Music Article

She Keeps the Music Playing

Ella Jenkins: Songwriter -- How the singer keeps her craft going

It's a good thing the Walkman hadn't been invented when Ella Jenkins was growing up — she might have missed hearing the eclectic sound of her South Side Chicago neighborhood: music blaring from church and store loudspeakers, jukebox tunes, the strains of her uncle's harmonica, even the singing of birds.

''I'm not a formal musician. I didn't study music...I had a good ear,'' says the 66-year-old performer and educator, who incorporates different sounds, rhythms, and chants from other cultures and places into her music.

Jenkins, who still lives in Chicago, has been singing at schools around the world since the mid-1950s, when she embarked on a full-time musical career. To each performance, she carries a bag of small, portable instruments, including five harmonicas (she has a collection of more than 100 at home), maracas, clave sticks, and castanets.

This year brings three big milestones for Jen-kins: the 25th anniversary of her most popular recording, the best-selling You'll Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song (the title tune is a Jenkins original made popular again by Raffi); the release of two new videos, Ella Jenkins Live at the Smithsonian and Ella Jenkins for the Family; and the arrival of a new album, Come Dance by the Ocean.

The sea itself was the inspiration for the new record. ''I was so fascinated by the sound,'' she says. ''And it was a real rhythm, because it came and whooosh — I kept waiting for the new sound to come, and it came rushing.''

Originally posted May 10, 1991 Published in issue #65 May 10, 1991 Order article reprints