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Ella Jenkins Celebrating 90th Birthday as Filmmaker Records Her Life Story

By Paul Biasco | September 19, 2014 5:55am | Updated on September 19, 2014 10:54am
 Ella Jenkins will celebrate her 90th birthday Saturday in Old Town.
Ella Jenkins will celebrate her 90th birthday Saturday in Old Town.
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Tim Ferrin

LINCOLN PARK — Ella Jenkins is known at The First Lady of Children's Music.

Jenkins turned 90 this summer, and the Old Town and Lincoln Park communities are coming together to celebrate the milestone.

The Lincoln Park resident has been recording original children's music for nearly 60 years, including more than 40 releases on the Smithsonian Folkways label.

For the past year, an independent Chicago filmmaker has been documenting Jenkins' life for an upcoming documentary titled "Ella Jenkins: We'll Sing a Song Together."

Tim Ferrin, the director of the documentary, is seeking to piece together the life and works of Jenkins, whom he argues was the first artist to trail blaze a career in children's music.

"I think what's really important is that she deserves to be celebrated as a real pioneer of American music," said Ferrin, a Lincoln Square resident. "I think it's important that people understand how much of a game changer Ella continues to be."

Jenkins' career stretches from appearances on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and community centers to receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

She has also been recognized by the Library of Congress.

"Nobody's really told her story before," Ferrin said. "it's hard to believe, but it's true."

Fans of her music and community residents are invited to celebrate Jenkins' birthday during a party Saturday afternoon in Bauler Park, 510 W. Wisconsin St.

The Old Town Triangle, Lincoln Park Village and Lincoln Central associations are hosting the birthday party, which will feature music by the Harris family and the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Ferrin will also be filming during the birthday party, and it's likely a scene from the birthday party will appear in the film.

Although Ferrin has been working on the documentary for about a year, he recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to finish the project.

He is seeking $65,000 through indiegogo.com, and as of Thursday had raised about $25,000.

The hope is to raise enough money to travel the country to interview various figures who have played a role in or been impacted by Jenkins' life, including her 93-year-old brother in Ohio.

While filming the documentary over the past year, Ferrin said he's gotten an intimate look at Jenkins' life, which included fighting in the Civil Rights movement and for women's rights.

She's reminisced about sneaking into a Billie Holiday show at a Chicago club while underage and about working at the University of Chicago delivering classified mail while the atomic bomb was under development.

"For most people who grew up in Chicago, she seemed kind of ubiquitous," Ferrin said. "She's always been around, always been doing her thing."

In an interview with National Public Radio in 2011, Jenkins said she learned music listening to an uncle who played the harmonica every day, and by listening to the rhythms created by kids playing jump rope.

"We learn a great deal from the children — just the handshake, the sincerity, the element of surprise and the thank yous in their voices," Jenkins said. "This makes me thrive more. You know, I just keep going."

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