When the announcement of Pete Seeger’s passing was made, I was in the midst of preparing a review about Ella Jenkins‘ latest release with Smithsonian Folkways. As I read the obituaries of and tributes to Seeger, I thought more about the profound effects each of these artists have had on audiences of all ages. In light of my reflections, it occurred to me how many parallels there are between these two legends. To start, each has earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for their musical contributions. Along with this honor, they each have had a rich recording history with Smithsonian Folkways, releasing a legacy that will forever set an example for others within the music and educational fields. Not to mention the multigenerational and cultural impact their music has had on children and families throughout the world. Most importantly, what ties them together the most is that they have lived their lives with purpose and that purpose has been fueled by a sense of pride and joy, coupled with the belief that music is meant to be shared.
On her 34th release with Smithsonian Folkways, Ella’s joyful spirit is captured once again. The songs on 123s and ABCs are simple and highly interactive, presented mostly in Ella’s signature call-and-response style and provide layers of benefits for young listeners. The album contains 16 wonderfully curated tracks aimed at teaching letters, counting and basic math (addition and subtraction). The secondary benefits seek to build language skills, strengthen memory, and develop rhythm through a variety of musical games. And, remaining loyal to Ella’s multicultural appreciation, 123s and ABCs presents songs in four languages – English, Spanish, Swahili, and Yiddish.
The album opens with “Easy as ABC,” an alphabet game that encourages listeners to associate a word with a letter and then use that word in a sentence. As Ella sings, “C is for caring/ And I care a lot about you,” it’s hard not to feel comforted by her sincerity. It is this line that captures Ella’s authenticity and loving heart.
“Eight Clay Pigeons” and “And One and Two…” are fun counting songs that encourage movement while “ABCs” is a sweet little chant that underscores the positive effects music has on learning: “123, 123 were the very first numbers that were taught to me…/ ABC, ABC were the very first letters that were taught to me/ XYZ, XYZ were the very last letters that were taught to me.”
123s and ABCs is another fine example of how wonderful it feels to sing along together. Ella is a teacher, a leader and a friend who has devoted her life to sharing that which has enlightened, educated and enriched so many children’s (and grown-ups’) lives. The following quote perfectly describes Ella’s grace and thoughtful approach to music making. (source: NPR):
“I think most people like music and most children like music, and there’s a variety of music. But whatever you happen upon with something that you really feel that you really like, I’d say listen to it and listen to it often. And if you want to kind of emulate it, if you want to try to repeat or imitate, do it in a way that when you’re sharing it, someone else is going to think it’s beautiful, too. So there are a lot of wonderful composers around the world, and sometimes we get a lot of them right here in Chicago. But anyway, when you get these and you start to sing or you can dance like the people that you have heard or watched, then put your best performance forward, and I think the children will do the same.”