Ella Jenkins: Still Making Friends With a career that has spanned generations, Jenkins, 86, still loves performing for kids. The legendary singer-songwriter talks about the blues, her early life in Chicago and the children she sings to.
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Ella Jenkins: Still Making Friends

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Ella Jenkins: Still Making Friends

Ella Jenkins: Still Making Friends

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After more than 50 years of singing with children, Ella Jenkins says with each performance, she still wants to make a friend.

Ms. ELLA JENKINS (Singer): I always tell people who perform for children, I say: Don't ever take children for granted. Rather than just my just doing the whole show, I get them involved in songs, sometimes little chants.

(Soundbite of chanting)

BLOCK: That's the Ella Jenkins signature: call and response, lots of rhythmic patterns and songs she's collected all over the world, sung in Swahili, Arabic, Hebrew. Generations of families have grown up listening to Ella Jenkins' music.

She's 86 now. She grew up on Chicago's South Side, and her family moved around the city a lot, moving on and hopefully up. Ella Jenkins never had any formal musical training, but music was all around, starting with the blues, learned at the knee of her Uncle Flood.

Ms. JENKINS: Well, you know, my uncle came from Little Rock, Arkansas, and he came to Chicago, like a lot of people from the South. And he used to play the harmonica. And after this long day's work, he came home to the bath and put on some fresh clothes, go in the kitchen, ate a hearty meal.

But then he'd come in the dining room and sit down. He put on his vest on, and then he had four pockets, and each one held a harmonica. And then he would take them and sit down, and I'd sit on the floor and listen to him. And so he would kind of warm up on the low notes.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JENKINS: Then on to the high notes.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JENKINS: And he said: Now, I want you to listen to this one.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JENKINS: And then, you know, he would play that, and I would just listen.

BLOCK: Well, I was wondering how many harmonicas you might have in your pockets.

Ms. JENKINS: Well, I always carry at least two. But I'm sure I must have at least 60, 70, 100.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JENKINS: I like this instrument because it's very portable. You can just carry it in your pocket, in your purse or whatnot, and you can make a lot of friends.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) Oh, cuckoo, she's a pretty bird. She sings as she flies. But she never howls cuckoo 'til the fourth day of July.

BLOCK: Let me think about those early days, when you were growing up on the South Side of Chicago. Do you think you were conscious then of rhythm and pattern and the things you were hearing around you?

Ms. JENKINS: Well, of course, we jumped rope. I never became a master at double Dutch, but the people who were good double Dutch turners made you very conscious if your rhythm was off. They would tell you very plainly: That's wrong.

And - but I think just almost everything we do, just breathing, rhythm, you know, heartbeat. There are all kinds of ways.

BLOCK: Do you think, as you moved from apartment to apartment around Chicago, that the rhythms that you'd learned sort of became the language that you brought with you from place to place?

Ms. JENKINS: As you would go from one neighborhood to another, the children had different ways of singing. Like Miss Mary Mack, well...

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, all dressed in...

Ms. JENKINS: I just made up a little melody to it.

(Soundbite of song, "Miss Mary Mack")

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) Miss Mary Mack.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Mack, Mack.

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) All dressed in black...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Black, black.

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) ...with silver buttons...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Buttons, buttons.

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) ...all down her back.

Ms. JENKINS: But then sometimes you'd sing, Mary Mack, dressed in black, buttons all up and down her back.

(Soundbite of song, "May_Ree Mack")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Hi-yo, hi-yo.

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) Give me a nickel, give me a dime. Be my honey baby all the time. Hi-yo, hi-yo...

BLOCK: What do you think the best question is you've ever gotten from a kid?

Ms. JENKINS: Sometimes, many children will ask how old I am. You know, I'm always asking: How old are you? And they'll say: How old are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JENKINS: And so it goes up and up and up now because I had - last year, I had my 86th birthday, you know. I almost never think in terms of how many years, but what is done with the years you have. And the children are the ones who help me grow and make my life much more meaningful.

(Soundbite of song, "You'll Sing A Song")

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) You'll sing a song, and I'll sing a song, and we'll sing a song together. You'll sing a song, and I'll sing a song, in warm or wintry weather.

BLOCK: For as long as you've done this, Ella Jenkins, playing for kids, making music with kids, don't you ever get tired of them?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JENKINS: I guess people think you should, but I just - we learn a great deal from the children, just the handshake, the sincerity, the element of surprise and the thank-yous in their voices and about their eyes, the expression, and their smiles. This makes me thrive more. So, you know, I just keep going.

(Soundbite of song, "You'll Sing A Song")

BLOCK: Well, Ella Jenkins, here's to many, many more years of music in your life.

Ms. JENKINS: You know, you made me feel really good because I always think about the end - about the rhythm. The rhythm of this conversation was so nice. And we just got through it in no time at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Thank you so much.

Ms. JENKINS: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of song, "You'll Sing A Song")

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) You'll whistle a while, and I'll whistle a while, more and more wintery while.

BLOCK: Ella Jenkins, at age 86. Her new album is titled "Ella Jenkins: A Life of Song."

(Soundbite of song, "You'll Sing A Song)

Ms. JENKINS: You'll sing a song, and I'll sing a song, and we'll sing a song together...


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