Ella's Kids (Reviews of Ella Jenkins, Jazzy Ash, and Shine and the Moonbeams)

I've been thinking some about white guys with guitars.

I've got nothing against white guys with guitars -- I'm a white guy with a guitar (OK, ukulele), and as I think about my own favorite music, much of it is made by, you guessed it, white guys with guitars.  But there are a lot of white guys with guitars making music for kids.

I don't want to speculate on exactly why this is, but it can't be to the advantage of kids music that the lists of artists making kids music on a national level looks -- and, in terms of the musical styles of those artists, sounds -- way less diverse than, say, the Billboard charts, which might feature Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, or Rihanna (not to mention Pitbull or Drake or whomever) near the top.  I'm fully in favor of exposing kids to a wide variety of musical artists and musical genres, and right now that's not as easy as a parent might hope.

It's a little strange, especially because the very first kids music star was (and is) an African-American woman: Ella Jenkins.  In 1957, she released Call-and-Response Rhythmic Group Singing on Folkways Records, and over the next 60 years, she's released more than 30 albums on Folkways, then Smithsonian Folkways.  (Her 1966 album You Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song is Smithsonian Folkways' best-selling album of all time, from any genre.)  And while Jenkins is not one to toot her own horn or make a big deal out of her politics (this is an hour-long interview from a decade ago where she does neither), but it's not hard to review Jenkins' discography and think that she, too, would want to see many different types of kids' musicians making themselves visible.

Jenkins recently released Camp Songs, her first album of new music in six years, and with the recent release of albums from a couple younger artists who've taken inspiration from Ella in different ways, I thought it was a good time to take a look at all three of these albums, all of them definitely recommended.

Camp Songs album cover

Camp Songs album cover

Camp Songs is labeled as being by Ella Jenkins and Friends, and that "and Friends" appendage is definitely important.  It's probably too much to expect an artist who just turned 93 years old to be up for leading a bunch of kids in song with nothing but a guitar and her voice.  Indeed, as Tony Seeger noted in an interview, "her voice was not as strong as she had hoped when the time came to record."  But she was definitely the animating spirit behind the album.  And in some ways, Jenkins receding somewhat to the background allows for a fuller musical experience.  It's not just Jenkins and a guitar, there are many more jumping in to share their voices.

As you'd suspect by the title, there are many camp favorites on the album -- "Kumbaya, "Down by the Riverside," "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," to name but three. It's led in many places by Tony and Kate Seeger, brother and sister, who have lots of experience leading a group of singing kids (read more about that here).  There are also musicians from Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music (including Erin Flynn!) who lead some other songs and a children's chorus.  Ella sings a bit, plays harmonica on a few songs, and generally blesses the entire affair. If Ella isn't exactly front-and-center, I have no doubt that she's very pleased with the playful and communitarian nature of the end result.

Before heading into the next couple reviews, a brief shout-out to Robbi Kumalo, who performs music for kids as Robbi K, and is, as best I can recall, the only African-American woman aside from Ella with any national visibility whose main role was making music for kids in the 2000s (and before).  If you like the sounds of Ella and the next two artists and want more in that vein, I'd recommend check Robbi out.

Ashli Christoval has taken the sounds of New Orleans heritage via her mother and crafted a career making music for kids as Jazzy Ash.  She has spoken about her debt to Ella Jenkins -- seeing Jenkins make an appearance on Mister Rogers:

That moment was very monumental for me. I knew that I wanted to be part of the artist community that used art to preserve the wonderful the stories of culture.
Swing Set album cover

Swing Set album cover

On Swing Set, her fourth album, she comes the closest yet to seamlessly blending the African-American musical heritage, particularly jazz, with the singing together and movement work that Jenkins pioneered on record.  It kicks off with a swinging (pun unintended) version of "Li'l Liza Jane," which features an ebullient group call-and-response.  (Much more Preservation Hall Jazz Band than Elizabeth Mitchell -- to say that I like it as much as Mitchell's version is high praise from me.)

The word I kept writing down as I took notes on the album was "joyful."  This is, friends, the most joyful album of the year.  From Uncle Devin's hand-clapping on "Hambone" to Jazzy's insertion of "Fried! Froglegs!" as something Grandma's going to enjoy in "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain" to her giving her band a kick in the pants in the slow intro to "When the Saints Go Marching In" ("Too slow, let's put a little swing into it!") -- there's so much happiness here.  It very much honors the stories of Christoval's culture, and in songs like "Miss Mary Mack" and the brief call-and-response interludes with a children's chorus, it honors Jenkins' legacy.  It's also a blast -- it's every bit as fun as that cover art above suggests.

Shooting Stars album cover

Shooting Stars album cover

Another artist who is walking in Ella's path, but a less-appreciated one, is Shawana Kemp.  Kemp is best-known in the kids music world as Shine in Shine and the Moonbeams.  On their 2013 self-titled debut album, Kemp's voice was the star, a voice that could literally stun listeners.

Kemp is back after far too long of an absence with Shooting Stars, an album released this spring that I'm hoping gets a little more notice.

The music of Shine and the Moonbeams has always been fairly complex -- jazz, R&B, and a fair share of funk.  It's not an approach Jenkins has ever been much interested in.  The reason I say that Kemp is also in walking in Ella's path is that the music of Shine and the Moonbeams is emphatically child-centered emotionally.  It's amazing to watch Jenkins with kids, because even though she's not a parent, Jenkins is so present.  It's clear that the kids are her most important audience, and she doesn't care about getting cool points from the adults in the audience.  (She just wants them singing along.)  And while performance-wise Kemp knows how to leave an impression on the entire room, when it comes to songwriting, the kids most definitely come first.  "Shooting Star," which leads off the album, is a glorious song about everyone having their own talent.  "Peekaboo Baby" is blues for the very youngest kid, and "Tough Love" is a funk rocker that explains exactly why the parent is not going to go easy on her kid.

Those songs are mixed into a set that also features some reggae ("Ace Boon Coon"), late '70s (?) funk ("Tell Me Why"), and the empathetic vocal soul of "Any Body Other Than Me."  And to have songs like "Soul Food Holiday" and "These Shoes" (a straight-forward jazz song whose lyrics encourage self-acceptance, especially of body image) that speak most directly to an African-American audience on a mainstream kids music release is awesome to hear.

I know I've combined these three albums into a single review for convenience and to make some overarching points, but I'd hate to see these albums get pigeonholed for a certain audience.  I'd much rather that these albums be the inspiration for future albums, for Ashli's and Shawana's kids... and Ella's grandkids.