, I'd like to visit your school." There's a language academy in the community I live in, and the children, from the age of 5, they select a language they use for about seven years. So I thought these children would work because I try to employ a lot of different cultures.

I don't like to have too many polished groups. I like a group that's just in training, or just sing naturally, that's my best bet. So I just choose children that are pretty ordinary.

That comes out in the CDs. The kids are having fun...

They don't have to feel threatened, they don't have to feel like they have to compete. They don't have to feel like they have the best voice ever.

They're having fun. You're having fun singing to them and with them...

At the same time, they're learning a lot. They're learning cooperative skills. Working together. Learning about other children's backgrounds and sharing their own backgrounds. Some children don't have the same sense of rhythm, but they can express themselves. Nobody's going to get punished. If you have one beat that's not what everybody else is doing, maybe we can follow what this child is doing. So when we finish, it's something we've all collaborated on.

You'd mentioned the La Salle Academy, who sang with you on Sharing Cultures with Ella Jenkins... how did you come up with what songs you wanted to record?

I had certain ones, but the children had the opportunity to introduce songs, like the calypso song. Sharing Cultures... if you look at many of my albums over the year, almost all of them have some way of sharing cultures.

Yeah, you could probably subtitle all of your albums Sharing Cultures with Ella Jenkins...

I always try, because I'm always writing new material, and if you add new voices, you're going to get new approaches. There was one child who was studying the piano with Erwin Helfer, a blues piano who teaches kids and adults... [Helfer played on the CD.] We were exploring a lot.

The studio is my least favorite place to record, but that's about the only place you can do it. Sometimes you'll feel freer if you're in a classroom or outside or in a church. I don't enjoy going over and over it again, so sometimes there'll be a few mistakes here and there. It's kinda loose.

To shift topics a little bit, I recently bought a ukelele...

What kind? A baritone?

A soprano. Easier for the kids to use.

In Hawaii, a lot of people use them.

Now the big one you use, is that a baritone?

Yes. It's tuned like the first four strings of the guitar.

And how did you settle on the ukelele?

Well, I used to sing a cappella, and then I started beating on a tambourine, and from there a Chinese drum, and then a conga drum. I would always accompany myself on percussion. Then a friend of mine said, "Ella, you know, you would probably write more melodious songs and sing more melodious songs if you had a stringed instrument, like a guitar." I said, I don't have the time to learn the guitar. Well, this man played string bass, upright bass, guitar, banjo. He said, "I also have a baritone ukelele. It only has four strings. If you can just get the chord relationships, it'll be easy. Start out with the major chords." So I decided to see what I could do. When I finally began to understand the chord relationships, I was very excited. I was able to do more melodious songs. All of a sudden, I tapped on the minor chord. I loved the minor chords -- they used to call me "A-Minor Ella."

All I do is just strum. I just use this to enable me to get my song across. Sometimes there's one chord, sometimes two, sometimes three, I think "I'll Sing a Song, You'll Sing a Song" might have four or five. So many people have difficulties sometimes and ask me, "What chord were you using?" at a concert. One day maybe I'll do an album actually singing chords.

I've got some musical background, but the ukelele is pretty easy to learn...

Yeah, of course, if you're going to be singing and playing, you've got to coordinate that. If you just want to play the ukelele and that's it, that's fine. But if you want to sing... that's another thing.

I've been to Hawaii conducting workshops and I'll say, "Would anyone like to share any ideas?" And they'll play the soprano and be very, very good. In fact Arthur Godfrey was one of those. You're probably too young to remember him, but he played baritone and would play with symphony orchestras.

Getting back to the subject of sharing cultures... you did that from the get-go, on your first album. Did you view music as means to an end of sharing cultures, or was sharing cultures the hook you used to get kids interested in music, or was it just a lucky byproduct that here were two aspects of your life you were very interested in and they happened to dovetail nicely?

You know, when I grew up, I went to an all-black grade school and an all-black high school. Spanish was my first so-called "foreign" language beyond English. But I became interested when I met someone whose family was from Mexico and so I wanted to know more about not just the language but the people. And from there I wanted to know about the dances and hear more music.

When I got out of high school, I worked for a while and then when I went to junior college, that's when I really met students from different backgrounds. I joined a club called YOMP -- Youth on Minority Problems. So every time I would meet people from different background in schools... I met a lot of Jewish kids. When I would go to their house, they would have a different kind of food. Some of them weren't even speaking Hebrew, they were speaking Yiddish.

My background, we used to do a lot of chanting. You know, they have rap today. It was kind of like rap but there were a lot chants and songs that I could share with people at my school.

I then had to focus on what did I want to do with my life... When I was working part-time, I was working at the metallurgical laboratory at the University of Chicago. That's where I met a young woman named Ida Patinkin. She's related to the famous Patinkin family. I was delivering classified mail -- they were working on the bomb, I didn't know that -- all these famous names. Ida said, "You should be in college." I said, well, I can't afford it, I've got to help out at home, and she said that junior college is free, all you have to do is pay for your textbooks. So I said I'll talk to my mother. I talked to my mother and she said if you think you can work part-time and go to school, you can try it.

Going there was a shift, 'cause I knew I was no longer in high school. People spoke differently and I felt more grown up, so I became very, very keen on cultures of other people. So I thought I would like to be somewhere that I can really learn more. I had never traveled abroad -- I had never even flown.

I was always curious. I liked the Spanish, I liked the Puerto Rican culture, and then I was interested in Cuban [culture], so I thought Spanish was good. Then I wanted to find out more about Africa, that should be something related to my background, too. I thought, maybe one day I'll get a chance to go to a lot of these places. But now I've been to East Africa, just last February I went to Egypt...

When I was learning more, then I transferred it to children or if I had workshops for adults, I would share that with adults. Sometimes when I was conducting workshops (for adults who were either teachers in elementary schools or high school) with people taking their knowledge to their students, I thought just being able to know how to say "Hello" and "Goodbye" and "Thank you" in another language, that's an inroad into another language.

And another way that I helped children is by counting from 1 to 10 in a lot of different languages, showing the similarities and differences, like Spanish and Italian are very similar. Working and volunteering in agencies where there are a variety of backgrounds of children, this was one way I could present my culture but learn a great deal about them. So what I do is just gather a lot of this together, and this is how I write songs.

I've been to China a couple times, and when some of the little children came, they would clap their hands very quietly, so I came up with a song: "In the People's Republic of China / little children clap their hands / To welcome all the visitors / From many different lands." And in between you clap your hands. So when I travel, I carry my background growing up on the South Side of Chicago, and then I bring back, not only regular bags, but cultural baggage as well. More stories to share...

I travel around the world and take children along with me. Some of them are fortunate to have traveled before, others not. But you don't minimize it if a child has only been in their own neighborhood. There might be something distinctive of theirs -- the church the child goes to, some children go to private schools. I try to make use of wherever people are, whoever they are.

Sometimes I learn a lot about Africa by riding in taxi cabs. I think I put that on Sharing Cultures about getting in a taxi cab and the man said I'm from West Africa and specifies he's from Nigeria. So I said do you speak Howsa? "No." Yorubalena? "No." What do you speak? "I speak Ebo." That gave me another language, so I said, "How do you say 'How are you?' in Ebo?" And he said, "Que doo." It's very much like Chinese, they go up the scale and say "Chow ma?" But then I found somebody else who spoke Ebo and when I said "Que doo," he said "Azuma," and that was the answer, fine. I try to get pronunciations with sound and then I write out phonetics for the children.

Children love to explore, they like adventure, that's why I choose songs that have a different way of living, so that children can go along with me. Like going on safari, people say go slowly, "Pole Pole" -- they like saying that. Even 3- and 4-year-olds now are great imitators. You imitiate for so long and then you start creating, and that's what I try to stimulate.

You mentioned the dialogue with the cab driver -- how many languages do you know in which you know a couple phrases?

I think on this album (Sharing Cultures), I thanked all the people who were responsible for the album -- the children, the engineers, photographers -- I think I chose about 30 languages and then gave them a bonus language, [I said] "Anksthay." You know what that is?


It's Pig Latin. [Laughs] Just being able to say "thank you"... in Japanese, "Arigatoo gozaiimas" is a big thing.

Or around here where I live there's a senior center where many Russian people live. I say "Good morning," "good afternoon," and "good evening." And if you say the wrong thing, they'll tell you... When I toured India, our guide was Hindu and also a vegetarian, so I ate what he ate and every day he'd say "Namaste" to us and clap his hands together. When you do this often enough, it becomes very, very natural...

I was doing a program on Monday and... we'd let the children come up and count from 1 to 10 in whatever language they wanted to. We'd let the child be the leader and do call and response. When they were done, I'd say thank you in their language. This little boy came up, he didn't speak Hindi, he spoke Urdu. When he was done, I said "shukriya," which is very similar to Arabic, which is "shukra." They were very happy and the mother was happy they could share. Other children are glad that they can count in another language, which is very important because even if they haven't traveled there, they can count.

Oh, yeah. My daughter is very excited that she can count to ten in Spanish.

How old is she?

I have a six-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son.

Oh, that's very nice. Those are my kind of people.

Every now and then she'll be somewhere and say "I can count to ten in Spanish," and then count to ten in Spanish.

And they're proud of it. Children like to explore numbers and colors. They like adventure... I'm doing a program in Yakima, Washington in October. I'll do a keynote presentation and then two other little workshops. One is exploring number concepts and the other is call and response. I try to do a lot of these call and responses as questions and answers so that you remember what the answer is -- "What's the matter with the team? The team's all right. What's the matter with the team? The team's all right. Who said so? Everybody. Who said so? Everybody. Who's everybody? Children. Who's everybody? Children. Yay, team." You go through it two or three times. And then pretty soon, when you say, "What's the matter with the team?," they'll all say, "The team's all right." I tell them that when I was in high school I used to go to football games and basketball games and all the track meets, and they'd always have cheerleaders. I'd give them the cheerleading chants.

I'm sure the kids learn it more than if you're saying a word and they're merely repeating it. It keeps it fresher for the kids and for you because don't have to say the same thing every time and they're not saying the same thing every time. You're doing it in such a way that they're picking up the pattern.

Children nowadays are pretty sophisticated. They've heard about people in space, they know about people going to the moon -- I can never get used to that because the moon seems like it should be so mysterious and now it's hard to believe somebody can actually walk around on that moon up there.

Do you think kids sing more or less than they used to? It seems to me perhaps that there are fewer opportunities for structured singing --

Children go to day care, children's camp in the summertime... if you have some family where's there music in the house, you'll find singing. Some people [think] if you cut out music in the schools, you'll have less. But children like popular music today, and you'll find children singing with the current rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues...

But it sounds like you don't think kids are singing less than they used to...

No... before the program started on Monday, I had my harmonica and while these children were sitting on the floor, I went along and was playing. I said, when you guess one, I'll move on to the next song. I started playing "London Bridge," and they were eager to see if they could recognize the songs, so they immediately started listening to the harmonica. I played "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," "Mary Had A Little Lamb," all of them, and when I was done, I said "Test is done" and they said, "OK, give us something more difficult." If I sing this [doo-doo-doos "This Old Man"], most of the children, whatever age, they know that's "This Old Man."

Are there musical ideas you pick from other musicians or other music you hear, or is it mostly folk-based...

I like to go and hear other people entertain. I enjoy what they do and how they do it. I'm not a copier. It's like when rock-and-roll became popular, and people said let's record some rock-and-roll for children... I like what other people do. I love to go and hear all kinds of material -- jazz, rock-and-roll, those I care for more, I will attend more. I appreciate what the people are creating are doing. I like to hear real cabaret people, real sophisticated. As for incorporating, I like Latin music and I try to, not imitate, but capture some of the spirit of the Afro-Cuban music, but copying, no...

A lot of people use my approach because they're doing a lot of teaching, but I tell them you don't have to copy, because when you share your songs, the children are going to relate to you and your personality.

I remember reading one of your past interviews where you said Moses Asch never came to you and said, well, can you record a kids' rock-and-roll record... I can't picture what an Ella Jenkins rock-and-roll record would sound like. Your records are very much you -- just talking for three-quarters of an hour, you're no different in person, so to speak, than you are on your records.

There's a lot of good talent around, and if you have something to offer and share, then share it the best way you can... But I don't like people playing too loudly for children or sing songs that are in bad taste. That's why it's very important when you're sharing a program -- I don't politick on stage. I have my own feelings about things, but I try to encourage children to have respect for themselves, respect for others and to understand there are other people besides themselves... [I say] I'm not the only one who makes up this show, all of us -- audience, light, sound -- are a part.

One last question. I'm wondering if you are working in any way on a new CD or DVD.

Every day I'm writing something. Sometimes I have random thoughts and I think I would really like to put those down I might either speak them myself or have a variety of voices... but there are some things I've needed to say and have wanted to say for awhile.

One of the focuses I've had lately is people overusing their cell phones when they're pushing those little strollers down the street. A song from the child's vantage point: "I'm sitting in my stroller / And I feel so all alone / 'Cause Mom used to talk to me / And now all she does is talk to the cell phone."

Ella, you've been more than generous with your time with me and I wanted to say thank you very much. It's been a privilege talking with you.

As they say in Spanish, "Du el mente."

Gracias. Guten Tag, as they would say in German.

"Guten Tag!" Your German is good. Bye-bye.

Top photo by Jeff Tinsley, courtesy of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (Smithsonian Institution)