Doc tells of kids folk singer Jenkins’ unique career

Folk legend Ella Jenkins at 90

Filmmaker Tim Ferrin learned about children’s folk singer Ella Jenkins when he was a kid in music class listening to songs like “Did You Feed My Cow?” He remembers that his parents had her albums, too, and he carried the tune fondly for years.

Then, during a chance encounter with the teacher who first played him the song, he realized that music is just one chapter in the remarkable story of Jenkins’ life and career.

In September, 2013, Ferrin began production on a long overdue documentary about the life and career of Jenkins, who celebrated her 90th birthday in August. With DP Aaron Hui of Glide Productions, he has been shooting interviews with Jenkins and B-rolls at her concerts.

After releasing more than 40 albums, performing around the world for more than 50 years and earning a Grammy Association Lifetime Achievement Award, Ella Jenkins has come to be known as “The First Lady of the Children’s Folk Song.” 

While Ferrin agrees with the title, he intends to present her work in an adult context.

“I think, because she made kids music, people are quicker to dismiss it,” he says. “She belongs up there with the Pete Seegers and Woody Guthries.”

To the generation that went to grammar school in the 1960s, Ella Jenkins’ repertoire delivered joy at a time when the increasingly unwashed political activism of the folk era began inciting cultural resentment between parents and kids. 

With songs like “Miss Mary Mack” and “You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song,” she combined a number of genres to create a truly unique sound.

“Her background is folk but there are certainly very strong elements of blues and the call and response from the gospel tradition,” Ferrin explains. “She soaked up much of what we call roots music or world music. It doesn’t stop at Americana.”

Highland Park Jenkins concert/fundraiser Nov. 16

Ferrin also plans to focus on her biography. “She built this career as an African American woman born in the 1920s,” he explains. 

“She really had an uphill climb to get where she is. She was out marching for civil rights and women’s rights in the ‘60s. When Dr King held a rally in Soldier Field in 1966, she performed there.”

At Jenkins’ birthday party in Lincoln Park, the celebration included a number of folk bands for the adults and face painting for the kids.

Ferrin was among the attendees. “It was amazing,” he says. “She is a connector. She is a conduit for wonderfulness.”

The documentary is budgeted at $150,000, towards which Ferrin raised $50,000 from a recent Indiegogo campaign. “And we’re still raising funds,” he says. 

Ferrin is pleased that Jenkins’ fans from all over the country will be attending the Nov. 16 salute to Jenkins concert/fundraiser. It takes place at the Arts Center of Highland Park, 1957 Sheridan Road, 4-6 p.m. Free and open to all; donations are encouraged.

Donations towards the documentary may be made via The Ella Jenkins website.

Ferrin’s Email is morningbugle@gmail.com.

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