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Kids’ music pioneer performs at MLS

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The children’s music business these days is humming, with creative, educational albums such as They Might Be Giants’ 2008 collection “Here Come the 123s” that teaches kids about numbers, or the Recess Monkey’s “Flying,” about a kid who puts on a cape and can be anything he wants. Behind all of today’s fun and inspiring music for youth, is one African-American woman who set out with a conga drum in the cafés of Chicago in the 1950s and humbly started a wave of change that, six decades later, she and others are still riding.

The wave has touched Yellow Springs students, who have been singing Ella Jenkins’ versions of “Did You Feed My Cow” and “Miss Mary Mac” for years. They will surely recognize the real, live Jenkins when she performs at Mills Lawn School this Saturday, May 28, beginning at 7 p.m. in the auditorium. The event is a fundraiser and silent auction for the school’s parent-teacher organization. Participants are welcome to donate a suggested $10 for adults, $5 for children or $20 for a family.

Children can learn to sing silly songs, or they can sing meaningful songs to learn — about their history, about different cultures, about the natural world and learn about themselves and their capacity to be and do good, according to Jenkins, known as the founding mother of children’s music. Music is at its best when it makes you feel good and teaches something at the same time, Jenkins said in an interview this week from her home in Chicago. With 86 years of wisdom in life and 60 as a children’s music performer and educator, Jenkins knows what she’s singing about.

Jenkins hails from Louisiana, but she grew up on Chicago’s South Side, where she was introduced to many different languages and cultures. After earning a masters in sociology in the 1950s, around the time of the folk music revival, she started incorporating poetry into solo performances with a conga drum around the city, according to a New York Times article published in February. She then moved to New York to sign a contract with Smithsonian Folkway Recordings, and was later dubbed “the first lady of children’s music.” Over six decades Jenkins has recorded 36 albums and over 100 folk songs from African-American field hollers to Maori Indian chants and Hawaiian hulas.

“Did you feed my cow?” is one of Jenkins classic songs, recorded on one of her most popular albums, “You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song.” It could be just another silly song for kids, but the lyrics, “Did You Feed My Cow? Yes, M’am. Could you tell me how? Yes, M’am. What did you feed her? Corn and hay…” is one sung by African American slaves as they worked the fields. It’s a call and response format, which Jenkins was the first to apply to children’s music because she believed it would draw them in and give them an opportunity to participate in the music making. And this authentic music making is something today’s “space age” children still need, in order to learn through simple, repetitive tunes about strong values and things that will help them grow to be strong people, Jenkins said this week. Part of the reason Jenkins is coming to Yellow Springs is her commitment to continue connecting with children to instill those values in a celebratory setting, she said. She has already given several performances this year, including one for the 50th anniversary gala of Chicago’s Urban Gateways in April. The other reason for Jenkins’ interest in the village is her friendship with local resident and Mills Lawn parent, Jennifer Berman.

Berman met Jenkins 20 years ago in Chicago when a friend asked if she could invite someone to a party Berman was giving. Berman, then a young adult, immediately recognized Jenkins, who was then in her 60s, as “the woman I learned to sit up and sing from in grade school in Chicago.”

Though Jenkins had her own show on public television and hung around performers such as Odetta, Pete Seeger and Fred Rogers, she always considered the individual and treated everyone the same, which according to Berman, was a quality that manifests on stage as well. She emphasizes interactive call and response music and cross-cultural messages, and has a gift, Berman said, for scanning audiences for people who need to be included, whether it’s the child with her hand up jumping up and down or the underdog who looks like a misfit.

Berman also likes Jenkins’ messages about caring for the planet and learning to count and say hello in other people’s languages.

“In this gentle but clear way she is trying to create gentle, conscientious people,” Berman said last week.

Jenkins does feel a responsibility to help teach children to respect and love other cultures, and through her music she feels she can help her students to travel the world with her. Though some would say that kids can listen to anything, Jenkins believes that children thrive best on music that is simple and clear and can help them with skills such as reading and writing, speech and memory, she said this week.

“Children are critical listeners — they make choices too,” she said. “If they’re exposed early enough, they will enjoy it and learn something, too.”

The auction part of Saturday’s fundraiser will include donated items such as reservations to the Crown Plaza Hotel in Dayton, a visit with veterinarian Brett Ellis, ceramic pot with Yellow Springs clay slip by Frank Doden, 24 home-made truffles by Cindy Sieck, custom literary prescriptions by Lori Askeland, hand-made hula hoop by Lara Bauer, basket of Italian food and wine and ceramic bowls from the Emporium, Current Cuisine and Dana Cooney.

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