To have a “godmother” is to have someone in your life who brings the best to you and out of you. Ella Jenkins has been a godmother to children all over the world since the 1950s, and she continues today as she approaches her 83rd birthday (this August). Ella Jenkins was born in St. Louis, and her family moved to Chicago when she was in kindergarten. Ella first came to prominence in the 1950s when her first album, “Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing,” was released on Folkways Records. A self-taught musician, her masterful way of including children in her music is as much education as entertainment. In 2004, Jenkins received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Since 1957, she has released some 31 albums. Her 1966 album, You Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song, is the best-selling album in the history of Folkways Records.
Jenkins will perform a concert at Wonder Works Children’s Museum at 4 p.m. on Feb. 18. Call 383-4815 for ticket information.
AWN: When did you realize your gift for interacting with children?
Jenkins: I would say when I was a program director for teenagers at the YMCA in Chicago. It was my first job after returning to Chicago from California. As a child, my friends and I sang together and danced. It was out of my own enjoyment of childhood I became more and more interested. [Ella moved to California in 1948 to improve her opportunities. After graduating from San Francisco State College in 1951 with a B.A. in sociology, she moved back to Chicago and became director at the YMCA.]
AWN: Did your parents encourage your musical talents?
Jenkins: Yes. I remember going to the Regal Theatre and seeing all the wonderful acts, and that inspired me. My mother paid 25 cents for me to take tap-dancing lessons, and I loved it. Growing up on Chicago’s South Side was an interesting time, and I remember my brother used to sell the Chicago Bee newspaper. At that time, we used to get tickets to the Louis Theatre-it was named after boxer Joe Louis. [The Chicago Bee covered news relevant to what is now called “Bronzeville.” It was an African-American paper financed by Anthony Overton, whose parents were former slaves in Monroe, La. He came to Chicago in 1911.]
AWN: When did you start the call-and-response technique?
Jenkins: I found for children to learn, like learning their alphabet, if you get a game or something or make up a sound, they would get involved. I had heard a lot of African recordings-that was one technique I like. One time my brother and I went to visit my grandmother in Huntsville, Ala. and when you would attend church, there was always a lot of back-and-forth responses from the ministers to the congregation.
AWN: You often performed on television’s Mr. Rogers Neighborhood show. What was he like?
Jenkins: He was very nice and sincere. The way he appeared as a kind and caring man was exactly how he was off camera. I never used a script on his show. It was very informal, and everything always flowed very well working with him. People don’t realize that he had many women working for him on his staff. I always acknowledged the crew and people who worked the lighting.
AWN: How do you know what your audiences want to hear?
Jenkins: I look out at the audience to see who’s there. If there are younger children, I adjust accordingly. We all can make up the concert by participation.
AWN: Did you ever meet Dr. Martin Luther King?
Jenkins: No. However, I did perform with a group I was singing with when he was at Soldiers Field during the 1960s. When I think about civil rights and the African-American experience, I remember going to places where I could not stay. During the 1950s, I remember a place in Indiana-my driver Harold (who was also a musician) went to a restaurant and everyone looked at us so hard it was unsettling. We had already noticed when we arrived in this town how everyone was looking out their windows. I’ve always contended if I can’t stay at a place why would I want to perform there? [Ms. Jenkins preferred not to mentioned the exact town in Indiana.]
AWN: What was an exciting moment you remember?
Jenkins: It was going to the United Center and seeing Michael Jordan. The entire evening was so wonderful, and it was a family-oriented night.
AWN: How would you like to summarize?
Jenkins: I tell children, ‘You are the future.’ You know, we should not take children for granted. I talk to children about love, Mahalia Jackson, and my black history. Every day, history is being made because of what I do and share. Each day when I awake, I thank God. If I can make a difference in a life, whether it’s a child or someone else, it is a great day. I would like for children to sing and enjoy music, and I hope that their parents and grandparents will continue the music and continue sharing with one another.
Some of Ella Jenkins’ honors include: the Parents Choice Award, a KOHL Education Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, Cook County Children’s Hospital’s Meritorious Service Award, and a Pioneer in Early Television citation. Ms. Jenkins has served as a U.S. delegate to Hong Kong, China and the former Soviet Union with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Instruments she plays include the ukulele and the harmonica. Since 1968, Jenkins has performed at Ravinia Festival’s Young People’s Programs in Highland Park. She also does volunteer programs in children’s hospitals. She does not have children of her own, but she communicates with children, and children respond to her through music.
Ella Jenkins will perform at Wonder Works on Feb. 18 at 4 p.m., 6445 W. North Ave., Oak Park. Wonder Works is a children’s museum that provides a hands-on environment intended to strengthen the social, emotional and intellectual development of children up to age 10.