Ella Jenkins needs no introduction, and I have to believe the Venn diagram would show the overlap between "readers of this website" and "people who don't know Ella Jenkins" to be very slim indeed, but in case you reside in that area, Jenkins is a living legend in kids music, leading multiple generations in song, encouraging tolerance and togetherness will little more than her voice, a guitar or ukulele, and good humor.
She's been recording with Smithsonian Folkways for sixty years (not a typo), and earlier this summer she celebrated her 93rd birthday and released her latest album with them, Camp Songs with Ella Jenkins and Friends. It's a collection of songs that might sound familiar to anyone who's spent time at a sleepaway camp of any sort, or even just a day camp. She partnered with kids and musicians from Chicago's venerable Old Town School of Folk Music and with Tony Seeger and Kate Seeger.
The Seegers are siblings -- their parents ran Camp Killooleet in Vermont, and Kate runs it today along with her husband. (Here's an article about the camp.) Pete Seeger was their uncle, so they have some experience making music with living legends. And Tony Seeger is an Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Ethnomusicology at UCLA and the Director and Curator emeritus at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. All in all, a pretty good match for Ella.
I asked Ella a couple questions about the album, then reached out to Tony for more details.
When I asked Ella why it's important for kids to sing together, she responded with the importance of "sharing, leadership, [and] working together." She said these "are all tools for a happy life."
As for favorite memories of the recording session(s) for this album, she agreed that "it was a wonderful project." Ella noted that "many, many people helped create this recording [and] it was all memorable."
Tony went into more details about camp singing memories and recording the album -- and if you want more insights, I recommend reading the liner notes (available at the Folkways album page link above).
Zooglobble: What are your favorite memories of camp singing growing up?
Tony Seeger: For Kate and me our favorite memory is of our parents singing and leading songs at campfires and other camp events. They met as counselors at a summer camp and went on to run Camp Killooleet in Vermont for nearly 50 years. They loved to sing in harmony on such standards as “Summertime” and “Birth of the Blues.” My father taught his younger brother, Pete Seeger, to sing in harmony on long trips in the car. My father also led singalongs like “Jacob’s Ladder” with the campers. Kate and I learned to play instruments at Killooleet and began to accompany our parents when we were in our teens. We have been singing at Camp Killooleet, where Kate Seeger is now the co-director with her husband Dean Spencer, for most of our lives.
What do you appreciate about camp songs now as an adult?
Camp songs can create a community feeling in a group of insecure campers who may be homesick or don’t know each other very well. We find campers are always delighted to be asked to sing along rather than sitting still and listening. They are then equal participants and we are creating the performance together. Over 14 million children and adults attend summer camps each year, and the music they enjoy together often creates an enduring bond and stimulates fond memories of the time they spent together.
If you could only sing three camp songs to get a group singing together, what would they be?
For me, they would be a call-and-response song like “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” (which is on this CD), a gesture song like “The Court of King Caractacus” (which is on the CD), and a multipart song from Africa like “Bayeza” (not on this CD, though we tried it out).
What are your favorite memories of the recording session(s) for this album?
Ella has a delightful sense of humor which made the long hours in the studio much more fun. She regaled us with stories about singing at summer camps, only one story of which is on the CD (at the start of track 12, “Hill Was Steep and Tall”). She reminisced about learning camp songs from her brother and how to play the harmonica from her uncle. After the studio sessions with the children ended and they were getting ready to leave, Ella spent hours talking with them and their parents. Her enjoyment of the children, her unexpected skills on the harmonica, and her enthusiasm for the project are all warm memories. She asked me and Kate to accompany her on songs we didn’t know beforehand. Even when I didn’t sing “The Damper Song” very well, she rewarded me with a “That’s good!”—as she has done for generations of children and adults singing along with her.
How did you think about Ella’s role in the album?
Ella had proposed recording an album of camp songs years ago, but she and I were always too busy until the opportunity came to record one in a studio in Chicago with a group of musicians and children from the Old Town School of Folk Music. She sent Kate and me a list of songs for the album, and we proposed some rounds and songs for older campers, which she approved. She has been recording for Folkways for 60 years, so her voice was not as strong as she had hoped when the time came to record. So she sang on a few songs, played the harmonica on some, and led the children singing on a few more. Even though many musicians participated in the album, it was her spirit, her musicianship, her generosity, and her enthusiasm for having the children sing along that made this project what it is.We just helped her make it happen.
Why is it important for kids to sing together?
Not all camp music is singalongs. Children also like to listen to each other sing solo, and to adults, But singing together can transform a group of campers into a cohesive and active group. Focusing on something together and sharing the experience of learning something new together helps create a community feeling. Moving together is fun, too. Ella Jenkins has been encouraging children to sing and to move during her whole career, and that works well at summer camps too.
Photo credits: Bernadelle Richter (Ella), Lynn Orman (Tony), Tim Ferrin (group)