Do You Know Ella Jenkins “The First Lady of Children’s Music”?


Women’s History in Folk Music and Early Childhood Education
Ella Jenkins, Children's Folk SingerPhoto bySmithsonian Folkways

Update: February 7, 2023

Women’s History Month and folk music genre should honor Ella Jenkins for giving 50 years of unity and peace to children and parents around the world with her voice, and ukulele.

Way before Baby Shark, and children’s music became a “genre” or created YouTube sensations there was the calm, soothing voice of Ella Jenkins. I discovered Ms. Ella’s warm voice in a box of tapes I inherited in my first preschool classroom at the legendary Spring School of The Arts in Philadelphia. The Spring School was a magical place started by the late Ardie Stuart Brown and her sister Patricia Robinson. The Stuart Sisters are legends and pioneers in incorporating performing arts in early childhood education, and social justice theatre.

I have a pretty eclectic taste in music and Ella Jenkins was and still is a surprise favorite because she’s a folk singer. When I think of folk music, I think of the classic vibrato voices of Joan Baez and others accompanied by acoustic guitar, but there are a lot of unknown Black folk singers. Ms. Ella Jenkins is near and dear to my heart because she utilizes traditional call and response (reminiscent of my church days).

Ms. Jenkins stands out because the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) calls Ella Jenkins The First Lady of Children’s Music which is a high honor from the primary accreditation and credentialing agency in early childhood education (ECE). Ms. Jenkins is from Chicago and she studied child psychology at San Francisco State University and made music for over 50 years.

According to NAEYC, Ella Jenkins won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, and in 2014, “she released her 40th album on her 90th birthday. Ella was one of few artists to have recorded both for Smithsonian Folkways and for Moses Asch’s original Folkways label, and has enjoyed a prolific career characterized by genuine love and appreciation for the minds and hearts of children.”

NAEYC sets ECE teaching standards to ensure they are maintained through trainings that provide evidence-based, child-centered best practices. I remember going to a NAEYC training and learning the benefits of using music in the classroom to help with transitions, engagement, and motivation. Musical dance, movement, and coordination games were always a favorite. Ella Jenkins was culturally competent, inclusive, and woke before it became a trend.

I urge parents to explore Ella Jenkins' songs. Here were my top choices:

Ella Jenkins - You'll Sing A Song And I'll Sing A Song

The World is Big The World is Small

Thank You In Many Languages

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