“You’ll sing a song and I’ll sing a song. And we’ll sing a song together.” So go the lyrics of Ella Jenkins’ signature composition.
In a new documentary film about Ella entitled “We’ll Sing a Song Together,” music educator Thomas Moore offers this analysis, “You’ll sing a song. I’ll sing a song. And we’ll sing a song together. And that togetherness will save us.”
For over 60 years Chicago’s Ella Jenkins has been making music together with her audiences. Her music explores themes instrumental to survival. Togetherness. Mindfulness. Communication. The practice of creativity. The spirit of participation.
“You’ll sing a song and I’ll sing a song,” from her 1966 album, is an illustration of the philosophy behind Ella’s approach to making music for children. When we sing together, we apply values of human connection. We listen to each other, learn from each other and we work together.
In the uncertain space we find ourselves living in at the end of 2020, stories of individuals like Ella can provide a hopeful path forward.
Ella has introduced thousands of children to the magical world of making music and 39-year-old local filmmaker Tim Ferrin was once one of those children. For the past few years he has been working to bring her story to the screen.
Tim was introduced to Ella’s music many years ago by his elementary school music teacher and mentor Fred Koch. In 2014, Tim had a chance run-in with his teacher who planted the idea of making a documentary film about Ella. Tim was intrigued by the idea and shortly after, he bumped into Ella herself at Old Town School of Folk Music. He took it as a sign and has been working on the project ever since. Tim has interviewed over 40 people on a quest to justly capture the influence of Ella, who is widely regarded as the 20th century's most prolific children’s musician.
With no formal music training, Ella pioneered a genre: children’s music. Through her career she has amassed a discography of 40 albums on the Smithsonian Folkways label and earned herself the nickname the “First Lady of Children’s Music.” This year, StreetWise recognized Ella as one of the 20 most inspiring Chicagoans, which is the latest in a career of accolades, including a 2004 Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement and being named a 2017 Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts.
“One of the big takeaways is that she has lived her life both personally and professionally with great integrity. She’s a great example of how to live within a community,” Tim says when discussing why Ella’s story is important to tell. “Positivity and change starts at a very local level and that’s something Ella embodies. We learn from one another and we do it together.”
For all her achievements, very little has been produced, written or filmed about Ella herself. “The more I dug the less I found, other than her extensive catalogue,” says Tim.
“It’s not always the people that make the biggest contribution that get the most notoriety,” says early childhood education expert Barbara Bowman in one clip from the film.
Tim began conducting the first of many interviews with Ella in 2014. A month after he began filming his oldest daughter was born. A couple of years into the project he had another child. Having young children himself and seeing Ella interact with them has broadened Tim’s understanding of Ella’s gift. “It’s been amazing to connect with Ella on an adult level but to really see how she connects with children. It’s been a family affair.”
“The way she communicates has maximum impact.” says Tim. “She’s a facilitator. She’s someone who can come into a place and get everybody cooperating and that is a very special skill.”
The brilliance of Ella’s brand of communicating with children is its simplicity.
Ella grew up on the South Side of Chicago and her earliest exposure to music was listening to her Uncle Floyd Johnson (affectionately nicknamed Uncle Flood) play the blues on the harmonica. Ella loved music and before ever owning an instrument would make sounds with whatever was available around the house. She has early memories of seeing Cab Calloway perform and loved the thrill of partaking in the call and response “hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi!” Ella uses that same call and response technique to connect with children. Through call and response she is able to involve children in the process of making music.
Bernadelle Richter has been managing Ella for 59 years and reiterates that Ella’s magic is rooted in simple concepts. “She’s a listener. She loves people. She pays attention. She lives in the present. She keeps it pretty simple. She has a very positive attitude about things. It’s helpful to be around people like that.” Being a good listener and truly liking other people are two things Bernadelle kept returning to when talking about her friend. She mentioned that Ella understands that “you’re not gonna get anything done unless you unify and have to listen to each other.” That understanding is at the core of Ella’s approach to making music with others.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in sociology at San Francisco State University, with minors in child psychology and recreation, Ella returned to Chicago, where she got a job as a program director for teenagers at the YWCA. In this role she began writing songs as a way to connect with children. This eventually led to a local television appearance and the release of her first album in 1957 titled Call-and-Response Rhythmic Group Singing. Before 1957 there weren’t full time professional musicians making music for kids. Ella was the first; today there are thousands.
Ella’s music has always drawn rhythm and influence from various cultures and made a point to engage the audience with an understanding of diversity. Lynn Orman, a publicist and friend who has worked with Ella for over 30 years, says of Ella: “she coined the phrase multiculturalism. She put the word ‘diversity’ in music before there was diversity in music.” Her 1995 album Multicultural Children’s Songs is among her most popular albums and reflects this diversity. The album features greetings in many languages, African call and response, a Mexican hand clapping song, traditional Jewish songs, Native American songs and a yodeling song.
Over the years, Ella became a fixture on various children’s television programs including Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Sesame Street and Barney. In the trailer for “We’ll Sing a Song Together,” Sesame Street’s Bob McGrath calls Ella “a walking legend of making American music for children.” When Tim interviewed Mr. Rogers Neighborhood producer Margy Whitmer about Ella, she explained that Fred Rogers was always looking for concepts that were “simple and deep.” A perfect way to describe Ella’s music.
Orman has long been hoping for a feature length film about Ella. Long before she began working with Ella in the late 80s, Lynn was using Ella’s music as an early childhood educator. One day a friend offered to introduce her to Ella and she was thrilled. “Some people have Mick Jagger or Janis Joplin. For me it was Ella Jenkins. She was my rockstar.”
Lynn began working closely with Ella soon after meeting her and went along when Ella received a Lifetime Acheivement Award from the Grammys in 2004. At the ceremony people got up to get their awards and Ella was offered a chair and declined saying, “no because I stand for children.”
Lynn is the person who nominated Ella to be named one of the 20 most inspiring Chicagoans this year. “She instills confidence and pride in the kids and in the parents and the teachers and that’s why I nominated her,” she said.
This year Ella turned 96 and Lynn put together a video of musicians singing and playing songs for Ella from various areas across the country.
Ella’s influence among musicians and educators is well documented through Tim’s interviews in the film.
“Making music for kids. Oh, it’s like a higher calling,” says Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in a trailer clip for the film. “Having met a lot of different artists over the years, there are certain artists that you look at them and you think they’re not working really hard to make themselves better; they’re working really hard to make us better.”
“She’s the only person I ever stood in line to meet and get an autograph from in my life,” says Sue Tweedy before turning to Jeff and adding, “No offense.”
“She’s an unrecognized giant in American music,” says harp guitarist and diretor emeritus of Smithsonian Folkways Tony Seeger.
“In a weird way her music does transcend the children’s music genre,” muses Venezuelan American singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart.
Roger McGuinn of the Byrds credits Ella with getting him his first job in music.
The interviews touch on Ella’s ability to open minds to possibilities of learning. Artist Suni Paz says that Ella’s music “opens up their minds, their understanding - the desire to learn more.”
Conductor Alan Pierson remembers being influenced by Ella as a child. “I think of Ella Jenkins as the first emotional connection I had to music and maybe the first time that music became something I could be a part of that I could participate in. She’s getting it into kids' minds that making music is not just for professionals. Music is ours, it’s yours and we can make it together.”
That concept, the value of participation, is something to take from Ella’s story. In life, beyond music, the act of participating rewards beyond measure. The 1966 album “You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song” includes the song, “This Train,” which Ella often sings. It’s another song that embodies the spirit of her music, the spirit of participation. In a recent video Ella plays the harmonica and sings the song... “This train is bound for glory. Children get on board.”
To get on board with the production of the documentary “We’ll Sing A Song Together,” you can visit http://www.singasongtogether.com/ to make a donation or purchase Ella Jenkins merchandise.
Kathleen Hinkel is a journalist, photographer and music lover based in Chicago - learn more at kathleenhinkel.com