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Ella Jenkins 

In 2017 Ella Jenkins was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as a National Heritage Fellow. This award was an acknowledgement of over fifty years of artistic and humanitarian work on behalf of the world's children. Ms. Jenkins was a trailblazer, advocate, and innovator in children's entertainment, music education, and multiculturalism. All of us who have worked in these fields are indebted to Ella Jenkins.

Through her amazing recording output of 40 albums on the Folkways (later Smithsonian Folkways) label, children in untold numbers of homes and classrooms have been exposed to rhythms, games and stories from Ella Jenkins' Chicago childhood, her world travels and research in music and culture.

Until fairly recently, she toured as a solo performer, sharing her warmth, joy, and love of music with audiences around the globe. Fellow Chicagoans were especially privileged to bask in her glow, as she was often out and about, performing and enjoying the city. 


My Ella Jenkins Moments:

  • Appearing with her on a local cable TV show. In our short time together, before and after the taping, she gave me years' worth of mentoring and encouragement for my fairly new career as a storyteller.
  • At the National Black Storytelling Festival and Conference, where she was receiving the Zora Neale Hurston Award. Although she graciously accepted the award, she was adamant that she was "a children's musician, not a storyteller."
  • One morning she came into Women and Children First Bookstore while I was cashiering. She insisted that I accompany her back to a nearby restaurant to meet her friends. She presented me to them as "a great storyteller." What an honor.
  • Observing her adoring fans at a 90th birthday concert. She remarked that at least four generations had grown up with her music. At the end of the show, a huge line formed to greet Ella Jenkins and get pictures taken with her.

My friend, Tim Ferrin, is producing a full-length independent documentary on Ella Jenkins. To see a trailer for We'll Sing a Song Together, go to

Let's all sing songs together.


More About the Grammy Telecast 

Janelle Monae has consistently presented herself as a strong, self-respecting, dignified black woman artist/activist. She did us proud Sunday night while introducing Kesha:

Tonight, I am proud to stand in solidarity as not just an artist, but a young woman with my fellow sisters in this room who make up the music industry: artists, writers, assistants, publicists, CEOs, producers, engineers, and women from all sectors of the business. We are also daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, and human beings. We come in peace, but we mean business. And to those who would dare try and silence us, we offer you two words: Time's Up. We say Time's Up for pay inequality, Time's Up for discrimination, Time's Up for harassment of any kind, and Time's Up for the abuse of power. Because you see, it’s not just going on in Hollywood, it’s not just going on in Washington, it's right here in our industry as well. 

And just as we have the power to shape culture, we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well. So, let's work together, women and men, as a united music industry committed to creating more safe work environments, equal pay, and access for all women. 

And as artists so often do, our next performer embodies the great tradition of delivering important social messages through their music. This fearless two-time Grammy nominee inspired so many of us including myself, when she spoke her truth on her album, Rainbow, which was nominated for best pop vocal album tonight. Here to sing "Praying,” joined by Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Andra Day, Bebe Rexha, Julia Michaels and the Resistance Revival Chorus, we are honored to stand with you and welcome you, Kesha.

Surrounded and supported by a sea of white clad vocalists, Kesha then gave a powerful performance of her song, obviously directed at the man and men who have abused her, and whose grip was upheld in her court battle against them.

This was one of several socially conscious moments in the schizophrenic Grammy show. Women performed; except for Lorde, the only Album of the Year nominee who didn't. Women spoke. But women did not win these career boosting awards in any of the top categories, except Best New Artist.

When questioned about this situation after the show, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow shrugged and said that women needed to "step up." Amid very strong criticism for the sexism of his remark and attitude, Portnow backpedalled, played the out of context card, and declared his undying love and support for women in the music industry.

The fact remains that toppling the patriarchy is needed in all aspects of this society and those in power are not going to let go willingly. So we will sing, shout, speak our truths, as we continue the momentum of our movements as the walls come tumbling down.

A Woman-Centered Grammy Salute 

January 29, 2018

Although it was not apparent from the 60th Grammy telecast on CBS , quite a few women won Grammy awards this year. We were highly visible as presenters and performers, with many standout performances, among them Pink, SZA, Kesha, Rihanna, and Patti LuPone . But only one woman was handed the golden gramophone during the television broadcast - Alessia Cara for Best New Artist.

So here are the others, who you might have seen during the streaming coverage earlier in the day:

Aida Cuevas - Best Regional Mexican Music Album: Arriero Somos Versiones Acusticas

Aimee Mann - Best Folk Album: Mental Illness

Anne Schwanewilms (soloist) - Best Opera Recording: Berg/Wozzeck

Barbara Hannigan - Best Classical Solo Vocal Album: Crazy Girl Crazy

Brittany Howard/Alabama Shakes - Best American Roots Performance: Killer Diller Blues

Carrie Fisher - Best Spoken Word Album: The Princess Diarist

Cece Winans - Best Gospel Performance/Song: Never Have to Be Alone AND                                                       Best Gospel Album: Let Them Fall in Love

Cecile McLorin Salvant - Best Jazz Vocal Album: Dreams and Daggers

Darcy Proper, Jane Ira Bloom and others - Best Surround Sound Album: Early Americans

Erika Ender and other writers - Song of the Year: Despacito

Jennifer Higdon - Best Contemporary Classical Composition: Viola Concerto

Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town - Best Country Duo/Group Performance: Better Man

Lisa Loeb - Best Children's Album: Feel What You Feel

Lynell George - Best Album Notes: Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go

Patricia Kopatchinskaja with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra: Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance: Death and the Maiden

Rhonda Vincent & The Rage - Best Bluegrass Album (Tie): In Concert Vol. 1

Reba McEntire - Best Roots Gospel Album: Sing It Now

Sarah Anthony, Laura Lancaster, et al - Best Music Film: The Defiant Ones

Shakira - Best Latin Pop Album: El Dorado


In addition, Rhianna was featured on Kendrick Lamar's Best Rap/Sung Performance: Loyalty


Congratulations to these Grammy winners!!!

And to the nominees.

And to every woman who made a recording in 2017 (myself included).







Nicole Mitchell 


I first met Nicole in 1992 when musician friend Maia and I came together to jam at my house. Niki, as she was known then, had attracted Maia’s attention as a busker on an ‘L’ platform or tunnel. She joined us and we hit it off, two flutes and a sitar. 

After we had come together a few times, I was asked to participate in a benefit for Light Henry Huff at the Hothouse, when it was on Milwaukee Avenue. Rather than do a solo performance, I suggested playing with Maia and Niki. We were so well received that we decided to form a group and keep playing together. 

Thus Samana was born. We settled upon the concept of an all-women’s group playing spiritually uplifting music. For eight years we rehearsed almost every Saturday morning at 6, then again on Thurdays at 7 pm. We prayed at the beginning of each rehearsal and worked hard on our sound, with Maia as musical director and me taking care of the business end of things. 

In some of our early performances, Samana would be a group of nine or ten colorfully clad women, including singers, dancers and multi-instrumentalists. Eventually we were more often a group of five: Maia – flute, harp, voice, and vibes; Nicole – flutes and voice; Aquilla Sedalla – voice and clarinets; Coco Elysses – congas and tympani; and me on bass, mbira, and sitar. We all played drums. 

Samana was the first all-female ensemble in the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which Nicole would later chair). We performed in venues around Chicagoland and throughout the Midwest and released one recording, Samana. 

Samana became a source of frustration for Niki, and I’ve come to regret my part in that. One was that I nixed her composition, “Troot”, from the Samana recording, feeling like the stomps and claps didn’t work. How many recordings since then have featured tap dancers in a jazz setting? 

A second thing I’m aware of was Niki’s desire to take longer solos, when Maia and I held to a prescribed length so that we could stay within the number of minutes we had for any given gig. In one conversation about this, David Boykin said to Niki, “Well, you just need to get your own group.” And did she ever!! 

What was most striking about Niki was how totally absorbed in music she was. While finishing her flute major at Chicago State, she was also pursuing classical flute studies at the University of Chicago. Then she commuted to DeKalb for her Master’s Degree, became a mother, and went from rehearsals to gigs to rehearsals to gigs, seemingly nonstop. I have never met anyone so totally committed to music as Niki. 

I have long said that Nicole is a genius and should definitely have gotten one of those MacArthur grants by now. Nonetheless she has been recognized with awards from the Herb Alpert Foundation and is a Doris Duke fellow. Nicole has performed throughout Europe and North America. She’s received numerous “Best of” designations from jazz critics, polls, and publications; and has been commissioned to create works for the Jazz Institute of Chicago, among others. And she’s now a tenured professor at the University of California – Irvine. 

This month Nicole Mitchell was Artist-in-Residence for NYC Winter Jazzfest, presenting her work in at least four different groups under her name. 

Although now based in California, Nicole maintains strong ties to Chicago and often employs Chicago musicians in her projects. I’ve been honored with an invitation to play with Nicole on a few precious occasions:
Honoring Grace: Michelle Obama, at the Spertus Museum, in the recording studio, and at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival; The music of Doug and Jean Carn at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival; and Chicago’s Green Mill.

As exciting as it’s been to perform with Nicole Mitchell, it’s been even more thrilling to be in her audiences as she presents her commissioned works, such as, in 2010, Intergalactic Beings, Part Two of Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler, and, in 2017, Bamako*Chicago Sound System. I’ve also seen her in many iterations of her Black Earth Ensemble. Nicole’s artistry, musicianship, creativity, and vision are unparalleled, and her activism, especially in championing gender and racial equality, is a model for all of us. 



This morning I opened the Alice Coltrane folder from my earlier research on musical women. I was reminded that, from 1974 to 1979, we exchanged letters (and one telegram). As I planned my California interviews, I inquired about her upcoming performances. Here is her response:

March 19, 1976

Revered Atman:

     May the Lord's peace and blessings be upon you always. I am presently engaged in the service of the Supreme One and I do not expect to be participating in too many musical activities upon the commercial plane.  The highest expression and the highest study I know of is service to the Supreme Lord. And I am actively and presently engaged in such service. I hope that you will become successful in your efforts to fully develop yourself musically. I hope that you will not progress your music to a point which prevents you from evolving spiritually and that your music will always inspire you to seek and realize the Supreme Lord.

                                                                                                                                 May peace be with you,



In March of 1978 Mansur and I visited her ashram, The Vedantic Center, in Woodland Hills, California. We attended a service during which the swami played organ, while she and the devotees sang and chanted. Then, while she and I spoke at length, her children took Mansur, then five years old, on a tour of the grounds.

Just reading through my notes and recalling that encounter has reassured me and put much in perspective. Desires for recognition and material success pale in comparison to knowledge and fulfillment of one's spiritual purpose.





Sweet Honey 

Writing this blog is reminding me of how important music has always been in my life.  It's also showing me what  strong and lasting impressions live music has made on me.

One group that I have seen more than any other is Sweet Honey in the Rock.  An acapella group, formed by civil rights era Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, this group captures the essences of African-American vocal traditions.  Spirituals, gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, protest songs, and children's music all figure in Sweet Honey's repertoire. Four or five colorfully adorned singers and a sign language interpreter, seated on a bare stage, invariably bring audiences to their feet, dancing and singing along. To be at a Sweet Honey concert is to be in church, at a party, and at a rally, all at the same time.

Existing now for over forty years, the makeup of the group shifts from time to time; but not so often that the women cease to be our sisters, neighbors, aunties, trusted friends.  Sweet Honey's music gives voice to our greatest joys and fears, our dreams and nightmares. She (the collective).challenges us to seek knowledge, to take action, to heal this world of ours. When you leave a Sweet Honey in the Rock performance, you know you've been changed.

Here are some of my Sweet Honey moments:

  • at Chicago's Medinah Temple, marveling at their singing and wonderful shekere playing
  • at Sweet Honey's 10th anniversary in Washington, DC, their home base, when all of the women who had ever been in the group (at least fifteen of them) spread across the stage and sang together
  • at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival when our group, Sojourner, also performed and I got a chance to sit at breakfast with founder Bernice Reagon for a wonderful chat
  • at the Rockford (IL) Women's Music Festival, where I told stories and was elated that my name was on the back of the festival tee, along with Sweet Honey and the other performers
  • at Chicago's People's Church, where there were so many women there that, by consensus, the men's washrooms became unisex facilities
  • at Chicago's Orchestra Hall, where my mother heard the group for the first time, and we saw Ella Jenkins in the lobby
  • at my workplace, the Old Town School of Folk Music, where they shared tales from their herstory, and had a young man (what?!) playing bass
  • at a "meet and greet" at the University of Chicago with retired member Ysaye Barnwell, who had me and Zahra sing for her
  • at Chicago' Millennium Park, where Bernice's daughter, Toshi Reagon, carried on the family tradition of message music and communal singing

 To my favorite Honeys - Bernice, Evelyn, and Ysaye -  I LOVE YOU!!

Sharing the Love of Music 

I spent the better part of today with my co-workers - Wiggleworms teachers at the Old Town School of Folk Music. There were over twenty women and six men  Eleven months a year, seven days a week, we share our love of music with young children, and the parents and other caregivers who bring them to our classes. Newborns, infants, toddlers, young children up to the age of five, as many as two thousand a week some sessions, come through our doors. We sing, play instruments, dance and engage with them in musical play.  We open these young ones to a life of listening to and  participating  in music.

We are dedicated, loving, warm professionals who, today, shared songs, experiences, ideas and concerns with each other. All so that we become even better at what we do.

So today I ask you to join me in saluting music teachers; largely unsung and underappreciated. But without whom life, as we know it, would be very different, very bland.

Who were your music teachers? at home? in school? in the community? 

To all of us, to all of you, I give a heart felt THANK YOU!!

A Few Minutes With Barbra 

When I was growing up my mother was a member of both the Capitol and Columbia record clubs. A booklet would come by mail. You would make your selection. And, if you didn't do that in a timely manner, you would automatically receive the Selection of the Month. Either way, new music was coming into the house on a regular basis.

Although I'm sure albums were playing throughout the week, my most vivid memories are of Saturday mornings. Mother would put a stack of records on the stereo (maximum six at a time). Then we would dance and sing along, while cleaning the house.

That was how I first heard Barbra Streisand.

To this day, I can probably sing every note on the People album and the Funny Girl cast recording. And the film version of Funny Girl is such a strong memory that I feel like a saw it on Broadway too.

Fast forward to 2006. I was teaching second grade and part-time job jumping through the Las Vegas casino hotels. I'd already worked briefly at Shark Reef, Phantom of the Opera, and several conventions. When I heard that Barbra Streisand was coming to the MGM Grand, I applied for and landed an usher position at the Grand Garden Arena.

I got fitted for my Kelly green blazer and attended orientation. There were lots of instructions, but the most important was for the Streisand concert: if you see her in the hallway, DON'T LOOK AT HER!. Hmm.

I was very excited. But I first had to work some other concerts: Mariah Carey (Put on some clothes!) and Jimmy Buffett, whose fans were very drunk and rowdy. I was asked to come down a few rows and put a stop to an altercation between Buffett fans. That was a useless task. On my way back up the stairs, I tripped over my own feet and fell onto the concrete landing. I couldn't move without excruciating pain. So I was rushed by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where my dislocated shoulder was snapped back into place. I was then sent home with powerful drugs and my arm in a sling.

For a week I was unable to go to my salaried job because of an injury on my minimum wage fling. When I was cleared to return to the MGM, it was just in time for the Barbra Streisand show. But I'd been put on light duty and couldn't work inside the concert. Instead I was posted in a chair to take tickets for the pre-show reception. I was crushed. Before the show was over, however, a sympathetic co-worker traded places with me. Then I was able to stand inside and see Barbra perform for a few minutes. She was relaxed and her banter was funny. Her voice was strong and lovely. I was grateful for those moments with her.

 I kept that usher job until I left Vegas two years later and witnessed some fabulous shows, and quite a few duds. Among the most enjoyable were Beyonce, Eric Clapton, the Billboard Awards, and Van Halen, also the loudest.

Should Barbra Streisand ever tour again, I want to be there.


It's Not Too Late 

When I have moments of defeat, of thinking that I am too old to continue pursuing my dreams, I remember Elizabeth Cotten. Here's an article I wrote, some years after interviewing her at her home in Washington, DC. It appeared in the July 1985 issue of HOT WIRE Journal of Women's Music & Culture.


Elizabeth Cotten wins

Grammy at age 93

The music industry must be commended for one small yet progressive step in its belated acknowledgement of Elizabeth Cotten's greatness.  Recipient of a 1985 Grammy Award in the Traditional Ethnic Record category for her album Elizabeth Cotten Live (Arhoolie Records). Ms. Cotten is one of the few women who plays an instrument as well as sings ever to be honored by the National Academy for the Recording Arts and Sciences.

Born January 5, 1893 (or 1895) in Silal City, NC, Elizabeth Cotten is a storehouse of history, which she willingly shares during and outside her performances.  Her velvet touch and superb technique on both guitar and banjo are amazing and inspiring. Of the "folk music" label attached to her work she says, "Whether it's jazz or blues or whatever, when you write your own songs, I call that 'folk music'."

Ms. Cotten attended school only as far as the fourth grade. Although she didn't realize it until the time she was in school, she didn't really have a name. Her family called her "Sis" and "Li'l Sis." Even the teacher called her "Li'l Sis" until the day she asked the child, "Don't you have a name?" The child responded that her name was Elizabeth. "That day I named myself." Elizabeth Cotten recalls.

Elizabeth Cotten had an older brother who played banjo. When quite young she would take his instrument off the wall and try to pick out songs. Invariably she would end up breaking some strings. When her brother would return home, Elizabeth would hide under the bed, afraid of what he would do upon discovering the broken strings.  He never acknowledged the damage. Instead he allowed his sister to continue exploring the banjo, breaking more strings and developing a unique style of playing in the process.

Elizabeth Cotten's approach to her instrument has been widely imitated and is referred to as "Cotten picking." Ms. Cotton is left handed and, as a child, didn't know that left-handed guitarists reverse the standard position of the strings. She just turned her instrument upside down and played.  To this day, she plays with the lower-pitched strings on the bottom instead of the top.

While young Elizabeth was picking out other people's songs on her brother's banjo, she was composing her own tunes as well. "Freight Train," perhaps her most famous composition, was created when she was ten or eleven years old. Ms. Cotten recalls being inspired to write this song as she stood in her back yard in Chapel Hill, NC, watching the passing trains. "Freight Train," a child's creation, has been recorded by several artists and sung by multitudes.

This creative youngster was determined to have her own instrument and, by the age of 12, found a way to get her first guitar.  After her mother would leave for work, Elizabeth would get dressed and knock on doors, asking if people needed someone to work for them.  One woman asked, "What can a little girl like you do?" but gave her a chance to prove herself. She started off with a salary of 75 cents a month, which was later increased by 25 cents.

Elizabeth asked her first employer to buy her a guitar, which cost $3.25. Elizabeth named this guitar Stella and, she says, "I loved Stella better than I loved myself...I used to sleep with her."  After working all day, she would play her guitar all night, or until her mother forced her to go to bed.

Elizabeth Cotten's playing, singing, and composing never stopped, buy her means of support was almost always domestic work.  She says, "I didn't know how to do anything else."  One family she worked for in Washington, DC, for over 30 years was that of musicologists Charles and Ruth Seeger. Their children Pete, Mike, Peggy, and Penny all became folk performers. Elizabeth shared her musical gifts with the Seegers, who eventually convinced her to perform her music publicly. So in 1962, as she neared 70 years of age, Elizabeth Cotten started performing at folk festivals and in coffeehouses, while still doing domestic work. When the number of engagements greatly increased, she was able to survive totally on her income from music.

Ms. Cotten continued to perform until shortly before death in 1987. She was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as a National Heritage Fellow and by the Smithsonian Institution as a "living treasure."  Her music lives on and is still performed widely.  I feel honored to have spent a little time with her.