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Ella Jenkins (born August 6, 1924) is an American folk singer and actress.
Dubbed “The First Lady of the Children’s Folk Song” by the Wisconsin State Journal, she has been a leading performer of children's music for over fifty years.
Her album, Multicultural Children’s Songs (1995), has long been the most popular Smithsonian Folkways release.
She has appeared on numerous children's television programs and in 2004, she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Family and personal life
Jenkins was born in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in predominantly lower-middle-class neighborhoods in the south side of Chicago. Although she received no formal musical training, she benefited from her rich musical surroundings. Her uncle Floyd Johnson introduced her to the harmonica and the blues of such renowned musicians as T-Bone Walker, Memphis Slim and Big Bill Broonzy. Her family frequently moved around the south side and, as she moved to different neighborhoods, she learned new children's rhythms, rhymes and games. Gospel music became a part of her soundscape as neighborhood churches broadcast their services onto the street. She also enjoyed tap dancing lessons at the local theater and was able to go to the Regal Theater to see such performers as Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Peg Leg Bates. Cab Calloway is the person who she credits with getting her interested in call and response singing. While attending Woodrow Wilson Junior College, she became interested in the music of other cultures through her Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican friends. In 1951, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology with minors in Child Psychology and Recreation from San Francisco State University. Here, she picked up songs of the Jewish culture from her roommates. Upon graduating, she returned to Chicago where she began her career.
In Chicago, Jenkins began writing songs for children while volunteering in recreation centers. She subsequently was hired as a Teenage Program Director for the YWCA in 1952. While working at the YWCA, she was invited to perform on the Chicago public television show, The Totem Club. She was soon offered a regular job as the host of its Thursday program, which she entitled This is Rhythm. She invited guests from diverse cultures to share their music's rhythms on her show.
In 1956, Jenkins decided to become a full-time freelance musician, a vocation she has pursued for over 50 years. She began her career as a children's musician touring school assemblies in the United States, often sleeping in a different place each night and encountering racial discrimination. As she performed in more varied venues, she began to write music about her experiences. Later that year, a friend recommended that she bring a demo tape to Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways Records. Asch was receptive to her music and in 1957, her first album, Call-And-Response: Rhythmic Group Singing, was released by Folkways. Since then, Folkways Records and, more recently, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings have released 39 albums, including the popular You'll Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song. Her 1995 album Multicultural Children's Songs is the most popular Smithsonian Folkways release to date. She has not only been an important force in children's lives, but in the lives of parents and fellow music educators as well. She has participated in many conferences on music education, and has offered workshops for music educators, parents, and caregivers all over the world.
As a performer and educator, Jenkins has traveled extensively, performing her songs on all seven continents (even Antarctica). As she travels, she not only shares her music and experiences but also learns about the cultures of the people she is visiting, taking with her musical traditions and languages that she then shares with her audiences. She has also made television appearances on shows including NBC's Today Show, CNN's Showbiz Today, and PBS programs such as Barney & Friends, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, The Me Too Show, Look at Me, and in films shown on Sesame Street. She performed at America's Reunion on the Mall in 1993, America's Millennium Celebration in 2000, and at Smithsonian's 150th Birthday Party on the Mall in Washington, DC in 1996. In collaboration with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, she has acted as a U.S. delegate to Hong Kong, the People's Republic of China, and the former Soviet Union.
As a recording artist, Jenkins has gained extensive recognition. Her recordings have received Parents' Choice awards and two Grammy Award nominations in the category of Best Musical Album for Children. In 2004, she was recognized with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
- Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers Foundation (First recipient in the field of Children's Music and the first woman selected for the honor) (1999)
- Grammy Nomination for Best Musical Album for Children for Ella Jenkins and a Union of Friends (1999)
- Award from the Music Educators National Conference "in appreciation of her support for music education and the National Association for Music Education" (2000)
- Grammy Association Lifetime Achievement Award (2004)
- Honorary Doctorate of Human Letters from the Erikson Institute (2004)
- Inducted into the San Francisco State University Alumni Hall of Fame (2004)
- Grammy Nomination for Best Musical Album for Children for Sharing Cultures with Ella Jenkins (2005)
- Voted 2005 Chicagoan of the year by Chicago Magazine
- Fellow Award in Music from United States Artists (2009)
- National Endowment for the Arts Grant, with Illinois Arts Council matching grant
- Named Honorary Citizen of Louisville, KY, during The Year of the Child
- National Academy of Recordings Arts and Sciences, Chicago Chapter, Governor's Award, contribution in children's recording and performance
- Proclamation of Ella Jenkins Day (December 12) in Chicago, IL
- American Academy of Children's Entertainment, Best Variety Performer Award
- American Library Association Award
- Fifth Star Award from the City of Chicago (2015)
- National Heritage Fellowship recipient (2017)