I admit when I first heard about the upcoming CD, "cELLAbration!-A Tribute to Ella Jenkins," a momentary feeling of slight jealousy snarled up inside. Why? Well, I had been pitching the idea of a CD with various artists singing Jenkins' songs for several years. Jenkins celebrated her 80th birthday this past August and I thought a new tribute CD would be a timely acknowledgment to this pioneer in children's music. Obviously, other folks thought so, too.
But there's another factor at play here. In 1989 I produced "Did You Feed My Cow? Fred Koch Presents the Songs of Ella Jenkins" (Parents' Choice Gold Award and Parents' Choice Classic Award winner), and I was worried that this new recording would be even better.
Thankfully, my self-centered reaction passed. The most important issue is that an Ella Jenkins tribute CD was produced. And when I heard the new release, I was excited. "cELLAbration!" is so good and I wanted this new CD to be outstanding if only to reflect the enormity of Jenkins' legacy.
"cELLAbration!" is truly an exquisite tribute to "the first lady in children's music" and Chicago resident Ella Jenkins. Everything about this CD is magnificent: the song choices, the artist choices, the performances and even the CD booklet in which the artists speak about Ella's influence on their lives.
Surprisingly, only four of the 18 songs featured on "cELLAbration!" also appear on "Did You Feed My Cow?" That speaks to the vastness of Jenkins' songbook. In fact, there could be another tribute recording created that spotlights other Jenkins' gems.
But all you really need to know is that "cELLAbration!" is a remarkable recording and worthy of all the accolades it is sure to receive.
cELLAbration: A TRIBUTE TO ELLA JENKINS, various artists, Smithsonian-Folkways Recordings, $11.98, www.folkways.si.edu; ages 3-9.
Grammy award-winning producers Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer assembled a virtual who's who of children's and folk music artists to contribute these unique versions of some of Jenkins' classics. Artists include Pete Seeger, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Tom Chapin, Tom Paxton, Bill Harley, Riders in the Sky, John McCutcheon, Fink and Marxer and others. Jenkins' contribution to the field of children's music has been well documented, including her recent Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys, and so it is no wonder that when you mix timeless songs with world-class musical artists, you come up with a recording classic.
The "cELLAbration!" CD kicks off with a fun-filled Dixieland band version of "You'll Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song" performed by Fink along with some swingin' musicians and a group of great-sounding kids (University Park Children's Ensemble of Maryland). Next is "Did You Feed My Cow?" featuring Sweet Honey in the Rock, an awesome African-American female a cappella ensemble whose vocal arrangements give this version a pulsing rhythm. Jenkins was writing and singing multicultural songs for children decades before the term "world music" was coined. She instinctively knew that it was vital for children to open their eyes to the world and that music and song was the way to reach them. "Dulce, Dulce," (Spanish for sweet) originally recorded by Jenkins in 1966, sounds fresh and vibrant as Michele Valeri sings with a Latin-infused arrangement of piano, bass, children's voices and lots of percussion.
Jenkins is also well known for her use of spoken-word pieces. Here Paxton, joined by his two grandsons, playfully shares the rhythmic poem
"I Know a Tom" accompanied only with body percussion-another Jenkins trademark. Jenkins is never shy about letting folks know how she expects children to behave.
Chapin's version of "Please Is a Pleasant Expression" is another great example of how Jenkins gently combines expectations with world languages. In addition to getting the point across, Chapin sings "please" in Spanish, German and French-all on top of a bouncing beat lead by Chapin's banjo.
In the liner notes, Fink speaks about a lunch she and Jenkins had during which they discovered their mutual love of yodeling and early cowboy and cowgirl singers. So it is no surprise that the quintessential cowboy band, Riders in the Sky, is called on to lead a yodeling 101 class, of sorts, with "Let's All Sing a Yodeling Song." Next up is storyteller extraordinaire Harley, who performs the spoken-word classic "The World of Whickam Whackam," which Jenkins originally performed in 1971 for a TV appearance. Harley performs this wondrously silly piece with his characteristic humor and zeal.
McCutcheon, another of my favorite music artists, leads a fun little Jenkins cheer titled "The Union Team." He then connects that thought with the idea that "a band is a lot like a team because we've all got to work together and everybody needs to be a little different." This leads into an introduction of the band (bass, guitar, banjo, fiddle) with McCutcheon chiming in with his hammered dulcimer. Then they all play a toe-tapping, hoedown instrumental version of "Turkey in the Straw" in order to feature the members of the team.
If you've ever heard Seeger, it will take you about three notes to recognize his signature banjo as he starts "The World Is Big, the World Is Small." Seeger, now in his mid-80s, sounds as vibrant and passionate about the songs he sings as he ever has and his interpretation of this simple but eloquent song is full of heartfelt emotion that you can almost touch.
Other highlights include the amazing and authentic Mariachi Los Camperos performing a dazzling rendition of "La Raspa Medley/Fiesta De Ninos." Mike Stein performs another one of Jenkin's spoken-word pieces as he tells the short (under a minute) "Rushing Around Russia," where again some easy Russian language phrases are introduced. In addition, Marxer offers up a breezy rendition of Jenkins' Hawaiian "The Hukilau Song" and Red Grammer shows his vocal prowess with the Jenkins classic "Jambo."
Just think of the generations that have grown up singing the songs of Ella Jenkins and how she has brought the world a little bit closer to our children through her wonderful gift of music. She is a national treasure and deserves all the recognition we can give her. So let's raise our voices and shout out together "Sing Me a Song Again, Ella."
Fred Koch lives in Lake Bluff with his wife and son and is an award-winning music educator, children's musician and producer. His Web site, www.BestChildrensMusic.com, helps parents, teachers and librarians select quality children's music. The Web site also includes an archive of all Koch's past reviews published in Chicago Parent. Please e-mail notes and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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