Ella Jenkins at 99: A Timeline

By Adela Skowronski |

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Gray haired woman stands with the ocean to her back

Ella Jenkins, cover photo for the album Come Dance By the Ocean. (ellajenkins.com Photo by B. Richter)

Ella Jenkins: songwriter, activist, and one of Chicago’s living legends. This incredible woman has taught valuable lessons to children around the world for decades and led generations through multiple human rights movements, earning the nickname the “First Lady of Children’s Folk Music”. Ahead of her 99th birthday this August, WFMT takes a look at the life of Ella Jenkins, her tireless activism, and what makes her so important to our own city of Chicago.

Ella Jenkins was born on August 6, 1924, in St. Louis, Missouri, and grew up on Chicago’s South Side. Her family often moved during her childhood, exposing Ella to Chicago’s various neighborhoods and sparking her lifelong curiosity of other cultures. Ella became an omnivore of the arts. Each move resulted in a cultural exchange: new friends were made, new games were learned, and new songs were exchanged between folks moving in and folks moving out. She also enjoyed gospel music from Sunday services, and taking tap dance lessons from local theaters.  After graduating from high school, Ella earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology with minors in Child Psychology and Recreation from San Francisco State University.

Upon arriving back in Chicago, Ella worked a variety of jobs, including as a secretary and a social worker, before landing a job as a YMCA program director for teenagers. It was her work with children that inspired Jenkins to start writing her own songs. It didn’t take long for her fun-loving attitude and unique performances to get noticed. Soon after starting at the YMCA, she was invited to appear on the public television show Totem Club. The appearance was such a success that Jenkins was brought on to host a program of her own, This is Rhythm, in January 1958.

With the help of TV, Jenkins’ music career began to flourish. In 1956, she left her job at the YMCA to become a professional folk singer. Jenkins immersed herself in the rich musical culture of Chicago, and soon, other cities around the United States. She loved all kinds of children’s games, especially those that involved rhythm, movement, and music, documenting them for future recordings. Jenkins carved a niche for herself with “call and response” types of performances; she had a knack for getting children of all ages to actively engage in various rhythmic and melodic components throughout the show.

The release of Ella Jenkins’ first album, Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing (1957) was met with success. She would go on to release 39 albums and hundreds of songs throughout the course of her career. Jenkins used her position as a recording artist to explore music from various cultures. She also collaborated with America’s foremost folk musicians to address topics of human rights: from civil rights with Big Bill Broonzy and Sweet Honey in the Rock, to union organization with Pete Seeger.

For over 65 years, Jenkins has traveled the world performing and teaching kids of all ages how to get in touch with their cultures, and themselves in turn. As a result, the songs of Ella Jenkins have integrated themselves into American folk history. Some of her most well-known recordings include:

  • “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
  • “Who Fed the Chickens?”
  • “This Is Rhythm”
  • “This Train”
  • “Down by the Bay”
  • “I’m On My Way to Canaan Land”
  • “Hop, Skip and Jump to My Lou”

In addition to her work as a musician, Jenkins has also been a tireless advocate for music education. She has appeared on many media shows, advocating the importance of children’s music, and has led workshops all over the world. In 2004, she was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to music.

Ella Jenkins is also no stranger to WFMT! She has visited our studio on several occasions, as a guest on the station’s Folkstage program, an audience member, or as a performer herself. Her visits to WFMT have always been a treat for listeners. Jenkins’ warm and inviting personality inspired people of all ages to sing, dance, and have fun.

Ella Jenkins will celebrate her 99th birthday on August 6th. She continues to perform and teach when able; her body of recorded work enriches the lives of young and old alike.

To celebrate Ella Jenkins, WFMT will be airing special editions of Folkstage (8pm) and The Midnight Special (9pm) on Saturday, August 5. Celebrations will include a 2004 concert from the Old Town School of Folk Music, stories from Jenkins’ career, and a smattering of songs that reflect her influence on generations of children. Join us in honoring a true Chicago icon!