Ella Jenkins’ catalog selections
”Whatever I say to you, you just say back to me,” singer Ella Jenkins tells a group of children at the start of one of her albums, Jambo and Other Call-and-Response Songs and Chants, ”and try not to jump the beat.” Then Jenkins and the children make music.
Jenkins’ music has entertained and educated countless classrooms and families since 1957, when she recorded Call and Response, the first of her 28 albums. None of these collections is overproduced, stylish, or the least bit sly. This is music pared to its essence. Sometimes it sounds like the best rhythm band any kindergarten ever produced. Sometimes it’s just Ella, enfolding an old nursery rhyme or a new spiritual in her magnificent voice. Often, it’s magic.
Jenkins never condescends to her audience or gets cute. Friendly yet firm, her style is more strict-British-nanny than flashy entertainer. But Mary Poppins never played a kazoo this well.
Here is a sampling of Jenkins’ work, including her new collection about the environment, Come Dance by the Ocean. She hasn’t made a bad album, but, perhaps trusting in the power of repetition to educate, she seems to have made the same one several times, with virtually the same title. (Reading Jenkins’ liner notes, I finally learned how to spell the word ”rhythm,” which appears at least six times in her titles. Whether I have rhythm is another question, but Jenkins can’t do everything.)
Jambo and Other Call-And-Response Songs and Chants (1974)
This is my favorite Jenkins collection. ”Jambo” (”hello” in Swahili) has only 11 words. It’s a bilingual greeting song almost too simple to describe. But once you hear it, you’ll never forget it. ”On Safari” and ”Pole Pole” are lovely language lessons in Swahili; ”I Looked Into the Mirror” is a haunting, jazzy self-esteem builder. I play this tape when I’m driving — even without the kids. A
Call and Response (1957)
”Tahboo-oo-oo…Ee pah-ah-ah…” Plain but subtle, African tribal chants are musical sleight of hand. Here, Jenkins celebrates their deceptive simplicity. With congas, maracas, and a classroom of kids, she takes you deep into the Congo. Actually, Jenkins wrote most of the chants herself, proving that if you’re talented enough, you can approximate anything. Whatever, the rhythmic give-and-take of the group singing is hypnotic. More good driving music (the kids will sleep). A
Come Dance By the Ocean (1991)
Jenkins’ paean to environmentalism is so low-key it doesn’t seem to have been planned. Along with ”You Can’t Sink a Rainbow (a tribute to Greenpeace)” is a ragtime riff on ”Chicago, It’s the People.” Maybe Jenkins thinks the first step in saving the earth is to admire it. ”On a Holiday” and ”Ocean” admire the Caribbean. ”A Winter Plane Ride” admires the ground from the air. Then comes ”My Papa Is a Paparazzo (He chases movie stars in their fancy cars).” Including this song in an album about the environment makes no sense but displays Jenkins’ sense of fun. A-
We Are America’s Children: Songs, Rhythms and Moods Reflecting Our People’s History (1976)
Children explores America’s diversity, and I don’t mean the difference between Methodists and Presbyterians. The traditional ”Black Children Was Born,” enhanced by modern names (”Harriet Tubman was born…Dr. King was born…”) becomes a powerful anthem. There’s a wonderful repetitive chant, ”We Are Native American Tribes,” recognizing tribes from Choctaw to Zuni. There are blues and spirituals, and there is Woody Guthrie’s ”This Land Is Your Land,” sung a cappella with kids. A
Early Childhood Songs (1982)
In Early, recorded with 3- and 4-year-olds, you hear the fits and starts of hesitant children, at first mumbling ditties like ”This Old Man,” then growing confident, until they sing without self-consciousness. Early is 10 minutes of music, 20 minutes of impromptu nursery rhymes. ”You have a good time,” Jenkins tells her students. And they do. A
Play Your Instruments and Make a Pretty Sound (1968)
A fabulous first music lesson, Play teaches the basics of rhythm and response and introduces eight instruments in half an hour. Can a kid learn so much so fast and still have fun? Depends on his tolerance for repetition — one tune returns three times. There are good songs here — ”No More Pie” sounds so authentic and traditional you know instantly that Jenkins, with her talent for evoking the styles of other eras, must have written it. (She did.) But ultimately Play may be more work than you want outside a classroom. B
Counting Games and Rhythms For the Little Ones (1964)
”One Two, Buckle My Shoe,” ”One Potato, Two Potato”: The nine songs and chants on this album are more than classics, they’re essential. For Jenkins, what’s essential is to help children find their natural rhythms. You don’t need a synthesizer or a brass band for that. You need a calm voice singing ”Ten Little Indians” to hiccuping preschoolers. Eighteen minutes of this may seem like a lifetime to parents, but tots will fall right in line. B+
Growing Up with Ella Jenkins: Rhythms, Songs and Rhymes and Children from the Mary Crane Day Care Center (1976)
Growing Up, which continues the ”Live: In Classroom” approach, is easy to underestimate, because Jenkins does not care whether her songs entertain parents. But parents will be amused nonetheless, at least by the songs they grew up with: ”Barnacle Bill the Sailor,” ”Hickory Dickory Dock,” ”A Sailor Went to Sea.” These and 16 other selections are rendered in classic Jenkins style. A-
Little Johnny Brown and Other Songs (1971)
Nine of the 12 songs on Little Johnny Brown are old traditional tunes, and the other three, written by Jenkins, sound even older and more traditional. All together, the songs run the gamut from ”He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” to ”Freedom Train” to Jenkins’ perpetual favorite, ”Miss Mary Mack.” (Jenkins has recorded this old rhyme at least six times, which is five too many.) That’s not much of a gamut, but all the songs in this collection deserve to be sung — once, anyway. B