Pass It On!
The Journal of the Children's Music Network
"I'm There to Serve Children":
An Interview with Ella Jenkins
conducted by PIO!
The interview below with Ella Jenkins first appeared in Pass It On!'s tenth issue, in the winter of 1992. We offer it again to reacquaint readers with the remarkable woman who will receive this year's CMN Magic Penny Award, celebrating a lifetime of achievement in children's music. In the near-decade since we last talked with Ella, there has been a steadily-widening worldwide appreciation of the importance of her work. She is a Grammy nominee (1999, for Ella Jenkins and a Union of Friends) and has won several Parents' Choice awards. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre performs material from two of Ella's songs in their signature work "Revelations." She has written for and appeared on many television shows, including Sesame Street and--many times--Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Ella has been declared an honorary citizen of several cities and states and has the key to the city of Utica, New York. In 1988 she represented the U.S. in a major cultural exchange with the People's Republic of China. CMN is deeply honored to have the chance to appreciate a woman who has meant so very much to the work that we do.
The large, smiling woman who has come to visit your school or day care center today seems to have brought with her the whole world in a small bag. You and your classmates gather around, eyes widening, as she pulls from it five very different harmonicas, maracas, a yo-yo, a set of clave sticks and castanets, photographs of bright scenes from distant places, and several of the brightest, fastest, tops you've ever seen. After awhile she settles into a chair, picks up a dark brown, well-travelled ukelele, and says the words that have begun many of her performances for thirty-five years. "Whatever I say to you," she begins, "you sing back to me. And try not to jump the beat." Since the mid-1950s, Ella Jenkins has performed for the children of all seven continents, including a peformance involving penguins in Antarctica. Her widely-imitated "call-and-response" method encourages children to participate, and her use of music from around the world makes her an important figure in multicultural education. A self-taught musician, Ella Jenkins was born in St. Louis and grew up on Chicago's South Side with her mother, who worked as a domestic, and her older brother, now a sociology professor. After junior college, she became a youth worker in Chicago, always using the music of different cultures as a tool. By the early 1950s, she was performing in Chicago Folk clubs. In 1956, she quit her job at a local YWCA, "paid up all my bills, bought a little hi-fi and created a job for myself." Thus began at least the rhythm section of children's music. In that same year she took a demo tape of four songs to Moses Asch of Folkways records in New York City, who signed her to a contract on the spot. Thirty-five years later, she has recorded twenty-two albums for Folkways.* Her classic You Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song, recorded in 1966, remains the best-selling album in the history of the Folkways label. Her newest Smithsonian/Folkway releases include two videos, Ella Jenkins Live at the Smithsonian and Ella Jenkins for the Family (scheduled for February release), and a new album, Come Dance By the Ocean. Table tennis champion, connoisseur of Afro-Cuban music, collector of harmonicas and spinning tops, and most of all, lover of children, Ella Jenkins lives with her dachshund in a red-brick town house in Chicago's Old Town. Ms. Jenkins spoke with Phil Hoose by telephone from her business manager's office in Chicago.
PIO!: Were there any role models for you in children's music when you first started?
EJ: No. My role models were in popular music. Tap dancers. Billie Holliday. Cab Calloway. Danny Kaye. I especially loved Cab Calloway. Whenever he would come to the Regal theater in Chicago I would try to see him. His "Minnie the Moocher" was a classic call-and-response song, where he would sing "Hi-De-Hi-De-Hi-De-Hi" and the audience would answer. When I first went to get an album of children's music together, I thought about Cab. In fact, I wrote a children's song for him called "The King of the Hi-De-Ho."
I know a man, a man that I know. They call him the king of the hi-de-ho.
PIO!: Was there such a thing as a "children's musician"?
EJ: Well, there was Pete [Seeger]. But he alternated between children's and adult music. I always liked his music. He brought in other cultures. Danny Kaye, too. He used to sing to children, and bring them music and stories from other cultures. But there were really not children's artists as there are now.
PIO!: Tell us about the early music that you heard.
EJ: I give credit to my uncle Flood. I'm not a trained musician and he wasn't either, but he gave me some of my first sounds. He had migrated up from Louisiana to Chicago. He worked in the steel mills in Gary. He relaxed himself with a harmonica. He always carried it in a pocket of his pin-striped vest. After work, first he would shower and eat, and then he'd come back to a chair and relax and take his harmonica out of that pocket. He loved blues. I sat on the floor at his feet. It was my own private concert. That was so special to me. I learned to play the harmonica by listening to him. He even had his own jukebox. Once a month he would have somebody come in and change the records. He loved Big Bill Broonzy. I use the harmonica in most of my albums, concerts and workshops. I do it in memory of my uncle and my mother. My mother did day work in homes. One year she worked extra time during the Christmas holidays so I could get this harmonica. It was a chromatic. I lost it one day. I cried all night and day. I vowed to learn it for her. I think a harmonica is a great instrument. It's so portable. I have taken harmonicas around the world. I took it to Antarctica and played for the penguins. They were curious, not afraid at all. When I got back, someone asked me, "Did you give any concerts?" I said, "I gave the most formal concert of my career."
PIO!: Did you hear a lot of music outside of your home?
EJ: Oh, yes. There were churches across the street. They had big speakers, and you could hear gospel music and the sound of tambourines coming out the open doors. And every neighborhood had its own dances and rhymes and songs. I was very aware of the differences because we moved so much. When I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago, black people were always trying to move north, block by block. At first we lived in the mid-30s, like 35th street. That was called "mid-south," and was considered poor. Our goal was to get up into the 40s and the 50s. If you ever graduated to the 100s you were living in big homes, mansions to the black community. We moved every year. Moving day was always May 1. There were rhythms and rhymes and games in each new neighborhood. Sometimes the same song would change a little bit even from block to block. One example is "Miss Mary Mack." On You Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song, I have three different versions of that song. Each version has different verses, and I use different claps for each. They come from different neighborhoods in Chicago. My friends and I were always making up rhymes and rhythms and dances. And so were kids throughout Chicago. It got so you could identify the neighborhood by watching someone dance: "Oh, she's a West Sider," you would say.
PIO!: You seem to know so much music from around the world. Did all of that come from your travels as a performer?
EJ: No. When I was a teenager, my friends and I would gather outside the neighborhood record shops and listen to the music sound out over the loudspeakers and learn the new songs. We'd make up our own dances. I spent a lot of time in the booth of one particular record store, listening to records of music from around the world. I was always interested in different cultures. At that time, you could listen to the records, try them out, before you bought them. I heard my first Folkways records in that booth. I had a friend who would let me listen any time but Fridays and Saturdays: that was their busy time. I travelled around the world in that booth. And a lot of my ideas for call-and-response came from that booth, too. When I'd listen to the music of India or the Middle East, there would always be one leader and then the group would answer. Same with Egyptian music, Arabic music, Israeli music, and African music. It reminded me of the music I heard in the churches I had attended. There would be a preacher who would go back and forth with the congregation.
PIO!: How did you get started working with children and music?
EJ: As a teenager and as a young adult, I worked in children's camps and volunteered in community centers. I always used music in those jobs. Then when I was 21, I started junior college. All I wanted to do was work with children. I'd work some, then go to school some. I graduated with a B.A. in sociology, and I minored in child psychology and recreation. After school, I got a job as the director of teenage programs at a YWCA in Chicago. I tried to get the black teenagers I was working with to identify with Africa. Now it would be cool, but back then, they didn't want anything to do with Africa. So I started a Latin American club. Those kids loved Latin music. They loved bongos and congas. I said, "Well, we'll start 'em where they are. Then we'll work back to Africa." Before too long, someone from Channel 11, WTTB in Chicago, came over. He had M.S., and when he heard the music, he pulled himself all the way to the second floor to see us. He even played congas. He said the station had a children's program called The Totem Club. The host was Joe Kelley. I remember he dressed in an Indian outfit. They wanted me to be a guest. This was live television. I said, "Sure, as long as we can do just what we do here." So I brought some children over and we did just what we did. They invited us back, and then asked us to be regulars. This was in the mid-1950s. I did that for four years. I didn't get paid, but I became known. Before I knew it I was performing with kids at a lot of schools and YWCA camps. The children performed with me. I was creating new music all the time.
PIO!: How did you and Folkways find each other?
EJ: In 1956 I was playing at the Gate of Horn in Chicago when I met a man named Kenneth Goldstein. He used to do liner notes for a lot of blues albums. He heard me perform and said, "I have a friend named Moses Asch in New York. You should make a demo of three or four songs. Write to him and then go see him. Use my name." So I did. Mo and I shook hands. He was in a tiny little place. I sat outside in the studio while he went into the control booth with another person. I could hear them playing my demo. I felt very uneasy because I knew they were judging me. I was looking at them through the glass, trying to read the expressions on their faces. They stayed in there for a while, talking to each other after the songs were over. Then they came out to see me. Moses said, "You know, I think you've got some good ideas flowing. I'd like to see you expand it and add more instrumentation. I really think you're headed in a good direction. In fact, why don't we sign a contract right now?" I didn't know anything about contracts, about what I should ask for, but I was so delighted that I signed right there on the spot. My first album came out on a 10-inch LP. That was before the 12-inch ones. It was called Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing. Four basic chants were on there, and then some other things I added. Pretty soon word of that record got around, and teachers started using the call-and-response method. It was designed to help children feel at ease. Over the years, Mo really gave me a lot of freedom. When rock 'n' roll came out, he never pressured me to put out a rock 'n' roll record. And he allowed me to record at my own pace, when I was inspired to record. It wasn't "We gotta do a record this year." He let there be a reason for every record and he cared about quality.
PIO!: In your career in children's music, have you experienced racial discrimination? Were you kept away from jobs you wanted, or out of certain schools, or from records you wanted to make?
EJ: I've been discriminated against plenty, but not related to music. I got on that television show from the start, and Mo treated me well. Early on, I made friends with a publisher, and I was able to get my material published, and published well. My discrimination was in restaurants and in nonmusical jobs. When I first graduated from high school, I needed work so badly. I pounded the pavement. Always it was no to blacks. No. No. No. I finally got a job during the war with the Wrigley Gum Company. My job was to pack K rations for the soldiers. They were like big Cracker Jack boxes. We'd pack them with Spam and cigarettes and Wrigley's gum. I was supposed to send them through hot wax so they'd be covered and protected. At first no one would speak with me. I had taken a job away from one of the white girls who worked there. I felt such tension. For many weeks I ate by myself in a corner of the lunchroom. Then one day one person came over and introduced herself. She was a popular person. Then she introduced me to others. That gesture is something I've never forgotten.
PIO!: You're now entering your 35th year of working with children's music. What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
EJ: You should like children. That's the first thing. There are some jobs in life that you don't have to love. But if you take a job with children, you should really care for them. If you go to perform with children, don't go with a chip on your shoulder. Don't go thinking, "Well, this is what I have to do. I've got this much time and this is what they're gonna get." I feel that in what I do, I'm serving children. And serving people who work with children. I'm trying to see if I have anything new that I might share with children. I want to help bake a cake in that classroom that has a lot of ingredients in it. I don't just sing to children. I show them pictures of the places we sing about. I bring back artifacts. I collect spinning tops. I have spinning tops from everywhere. Often before a performance I'll play with my tops with children. You never know for sure what impression you will make on a child. You want to pass along the good, rich parts of life. There is so much violence and ugliness available for them. You want to give them something really good. I'm meeting people now in their thirties who first met me in a school or camp when they were three or four. A lot of them are in music. And they'll sing me the songs we sang that day long ago when we first met.
PIO!: What makes a good performance?
EJ: The best concerts, the best performances, are when everyone in the room is involved. When I get out there, the first thing I want to do is show myself as a friendly person. As someone who cares for them. The same goes for writing or creating material. If you sincerely care, you're going to write material that means something to them, and you're gonna welcome new ideas. Ideas come from everywhere, if you really listen. Something in the way a certain child's name rings, or in the way they meet you. There's a real commercial concentration on children now. I went to the National Association for the Education of Young Children conference in Denver last week. There were over 22,000 people there. Many of them had products for children. Toys, books, records. I know a lot of people into children's thingsÑin writing and recording. Some of them don't give two hoots about children. But when you get in a classroom, or in a camp, you're not in that room to take advantage of a fad or a new wave of commercial interest in children. As I said, you're there to serve them.
PIO!: Are you still learning?
EJ: I'm always looking for new ideas. I really appreciate learning from other performers, songwriters and storytellers. It's really a shame there aren't more workshops.
PIO!: You've got to come to CMN gatherings. We have great workshops on topics like songwriting and storytelling. Kids take part. Children in our group are writing songs of their own, and sometimes they lead their own workshops.
EJ: That's great. You gotta send me some more information on this group.
PIO!: Consider it in the mail. How have your performances changed over the years?
EJ: For years I sang strictly a capella. Just my own voice, with hand clapping and foot stomping and finger snapping. I loved rhythm. Then I evolved to tin cans and oatmeal boxes and waste baskets. Then I graduated up to water pails. Then on the West Coast someone gave me a Chinese tom-tom. And I was off. Now I use all sorts of things. Another difference is that the United States has become culturally more diverse. It's not just black and white and Hispanic anymore. Now when you go to a school you meet people from India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Haiti. I try to honor their cultures in song, too.
PIO!: Do you meet performers and writers of children's music from a wide variety of cultures?
EJ: Some, but I don't think there are as many Native Americans and African-Americans involved in doing children's music as in children's books. It struck me at that conference in Denver.
PIO!: In the last issue we ran an interview with Reggie Kelland, the Director of Children's Marketing for A&M Records. She said at this point the children's music industry is mainly white men with moustaches.
EJ: (burst of laughter). That is so funny. It's true, too. A lot of people have said there's been a cloning of artists. Something has to be done. There's a lot to be shared. I think the record industry should be looking for good talent among a wide range of ethnic groups. They shouldn't give them contracts just because they are of a certain color or background. It has to be an artist of quality. But they should be looking.
PIO!: Have kids changed in 35 years?
EJ: Two or three years ago a lot of people seemed to be saying that kids were less patient today and that maybe I should put some rock 'n' roll in my performances. But some kids get blasted with rock 'n' roll from the time they are born. Some of them can barely hear by the time the grow up. I think children need exposure to a variety of music at a young age. Jazz, blues. I'm very keen on presenting a variety of rhythms.
PIO!: It strikes me that you don't define yourself entirely in terms of the children's music industry. When I talk about the industry, you talk about kids.
EJ: Well, I've had a chance to see a lot of what life has to offer. I have been what I call a "freelancer" since 1956. Ever since I left the YWCA, I've been like the Russians, working on five-year plans. Every five years I look at my career. If it seems to be working, I'll carry on. If not, I'll go back to working with groups and YWCAs. It's feast or famine. Sometimes I get a lot of work and sometimes I don't. Year before last I performed in 40 cities. That was too much. The last two years I've been working on the Live at the Smithsonian video and another that will be out in January. I want to start working on a book. And I have a new record out.
PIO!: I had a chance to see your Live at the Smithsonian video. It's really marvelous. Those kids loved you.
EJ: I didn't really want to meet the children in advance. I like to set up as if its a typical classroom, and I was just a visitor, and I was here to share some things. I didn't want to do any practicing. I'm glad you like it.
PIO!: Is there anything you'd like to say that I haven't asked you?
EJ: I'd like to say that the Children's Music Network is a great idea. Once I was in California and Marcia Berman told me about a meeting of CMN. I wanted to go but I couldn't. Just hearing the mission statement you read, and what you've told me about CMN, it makes me feel like I want to make a greater contribution in this area. The very fact that it exists is inspiring. It makes me wanna keep on keepin' on!