What better tribute to Chicago's very own GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award-winner and "First Lady of the Children's Folk Song" Ella Jenkins than celebrating her 92nd birthday on Saturday, August 6th, with an inside view of this incredibly talented and creative artist from someone who steered her career for so long, Daniel Sheehy, outgoing Director and Curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. With me was Ella's longtime publicist, Lynn Orman Weiss, who was responsible for urging The Recording Academy to move forward with and secure the addition of the Children's Music field to the GRAMMY Awards.
William Kelly Milionis: Thank you for taking time out of your schedule here in Washington DC to meet with me and talk about "The First Lady of the Children's Folk Song" and GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Ella Jenkins. How has your experience been in having Ella Jenkins as an anchor artist at Folkways?
Daniel E. Sheehy: I have to preface that with the fact that I have been with Folkways since 2000, then Tony Seeger was here for 13 years before then, and Ella goes back to 1957. Ella was an anchor for Folkways all the way back, at least into the 1960's, shortly after she got up and running with Moses Asch. Here in Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, when Folkways Records came to the Smithsonian in 1987 and became Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Ella has been an anchor in at least two ways, maybe more than that. One way, is that she was the best selling single artist of anybody in the Folkways catalog and Tony Seeger discovered that right away. Ella was already widely and deeply respected by everyone. It was notable that she played such a major role from the record sales point of view. Ella, more importantly from our point of view, because we are mission oriented, primarily your bottom line is your mission, she really defined Children's Music which is a whole field today. In Folkways, it was one of the three main veins of content ever since 1957, really when Moses Asch recorded and published recordings by Ella Jenkins. Then it grew. It grew. The Children's Music part of Folkways grew. Today, it is one of the three pillars of Folkways in terms of content, in terms of forward motion, in terms of recognition out in the world; the other two being so called World Music, and so called Americana. In Americana, you have the icons of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly in the Folkways collection, a very strong representation of Woody's collection, then you have this whole swath of music from around the world. I think, at last count, it was about 170 countries; that's not counting cultures, that's just countries. But Children's Music has really been a cornerstone of Folkways and it never stopped being a cornerstone at Folkways ever since the late 1950's. So, both from a Mission point of view and a Survival point of view in terms of Folkways that has the mandate of paying almost all of its way through revenues, sales, and licensing of the sort, Children's Music, and Ella Jenkins in particular, are really a mainstay of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Kelly: When walking the hallways of Folkways, there is a passion for Ella Jenkins and her Children's Music. It is a uniquely palpable feeling of love and support from all of the employees I've met in the office today...
Dan: Yes, there is a feeling of family. There is a feeling of passion. There is no question about that.
Kelly: Can you share a few interesting Ella Jenkins stories for her 92nd birthday - Saturday, August 6, 2016?
Dan: When I came here, I remember there was a going away event for Tony Seeger who had been the Director and Curator of Folkways. It was in the Smithsonian Castle. This was branded in my mind. Tony had the opportunity to say a few words in front of all these people, friends and colleagues gathered around. I was just there learning because I had been at the National Endowment for the Arts for many years (this is just an anecdote about how central people in Folkways feel about Ella Jenkins and Children's Music). When Tony finally was given the opportunity to say a few words of thank you and fare well, he walked up to the microphone, he paused and looked around at the people and he said, "you'll sing a song and I'll sing a song and we'll sing a song together, you'll sing a song and I'll sing a song in warm and wintry weather." (song is sung by Dan) And everybody in the room knew that song. There must have been fifty people there. And so Tony, being a Seeger, knowing all these folks in Americana music, and all that to kind of give his statement of musical statement just a little hint of what's special in Folkways what did he pick, he picked the song that Ella Jenkins made so famous. And, it is the 50th Anniversary of that song. I hesitate to say that Ella has a signature song because she has so many signature songs. No song more embodies and captures the spirit of Ella Jenkins than that song both musically, in its melody, and appealing simplicity. But also, it goes right back to the principles that Ella put forward about what are her guiding principles for making music. "You'll Sing A Song and I'll Sing A Song, and We'll All Sing A Song Together" (sings Dan) then people repeat that verse. You then plug in a new word here and a new word there and then you have her teaching technique embodied in that repetition with variation interchanged back and forth and a song that can appeal to anybody any age. That for me is classic Ella Jenkins beyond the music. [another Ella Jenkins story] And, this is another one of those Ella stories that I will never forget. It is in the forefront of my mind. I can see everyone in the auditorium. I can see people in the front row. I can see Ella at the podium. This is when she received the GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award in Los Angeles. Ella involved all the people. There were men in tuxedos and women in formal dresses. Right in the front row another awardee was [Harvey Lavan] "Van" Cliburn. She was saying, "Will you milk my cow? ... Yes, Ma'am. Squish, Squish, Squish." (sings Dan) And she had everybody in the auditorium going, "Squish, Squish, Squish." It was classic Ella. I remember Van Cliburn because I'm a child of the Cold War and Van Cliburn was the main cultural weapon, so to speak, that the United States had and when he won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia that was BIG. So just seeing him smiling and having a good time and milking a cow with Ella right in front of me was a beautiful, beautiful sight. [One more story] Ella spent time in Jewish summer camps. She grew up in the late 1950's, post-World War II, there was a lot of anti-Semitism still in the atmosphere not that it's all gone away but nevertheless it was an issue so she went out of her way to learn Jewish songs and she was part of an ambience that included Jewish young people and old people, and she made it a point of making that a part of her repertoire and pushing that out into the world as well. And then, of course, a natural for her was music of Africa. There was a song, "Jambo, Jambo" (sings Dan) that was also in a way a product of a time when people were looking to certain iconic musics from Africa that people could relate to in the United States. Swahili, as I recall, was the most recognizable language from Africa...I'm talking from the 1950's and 1960's. Ella made sure she included some Swahili in there. And, of course, African American heritage and her harmonica playing...we learned how amazing she is on the harmonica during the Children's Camp Songs recording sessions. Being a musician I was struck first by the technique she has, as well as her Ukulele playing. That's why I love the Multicultural Children's Songs.
Kelly: As the music business has been in transition for the last few years, many are looking for a business model that works. What do you attribute your success to?
Dan: Thanks to Moses Asch. Really, he was the one who came up with that long-tail idea long before anyone came up with the term long-tail. It was his stubbornness and brilliance really that helped Folkways Records survive all those years. And now, after it came to Folkways and was here for a decade or a decade and a half and under Tony Seeger's leadership, lived up to the mandate of making everything available and not letting anything go out of print just because they are not selling well. But then, after I got here, the internet became more and more a major factor in the delivery of music. For me, that was like a godsend from a mission point of view. In a way, I suppose, from a revenue point of view, it was not a godsend because things like Spotify pay our artists so little. But the Moses Asch idea where you have the music and you have the story, those heavy black cardboard albums, what was in them? Pullout the very heavy vinyl albums, then you pull out the mimeographed album notes. You had a sound and you had a story. That here at Folkways, with the capacity of the internet to deliver content in such an efficient, cost efficient, time efficient, and very impactful sort of way is great. That's amazing you can reach millions and millions of people. You can put more content into those notes and are not confined to 'x' number of pages in a booklet or something like that...not that we want to have a dissertation of thousands of thousands of words to accompany our recordings, but you can put color photos, videos, and you can deliver a much bigger package of the story around the music. That became my curatorial motto or principle...Great Music and a Great Story. And Ella, in a way thinking about that, Children's Music is sometimes a little bit different in that the stories that we tell with World Music or Americana have to do with social issues, they have to do with something going on in Colombia, where people use their music as a way to project themselves into the cultural and political Body Politic of their country in the world. And, Children's Music, that was already part of Ella, because Ella herself is the story and she in her music, she imbued her music with a purpose, a purpose as she would say, "you respect the children, you don't talk down to them, you talk with them on the same level, and, you engage them so there is some give and take." It's like a transaction. It's not like you sit there and I sing to you. You are a part of it. And so that idea of respect of another on their own terms and then make it very much a mutual activity...that is a powerful thing. So, in a way, we do have liner notes to accompany Ella's recordings but the story is that she puts the story in her music.
Kelly: With your expertise in Children's Music, where do you see Children's Music going in the next few years?
Dan: Well, I can tell you where I hope it is going and I can tell you where I'm afraid it might go. I am trying to sort out the principle from the personal here but I have not been able to do it very well. There is this brand of Children's Music that it's wacky, it's zany, in a kind of shallow sort of way and sometimes it is singing at the kids and saying, "This is funny, I'm funny, you should laugh" kind of thing of which there is a lot of it out there. And, largely thanks to Ella, who either directly or indirectly through generations, we'll never know the extent of her impact because I think it is enormous, but there are some really talented, thoughtful, caring, intelligent, creative, artistic, artful Children's Music artists that are out there. Fortunately, you can see a lot of them in the GRAMMY Awards world these days and all thanks to Lynn Orman Weiss and others who have really made this a field. I say fortunately, because they are being rewarded for doing great work. I think part of this has to do with the fact that Children's Music musicians, generally speaking, are activists. They are people who are there because they have a vision, and because they are driven by a cause. I'm thinking of Jose-Luis Orozco, because I have been working with him recently. That man is there because he wants to change the world. He wants the Latino kids, for example, to be proud of their culture. He knows that if somebody is proud of their culture, they have a leg up in being successful in life. If you are not proud of your culture you have a problem basically. And, he wants the non-Latino kids to be able to experience some of the beauty of Latino music and also to get to know their fellow young people better. Cathy and Marcy, Red Grammer, and Pete Seeger, oh my gosh, they are people with a cause. They are people who are mission driven. And, what I really hope and am fairly optimistic about this actually is that that is what will prevail in the future of Children's Music. And, there is no question in my mind, that with the march of time, Ella's impact will only be more and more recognized because she had major impact. And, as that world expands , along with the quality, people will know to go back to the 1950s and look at Ella Jenkins, Pete Seeger, and some of the other great artists like Woody Guthrie, like Lead Belly, who with Moses Asch did a Children's album. That was a visionary kind of thing. Ella was concentrated in Children's Music, she took that Folkways Records incubator and brought focus to it and made it a field thanks to the help of her friends.
Kelly: Ella is recording a new album.
Dan: Ella has recorded her new album. Tony Seeger is writing the album notes. He was the producer of the album. We worked with the really talented, really hard working, really dedicated people at Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago...they absolutely adore Ella. You walk into that building and you meet anybody you talk about a sense of mission you feel that right away when you enter the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Kelly: Well, we will look forward to Ella Jenkins new album soon. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and stories of Ella Jenkins.
Dan: Thank you.
Kelly: Happy 92nd Birthday Ella Jenkins!