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Ella Jenkins

With Wade Goodwyn in for Tom Ashbrook.

Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter Ella Jenkins on 50 years of making music for children.

Ella Jenkins performs in a special concert, Baird Auditorium, National Museum of Natural History. (Smithsonian Institution)

Ella Jenkins performs in a special concert, Baird Auditorium, National Museum of Natural History. (Smithsonian Institution)

For more than 50 years Ella Jenkins has been writing and recording music for America’s children.  The Grammy award winning singer is called The First Lady of Children’s Music and her fame is such that she’s acted as a U.S. delegate to Hong Kong, The People’s Republic of China and what was once the Soviet Union. Next week she’ll turn 88 and she’s still performing and recording with gusto.

This hour, On Point: Ella Jenkins and a life making music for children.

-Wade Goodwyn


Ella Jenkins, an American folk singer, dubbed “The First Lady of the Children’s Folk Song.” Her latest album is “A Life of Song.”

Justin Roberts, family music indie pop singer-songwriter. He plays with his band the Not Ready for Naptime Players.

Video: “I Know a City Called Okeechobee”

Check out this video of Ella Jenkins singing “I Know a City Called Okeechobee.”



“He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” (A Life of Song, 2011)

“Pick A Bale Of Cotton” (A Life of Song, 2011)

“Milk Cow Blues” (LIVE) (A Life of Song, 2011)

“An American Chain Gang Chant” (Call & Response, 1957)


“Mary Had a Little Lamb” (Early Early Childhood Songs, 1996)

“Little Sally Walker” (A Life of Song, 2011)

“An Arabic Chant That Means Welcome” (Call & Response, 1957)

“Miss Mary Mack” (LIVE)

“The World is Big the World is Small” (Multicultural Children’s Songs, 1995)


“Muffin Man” (Songs Children Love to Sing, 1996)

“Pop Fly” by Justin Roberts (Pop Fly, 2008)

“Black Royalty” (A Life of Song, 2011)

“Sing Me A Song Again, Ella” (cELLAbration, 2004) Performed by the University Park Children’s Ensemble

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  • Liz Buchanan

    Ella Jenkins is such a shining light in children’s music – she received The Children’s Music Network’s Magic Penny Award for lifetime achievement in children’s music in 2001! http://www.cmnonline.org/magic-penny/2001-ella-jenkins.htm And she is still going strong today http://blog.cmnonline2.org/2012/05/16/meeting-ella-jenkins/  Hurray for Ella!  From Liz Buchanan, President of The Children’s Music Network

  • Barry Louis Polisar

    Another hat I wore a few decades ago was on the radio; I got to interview many of my fellow performers and musicians who sang for kids (Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, Tom Glazer and others). http://www.barrylou.com/musicInterviews.html Ella was my very first interview and her natural warmth came through. I told her I had never been on “that side of the microphone before” and I remember her saying, “oh you’ll do fine” and I was instantly at ease. Justin is a perfect counterpoint; one of the nicest and gracious of the new breed of artists performing for kids now.
    –Barry Louis Polisar

  • Carol Ann Rice Rafferty

    Play Mate Come Out & Play With Me is my favorite children’s song. First time I heard this song I thought it was written by someone watching me playing in my own backyard.


  • Kate Mortimer

    I was a preschool teacher for many years and used Ella Jenkins’ songs with my classes often.  To this day when I meet an adult who was a former student or a parent, they always remember some of the songs.  Two of the favorites were “Did You Feed My Cow?”   and “Miss Mary Mack”.

    My students came from a wide range of ethnic and economic backgrounds, but I was most satisfied when the children of homogeneous white upper-middle class delighted in Ella’s music!

  • IsaacWalton

    I just had to chime in here. I grew up in Norfolk Virginia. Miss Mary Mack could be heard throughout the neighborhood playgrounds. At one point, I was bussed across town into Portsmouth and schooled with many lower income children. I was afraid to go to school in a place that was worlds away from home. I was happy to find your familiar songs waiting to greet and ease me onto those intimidating playgrounds. Thank you!

  • Nrvoci

    Thank you so much for this show…when my siblings and I were very young my mother used to play her ukulele and sing “Jump down turn around and pick a bale of cotton…”, while the 4 of us jumped around the living room…she died a year ago and you just brought that memory back and made me smile…thank you

  • Ann Natalizia

    I have been teaching for 30
    years. I have been lucky enough to attend conferences with Ella, but
    most importantly, I continue to use her music to this day. “Hello,
    Hello,” “Clap Your Hands,” and a personal favorite that every class I
    have ever taught goes crazy for: “In Trinidad,” about a bad, bad bull!!

  • ying13

    great inspiring stories.
    I love to learn from ProjectAuraNexus & Youtube
    because to create a song appears to be important for kids.

    Kids are inspired to create new songs through youtube free daily.


  • Patricia

    I called in and got to speak with Ella–a big thrill!  She agreed with my comment that music is a WONDERFUL tool to educate children, as it not only can REFLECT our culture but also can INFLUENCE it.  Children’s/family music is particularly powerful in this way as kids’ minds are open and impressionable; therefore songwriters and performers have the privilege and power (and the responsibility) to write and disseminate music with positive messages and intent.  She agreed 100%.  By the time kids are teens it may be too late.  Witness some of the messages in today’s music for teens.

    Best resource for this kind of music is The Children’s Music Network, as is referenced in a previous comment below.

    Also loved what Justin had to say about live music and involving kids and families directly and personally. And what caller Mary had to say about the magic of music for kids and everyone.  Thank you Ella, Justin and Wade!

    Patricia Shih

  • Julia Brennan

    I was raised in a Hudson Valley village during the 1960s and 1970s where Pete Seeger was a regular visitor at our school and our teachers sang us songs by Ella Jenkins, Woody Guthrie, Malvina Reynolds and others who wrote about ‘adult’ topics in songs that were accessible to children.  I encourage your listeners to engage in robust advocacy for arts in our public schools – when money gets tight music budgets are often the first to be cut.  Our kids need more opportunities to sing!     

    • Patricia

       Hear, hear!

  • Margit

    Darn straight, Liz.  Hip-hip-hooray for Miss Ella.  I actually had to call in and express my profound thanks to her and the other children’s performers who created the soundtrack for my childhood.  They inspired my whole family to make music which gave me a foundation so that I can now pass that love and appreciation along to the families I serve in Music Together classes.  Another 88 years, if you please, Miss Ella!

    • http://www.joyfuljumpingmt.com/ Katbat1

      I feel the same way, Margit! Without the inspiration of Ella, I could not have the musical foundation that helped me become an early childhood music educator. Music Together owes a huge debt of gratitude to Miss Ella too!

  • Mike Card

    Pick a Bale of Cotton.  Haven’t heard or sung it in nearly 50 years; I probably knew the “cleaned-up for white folks” version that Burl Ives recorded.  The words were slightly different:

    Jump down, turn around,
    Pick a bale of cotton.
    Jump down, turn around,
    Pick a bale a day.

    Me and my wife gonna
    Pick a bale of cotton.
    Me and my wife gonna
    Pick a bale a day.

    Oh, Lordy,
    Pick a bale of cotton.
    Oh, Lordy,
    Pick a bale a day.

    Tune was familiar, but the lyrics were different.

    Thanks for the memory!

  • http://www.hunktabunkta.com/ Katherine Dines

    ELLA!– There is no one who embraces and reaches EVERYONE– in her audiences– whether big or small; young or old. About 18 years ago, when I was just stepping out along the path as a children’s songwriter/performer, I got to “open” for Ella at the TN State Early Childhood Education Conference, then drive her around for a few hours to various schools and pre-schools. Actually, she was so inclusive, I didn’t “open” her concert, but she insisted I perform WITH her on stage. From that day forward, I was completely hooked on the concept of involving my audiences. Thank you for your songs, spirit and inspiration, Ella!  

  • Al Hirsch

    Thanks Ella! There re many of us, who walk in your footsteps, keeping alive the musical history of our country.
    Al Hrsch A.K.A. Alleyoop, http://www.alleyoop.us. Seattle

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