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Before Michelle Obama, There Was Ella Jenkins


I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Now, we want to tell you about a performer who may have been a big part of your life when you were still in short pants, if I can use that expression.

Before there were OzoKidz and Raffi filling packed houses, there was Ella Jenkins. For more than 50 years, she's been using the power of song to educate children and teach them lessons about life and the importance of staying active.


ELLA JENKINS: (Singing) Well, you walk and you walk and you walk and you stop, and you walk and you walk and you walk and you stop, and you walk and you walk and you walk and you stop, and you walk and you walk and you walk and you stop. Well, you skate and you skate and you skate and you stop, and you skate and you skate and you skate and you stop and you skate and you skate and you skate and you stop, and you skate and you skate and you skate and you stop. Well, you tap your knees, tap your knees, tap your knees...

HEADLEE: That was Ella Jenkins performing "Stop and Go." She's won numerous honors, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and she's even had her recordings immortalized at the Library of Congress.

Now, Ella Jenkins has a new album out called "Get Moving with Ella Jenkins," and she joined Michel Martin to talk about that album and her career.


Welcome, my diva. Thank you for joining us.

JENKINS: Oh, what a - how generous you are. Diva. I shall remember that word.

MARTIN: Well, how are you doing?

JENKINS: That comes with responsibilities.

MARTIN: Yes, it does. Including, you know, the other title that you are known by. You've been dubbed the first lady of children's music and, as you know, being the first lady carries some weight with that title.

JENKINS: Yes, right.

MARTIN: What does it feel like to have that title?

JENKINS: It feels as if, although I was never married and had children, but I feel like I have a host of children around the world.

MARTIN: How did you get started doing - I don't know how you feel about the phrase, children's entertainment, but if that's OK with you - but how did you get started in this particular kind of work?

JENKINS: Well, you know, actually, I used to work as a volunteer sometimes as a camp counselor. And I went to children's camps as a leader and how much fun the children used to have at camp. And so one of the things they didn't do too much of and it was singing, so I used to do a lot of singing when I was a child and then I started writing songs myself.

And I remember, when I was growing up, children, and especially little children were supposed to be just seen and not heard. And most children didn't enter school until kindergarten. They didn't have what they call preschool, so right away, I was able to get my hands on them.

MARTIN: Oh, the kids had more time and...

JENKINS: All their voices.

MARTIN: Right.

JENKINS: But I never expected to grow up and have this as a great part of my life, but I'm so glad because, over the years, I've met some nice parents and grandparents and many other kind of relatives who children are related to. And it's really nice that I've been able to teach a lot of their children many songs and rhythms and rhymes.

MARTIN: Let's play one of them from the new album, which is a compilation of, you know, songs that you've recorded over the years.

JENKINS: Over the years.

MARTIN: Over the years. Let's play "Hop, Skip and Jump to My Lou." Let's hear a little bit of that.


JENKINS: (Singing) Skip, skip, skip to my Lou. Everybody, skip, skip, skip to my Lou. Skip, skip, skip to my Lou. Skip to my Lou, my darling. All right. If you want to clap it out. All right. Skip, skip, skip to my Lou. Skip, skip, skip to my Lou. Skip, skip, skip to my Lou.

There was one little child going on all on her own.

MARTIN: On her own. That's right. You still get a kick out of hearing this. It's so funny. You've been chuckling the whole time.


MARTIN: You still get a kick out of it.

JENKINS: They give me pleasure and, you know, we always said - we adults - we're going to teach the children, but I learned a great deal from the children, just from their songs and rhythms and rhymes and games and some of the games that they play. There's a play lot right across the street from where I live and it's wonderful to hear these little voices. I begin to wonder, what are children all about? What are they talking about so early? But they're over there playing and singing and dancing. It's wonderful. So they teach me a great deal, too.

MARTIN: Well, you know, that's funny because - it's funny that you say it that way, because one of the things that I noticed in listening to the album is that you are constantly suggesting that actually the kids are leading the singing.


MARTIN: You're actually suggesting that you're doing what they want. You say, oh, do you want to do X, Y, Z? And...

JENKINS: Well, that's the kind of communication that I try to have with the children. You know we, sometimes, as adults, we'll say we'll do it this way, like even given a concert on stage. My concerts are never just standing up, singing for an hour or 45 minutes, but the children are great interactor. So I toss it out to them, and they toss it back to me. So it's very, very, very important that they're an instrumental part of what I do.

MARTIN: I would like to, though, ask where you got that idea from, because as I said, your ideas now are very much accepted. But I think it's fair to say that when a lot of us were growing up, it wasn't that way. It was parents says you do this, and child was expected to follow.


MARTIN: And the idea that a child might have some say in what he or she was doing was really not, you know, a universal idea when you started singing. I'm just wondering, do you even remember how you got the idea that kid should have some say in, you know...

JENKINS: Well, you know, I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but I grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and we had a wonderful theater called the Regal Theater, and I used to go there because that's where you had live entertainment. And one of the people that intrigued me a great deal - and then that's where I got some of these ideas - was a man called Cab Calloway. Have you heard of him?

MARTIN: I think I have.

JENKINS: He was in that movie called "The Blues Brothers." And so some of what he did was a call-and-response. When he said, hi-dee, hi-dee, hi-dee, hi, then you said back, ho-de, ho-de, ho-de. And so I started doing this not only with his songs, I thought I would make up a few songs myself. And the children can learn very easily by imitating, following the leader, and then pretty soon be able to teach it themselves.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, our guest is Ella Jenkins. She is known as the First Lady of Children's Music. She's been performing, traveling and working with kids for, hmm, I don't know. How long should we say?

JENKINS: Oh, it's a long time. Over some many, many miles.

MARTIN: Many miles.


JENKINS: Many, many miles and many years. Yes.

MARTIN: She actually has a new album coming out. It's called "Get Moving with Ella Jenkins."

JENKINS: And I say that it doesn't matter how many years, but it's what you do with those years in between, right?

MARTIN: That's right. Well, do you think kids have changed over the years?

JENKINS: I think they have, because there's - children nowadays are exposed to a lot more. There - first of all, there's a lot more offered in programs, in schools, in churches, and children today are quick learners because they've been stimulated to do so. Our schools have changed, and even our playtime has changed. And so even when the children are playing, they're - sometimes they're incorporating some of the things they've learned in school or in church.

MARTIN: Is that a good thing or a bad thing, from your perspective?

JENKINS: Oh, I think it's a good thing, because they have an opportunity not only to do it, but they can also make up their own and they can, you know, change things around a little bit. And so we as adults find ourselves observing them and learning, also.

MARTIN: I want to play another song from the album. It's "Who Fed the Chickens?"



MARTIN: Let's hear that, and you can tell us more about it.


JENKINS: These are called pronouns. You'll know about those sometime.

(Singing) Who fed the chickens?


JENKINS: (Singing) Who stacked the hay?


JENKINS: (Singing) Who milked the cow...


JENKINS: (Singing) ...on this fine day? Once again now: Who fed the chickens?


JENKINS: (Singing) Who stacked the hay?


JENKINS: (Singing) Who milked the cows...


JENKINS: (Singing) ...on this fine day?

And now I want you to point to a girl or to a woman, but don't touch anyone and say, she did.

(Singing) Who fed the chicken?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) She did.

JENKINS: (Singing) Who stacked the hay?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) She did.

JENKINS: (Singing) Who milked the cows...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) She did.

JENKINS: (Singing) ...on this fine day?

Point to another girl or woman.

(Singing) Who fed the chicken?


MARTIN: I love that. These are pronouns. You'll learn about that in one day. But you're already learning about that at some point.


JENKINS: And they listen very carefully, because each child he wants to be successful. And so it's not really a challenge, but they just - they want to make sure that they can do it correctly. And then when they're at play around their own home, around their own church, they might share it with some other children.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, you were - you've won many honors over the course of your career. And some of the things I didn't mention, you were the first female and first children's musician to receive the ASCAP Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award. That came in 1999. And you are believed to have been one of the first African-American women to have a regular television program. In the '50s, you hosted "The Totem Club." That was a weekly children's program broadcast in Chicago.

JENKINS: Oh, my.


JENKINS: I'm glad you said "The Totem Club," because used to watch that show and they'd say, oh, Ella, I saw you on "The Totem Poll." I'd say, I wasn't on "Totem Poll."


JENKINS: I'd say "The Totem Club."

MARTIN: Well, did you see yourself as a pioneer?

JENKINS: You know, I don't. I just - I was so easy busy just, you know, copying and trying to learn. And then even listening to recordings, I never thought, all of a sudden, people would start following me. No, I never did. But anyway, when they said that I am, I feel really honored, and I wanted to do more things and share more with the children, as well as adults.

MARTIN: Do you think you have some wisdom that you'd like to pass on to us after all these years and of performing and working with kids and...

JENKINS: I think most people like music and most children like music, and there's a variety of music. But whatever you happen upon with something that you really feel that you really like, I'd say listen to it and listen to it often. And if you want to kind of emulate it, if you want to try to repeat or imitate, do it in a way that when you're sharing it, someone else is going to think it's beautiful, too. So there are a lot of wonderful composers around the world, and sometimes we get a lot of them right here in Chicago. But anyway, when you get these and you start to sing or you can dance like the people that you have heard or watched, then put your best performance forward, and I think the children will do the same.

MARTIN: Many people who've seen you recently have remarked on just how - and people can hear it in your voice - just how happy you sound.


JENKINS: Well, you know...

MARTIN: Just - are you always so happy?

JENKINS: Well, you know, it's I feel, as I say, when I awaken in the morning, I feel I'm just - you know, I just and say good morning, world. You know, it's really nice, because I'm just glad to - there's another day. And I don't think I could ever meet anyone that I don't receive something. Every child, every adult is different, and I always feel that I'm growing every time I meet somebody new.

MARTIN: Ella Jenkins is the First Lady of Children's Music. She has a new album out. It's available now. It's called "Get Moving with Ella Jenkins." And she was kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Ella Jenkins, thank you so much for joining us.

JENKINS: Thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.