Magic Penny Award

2001: Ella Jenkins

Ella was the first "folk" performer to teach fun, interactive music in schools and preschools, incorporating world cultures and the basic skills every child needs. Literally thousands of musicians who now perform for children are indebted to Ella Jenkins for laying that groundwork.—Cathy Fink

Ella Jenkins has been inspiring children and adults through her performances and recordings for over 50 years. The Wisconsin State Journal named her “the first lady of the children’s folk song.” The Children’s Music Network was proud to present Ella with the 2001 Magic Penny Award honoring lifetime achievement in children’s music. The award was presented at the 11th Annual National Gathering at Walker Creek Ranch in Petaluma, CA.

Ella still travels and performs unceasingly, presenting concerts, workshops, and seminars around the world. She has received numerous awards and accolades. In 1999 she became the first woman and the first African-American to receive the prestigious ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004 she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy’s.

Ella draws on her experiences growing up on the south side of Chicago and says, “I was raised with respect for my elders and teachers, which helped me throughout my life.” Her Uncle Flood played the harmonica and was her introduction into music. She also had many musical influences just outside her home. Gospel music and the sound of tambourines were often heard from the loudspeakers of churches across the street. Ella’s family relocated frequently, trying to move “uptown” from their neighborhood. Rhythms, rhymes, and games were different in each new neighborhood. Ella began to create songs for children while volunteering at a Chicago recreation center and subsequent education-oriented jobs. Through her work, she gained an understanding of children from various backgrounds, and today continues to learn a great deal from children.

Her music transcends language and cultural barriers. Ella shares with children of one culture what she’s learned from children of other cultures. She has gained knowledge and inspiration by performing and working with children on seven continents for four decades. She encourages active participation using music from diverse cultures. With her ukulele, usually a harmonica, sometimes a guitar, occasionally a piano, and many small percussion instruments (a kaluba drum, keyboard imitating steel drums, guiro, maracas, a tambourine...) she takes listeners on a multilingual, multicultural journey—teaching the art of communication through music.

Learning and fun is interrelated. Ella epitomizes this principle using a unique call-and-response technique in songs, chants, poems, recitations, and games in Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew, Korean, Swahili, and other languages. “Songs from foreign languages and cultures have such interesting rhythmic patterns that children like to play.” These universally appealing songs present simple melodies, interesting rhythms, easy-to-understand lyrics, and are usually recorded with youngsters singing along. Ella’s playful and captivating songs help children appreciate themselves and understand others.

The popular Ella has made guest appearances on NBC’s “Today Show,” CNN’s “Showbiz Today,” “Barney and Friends,” “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and in films shown on “Sesame Street.” She was invited to share her music at America’s Reunion on the Mall and the Smithsonian’s 150th Birthday Party on the Mall in Washington, DC. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater choreographs and performs to Jenkins’ compositions. She has received honorary memberships to the Illinois Association for the Education of Young Children and Delta Kappa Gamma, an educational sorority. Ella has continued her promotion of intercultural understanding as an US delegate to Hong Kong, the People’s Republic of China, and the former Soviet Union with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Since her first record, Call and Response (1957), this true pioneer has released 28 albums and two videos on Smithsonian Folkways. The classic You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song is the best-selling record in the history of Folkways Records.

Photo: Ella Jenkins recieves award

Phil Hoose presents the 2001 Magic
Penny Award to Ella Jenkins.

Photo: Ella Jenkins SingingPhoto: 2001 Magic Penny mp-photosPhotos by Scott Kepnes

Ella responds in song.

Award Designer: Eliza Zeitlin