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Alumni & Friends

First Lady of Children's Folk

A photograph of Ella Jenkins. Photo courtesy of Ella Jenkins.Ella Jenkins, the First Lady of Children's Folk, delights
children and parents with the simple kids songs they
love. Photo courtesy of Ella Jenkins.

Ella Jenkins (B.A., '51) isn't anything like other children's music artists drawing big crowds these days. In a field of pop and rock acts who try as hard to appeal to the finicky, opinionated parents as they do to their own sippy-cup wielding fan base, Jenkins, often dubbed the First Lady of Children's Music, continues to pack concert venues by playing the simple kids songs that she's been performing for more than five decades.

It was her experience playing in the coffeehouses near SF State's old campus at Laguna and Buchanan streets that gave Jenkins her first taste of performing for an audience. "I played gospel, blues and just nonsense, really, but the customers always seemed to enjoy it and participated whenever I got interactive," says the musician, who has recorded more than 30 children's albums and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. "I played a small conga drum and harmonica. SF State had so many people from different backgrounds, and people seemed genuinely interested in music from cultures different than their own; the audience was really at your disposal."

Jenkins also volunteered at childcare centers in and around the Berkeley area while she was at school and found music to be an easy way to connect with kids. "Kids can be your toughest critics, but if you're sincere and respect them as human beings, they'll be open to what you have to offer," she says. "To involve them is to allow them to feel that they are all part and parcel, that they are part of creating the atmosphere of togetherness that I strive for."

After graduating, Jenkins returned to her hometown of Chicago -- where she still lives today -- and was soon performing, and eventually hosting, a public television show for kids called "The Totem Club." She used that platform to invite musicians from around the world to perform for young audiences, while still performing on her own as a hobby. She eventually caught the attention of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, which produced her first album, "Call and Response," in 1957, and later produced her entire discography. In 2004, the label released "cELLAbration! A Tribute to Ella Jenkins," with recordings of Jenkins' work by artists including Pete Seeger, Tom Chapin and Sweet Honey in the Rock.

When Jenkins isn't performing, she's teaching workshops worldwide about call-and-response singing, and how that tradition is especially effective in breaking down barriers between performers and young audiences. "It allows kids to be creative and improvise and boosts their self-confidence," she says. Her teaching has taken her to all seven continents -- proof, she says that music can transcend all cultures and languages.

Jenkins' repertoire is much like what it was in her SF State days, including everything from African-American folk songs to global rhythmic chants, nursery rhymes and her own original work. Despite changing times and tastes, her audiences remain enraptured with her music. "I don't feel that anything should be stagnate, that we should ignore songs like 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' or 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.' I look backwards, forwards and at the present for inspiration."


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