A chance encounter at a grocery store put me on the path to making a documentary film about Ella Jenkins. While shopping, I heard, “Sir, what did you just put in your pocket?” I spun around in a panic—there was something about the authority in the voice—to find my former elementary school music teacher shaking his head and laughing. He got me.
Fred Koch has long been recognized as one of the great early childhood music educators in the Chicago area. I was a student of his when he made a delightful LP of Ella Jenkins’ songs appropriately titled Did You Feed My Cow? Like countless students before me, it was in Fred’s classroom that I first heard the music of Ella Jenkins.
After revisiting my chosen career path, Fred mentioned that someone should make a documentary about Ella Jenkins, the beloved Chicago-based musician who has dedicated her life to serving the nation’s children. There had been murmurs of it happening for several years, but nothing substantial had gotten off the ground. A lightbulb went off in my head.
What if I made the film? What if it was me who brought Ella’s story to the screen? I tried to ignore the idea—for months! The amount of work seemed overwhelming. But as a music-loving filmmaker just starting a family, it seemed a natural fit. Then, one day, I ran into Ella and her longtime manager, Bernadelle Richter, at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. A week later I ran into them again. This was as close to a sign as I was going to get. We exchanged numbers.
I combed archives in our hometown of Chicago, as well as the archives at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. After a local production with Ella—and an exhausting but effective crowdfunding campaign—we made Dallas our first stop. At the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s conference, our crew recorded long lines of excited educators waiting to meet Ella. Watching us shoot on the convention hall floor, Bernadelle said, “It feels like it’s really happening.”
A quick browse through Smithsonian Folkways Recordings reveals the prolific nature of Ella’s work. Before her, most children’s records were novelty recordings and one-offs by adult-oriented musicians. When Ella released her first LP in 1957, there were no other full-time musicians devoted to making music for children, let alone any artists whose records would be sold and distributed to schools.
At the same time, pinning down Ella’s interests and influences can be like nailing jelly to the wall. The volume and variety of material she has committed to record is overwhelming. From game songs and chants, African-American spirituals, rhymes, and original material, Ella has re-worked and preserved songs as unifying links in the chain of folk tradition. Her catalog is like its own Smithsonian Folkways redux, carefully curated for children.
When I interviewed Mister Rogers' Neighborhood producer Margy Whitmer about Ella’s multiple appearances on the show, she said that Fred Rogers looked for things that were “simple and deep.” After interviewing colleagues and friends, I believe that dictum accurately captures the way that she communicates through music. Like her Folkways labelmate Woody Guthrie, Ella’s genius lies in distilling complex concepts down to their most relatable forms. Ella’s songs are like gifts, slipped into your pocket.
As a leader of the children’s music movement, Ella remains a steadfast champion of children and their advocates. It took several decades for the rest of us to catch up to her, but now there are conventions, tours and even radio stations dedicated to this genre. For that reason and many others, I am honored to help bring Ella’s story to the screen.
Tim Ferrin is the producer and director of Ella Jenkins: We’ll Sing a Song Together, a film about the life and work of Ella Jenkins currently in post-production.
Ella's latest album, Camp Songs with Ella Jenkins & Friends, is out today on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.