Ella Jenkins (born August 6, 1924) is an American folk singer. Dubbed "The First Lady of the Children's Folk Song" by the Wisconsin State Journal, Jenkins has been a leading performer of children's music for fifty years.

Family and personal life

Ella 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 brother brought home Boy Scout songs, and her Uncle Flood 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. As neighborhood churches broadcast their services onto the street, Gospel music was a part of her soundscape. 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. While attending 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's of Arts in Sociology with minors in Child Psychology and Recreation from San Francisco State University. She began writing songs for children while working in recreation centers and as a song leader for camp groups.


After graduating from San Francisco State University, Jenkins moved back to Chicago and 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, Jenkins' first album, Call-And-Response: Rhythmic Group Singing, was released by Folkways. Since then, she has recorded 29 other albums for Folkways Records and, more recently, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings including the popular You'll Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song. She has not only been an important force in children's lives, but also has taught her approach to working with children to parents and fellow music educators. 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 language 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 and 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 Grammy nominations in the category of Best Musical Album for Children. In 2004, she was recognized with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

As an educator

Jenkins' favorite people are children. She sees them as genuine, down to earth people who should be listened to and recognized as having much to offer. Fellow music educator, Patricia Sheehan Campbell, lauds Jenkins as "a pioneer in her early and continuing realization that children have something to sing about, that the essence of who they are may be expressed through song, and that much of what they need to know of their language, heritage, and current cultural concepts may be communicated to them through song." Through her songs, she hopes to develop greater intercultural understanding and rhythmic-consciousness, and to help people discover the joy of singing and communicating through active participation in songs.

Her repertoire includes nursery rhymes, holiday songs, bilingual songs, African-American folk songs, international songs, rhythmic chants, and original songs. Drawing from cultures all over the world, Jenkins sings in many languages, exposing her audiences to diverse cultures and promoting greater cultural awareness.

Through her style of call-and-response singing, Jenkins promotes group participation. Found in cultures worldwide, from Greece to the Middle East to West Africa, call-and-response singing involves a leader or leaders singing a phrase and the rest of the participants commenting or responding with another phrase. Using this technique, she breaks the barrier between audience and performer, and turns everyone into a performer. By encouraging active participation, she promotes the development of a warm group feeling, cooperation among the participants, greater attentiveness, an enjoyment of singing, and a desire to sing. She also encourages children to lead songs, make up their own variations of songs, and experiment with fun and silly sounds. This allows children to think independently, develop leadership skills, and improvise, resulting in increased self-confidence. and participate in its creation, Jenkins provides them with a new tool of communication that they can use and enjoy for the rest of their lives.


Fellow Award in Music from United States Artists. (2009) ,

Grammy Association Lifetime Achievement Award (2004),

Grammy Nomination for Best Musical Album for Children for Sharing Cultures with Ella Jenkins (2005),

Grammy Award for Best Musical Album for Children for cELLAbration: A Tribute to Ella Jenkins (2005),

Grammy Nomination for Best Musical Album for Children for Ella Jenkins and a Union of Friends Pulling Together (2000),

Grammy Nomination for Best Musical Album for Children for Ella Jenkins and a Union of Friends (1999),

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),

Honorary Doctorate of Human Letters from the Erikson Institute (2004),

Award from the Music Educators National Conference "in appreciation of her support for music education and the National Association for Music Education" (2000),

Inducted into the San Francisco State University Alumni Hall of Fame (2004),

Voted 2005 Chicagoan of the year by Chicago Magazine