CHICAGO — Ella Jenkins has been recording children’s songs for at least 58 years, and she’s been entertaining and educating kids even longer. Not that the woman dubbed the “first lady of children’s music” pays too much attention to dates anyway, even as she celebrates her 90th birthday.
“As long as I can function and contribute and still [be] in a situation where I’m eager to learn from others, I will do this,” she said. “I don’t count the years too much. If I have something to give and others have something to give me, we have a fair exchange.”
Jenkins reached her personal milestone last week as she celebrates a professional one — the release of her 40th album of singalong songs for her favored audience of preschool- and elementary-age children.
“More Multicultural Children’s Songs” (Smithsonian Folkways) is a compilation of works done in the spirit of the people she has met around the world, she says.
“I wanted songs for people who haven’t heard everything I’ve done,” she said. “They know what I’ve done over the years. I just said we are going to have more of those type songs. Something new and something old. People will be able to sing the songs from the beginning as well as learn new songs.”
Jenkins’s style, which has garnered numerous accolades over the years, including a 2004 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, has seldom strayed from her 1957 debut album, “Call-and-Response: Rhythmic Group Singing.” In that work, she channeled the calls of African American slaves. It encouraged audience participation and allowed her to build a relationship with her young listeners.
Her audience often sits close enough to touch her, watching, listening and responding to her multilingual, multicultural music that incorporates instruments that influenced her own childhood — the harmonica, ukulele, piano and percussion among them.
Anthony Seeger, an emeritus professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, says teachers love Jenkins’s music.
“It’s fun. It teaches rhythm. It teaches children how to collaborate, because they have to sing together. And it gives them something to do other than to sit quietly,” he said.
Born in St. Louis on Aug. 6, 1924, Jenkins was raised in Chicago, where some of her early musical memories include listening to an uncle play the harmonica and the sounds of spirituals and gospel music drifting in from a nearby church. Her family moved frequently, and she says each neighborhood offered different rhythms, rhymes and games, which she credits with enriching her music.
Before earning a sociology degree and training in child psychology and recreation at San Francisco State College in 1951, Jenkins worked as a camp counselor and as a program director for teens at a Chicago YMCA. She incorporated music in her jobs, which brought her to the attention of Chicago’s public television station, which invited her to host a children’s show.
Her work on television led to her introduction to a Folkways music director, who signed her to a recording contract in 1956, and the release of her first album the following year. She has been with the label her entire career. She has appeared on a variety of children’s television shows since, among them, “Sesame Street,” “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Barney and Friends.”
There have been several anthologies of her music, including the tribute album “cELLAbration,” featuring Tom Chapin, Tom Paxton and the pop-gospel group Sweet Honey in the Rock, which won a Grammy Award as best musical album for children in 2005.
“She is an amazing person,” Seeger said. “What stands out about her is that she gets people onstage with her. She gets the children to sing and gets the parents to participate. They often appear uncomfortable, but she treats them with respect and they all seem to enjoy it.”
Jenkins says she never expected to grow up and have children’s music be a great part of her life. However, she says that over the years it has been nice teaching songs, rhythms and rhymes to children.
“To serve children well, you have to like them and feel they have something to share,” said Jenkins. “You respect them. You respect their thoughts and aspirations, and their accomplishments.”