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.