The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Ella Jenkins, 90, still going strong after more than 5 decades of entertaining children

  • Print

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 this week as she celebrates a professional one — the release of her 40th album of singalong songs for her favoured 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's 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' 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 Albert School of Music, says teachers love Jenkins' 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 one of her early musical memories includes 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 neighbourhood 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 from San Francisco State College in 1951, Jenkins worked as a camp counsellor 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 television shows since, among them, "Sesame Street," ''Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," ''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's 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."



Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Inside peek at Real Pirates, new Manitoba Museum exhibit

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 101130-Winnipeg Free Press Columns of light reach skyward to the stars above Sanford Mb Tuesday night. The effect is produced by streetlights refracting through ice crystals suspended in the air on humid winter nights. Stand Up.....
  • MIKE APORIUS/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS STANDUP - pretty sunflower in field off HWY 206 near Bird's Hill Park Thursday August 09/2007

View More Gallery Photos


Who will you vote for in Wednesday's mayoral race?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google