A Conversation with Musician Ella Jenkins

Legendary children’s musician Ella Jenkins recently released a new album and performs in Chicago on February 6.

Her new album, “ Life of Song,” offers stories and songs that speak to her years growing up as an African-American child in multicultural Chicago. Jenkins recently sat down with Make It Better to talk about her new release and her accomplishments as a recording artist, performer and educator.

MIB: What was the inspiration behind “A Life in Song”?

EJ: When I was growing up, I moved from neighborhood to neighborhood as my parents tried to better our lives. Each time we moved, I met new kids who taught me the songs, games and rhymes from their neighborhood. Even after we moved away, many of the rhymes and rhythms stayed with me and are on this album.

MIB: How did you first get interested in the call-and-response method of singing?

EJ: I first learned this technique through the church, where a minister would call out a phrase or question and the congregation would answer. I also noticed cheerleaders did the same thing to get the crowd involved and excited. I like the back-and-forth because it gives kids a chance to respond. For example, one day I was with a group of children and I was singing the popular rhyme, “1, 2, buckle my shoe.” I asked the kids to tell me their ideas. One little girl stood up and said, “1, 2, buckle my seatbelt.” I said, “I’ve never thought about that before, but you’re right! A seatbelt is something we buckle.”

MIB: How do you give back to the community?

EJ: It’s important for me to go back to the communities where I grew up and work with the children there to help them learn about music and rhymes. And you know what?  They latch on quickly to different songs and sounds and soon they start experimenting with sounds, words and rhymes on their own. I always tell the kids that this is where I grew up too, because sometimes it’s hard from them to imagine I was ever a little kid.  But I was just like them—learning, singing and moving along.

Ella Jenkins will perform her “Kid Show,” with special guests The Young Stracke All-Stars on Sunday, Feb. 6, at 11 a.m. at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. For tickets, click here.

We are giving away a free autographed copy of Ella Jenkin’s new release, “A Life of Song.” To enter, leave a comment below this article telling us your favorite Ella Jenkins song. Contest ends at 5 p.m. on Monday, February 7, 2011. Good luck!