Jenkins was born in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in predominantly lower-middle-class neighborhoods in the south side of Chicago. Although she received no formal musical training, she benefited from her rich musical surroundings. Her Uncle Flood introduced her to the harmonica and the blues of such renowned musicians as T-Bone Walker, Memphis Slim and Big Bill Broonzy. Her family frequently moved around the south side and, as she moved to different neighborhoods, she learned new children's rhythms, rhymes and games. Gospel music became a part of her soundscape as neighborhood churches broadcast their services onto the street. She also enjoyed tap dancing lessons at the local theater and was able to go to the Regal Theater to see such performers as Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Peg Leg Bates. Cab Calloway is the person who she credits with getting her interested in call and response singing. While attending Woodrow Wilson Junior College, she became interested in the music of other cultures through her Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican friends. In 1951, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology with minors in Child Psychology and Recreation from San Francisco State University. Here, she picked up songs of the Jewish culture from her roommates. Upon graduating, she returned to Chicago where she began her career.
Back in Chicago, Jenkins began writing songs for children while volunteering in recreation centers. She subsequently was hired as a Teenage Program Director for the YWCA in 1952. While working at the YWCA, she was invited to perform on the Chicago public television show, The Totem Club. She was soon offered a regular job as the host of its Thursday program, which she entitled This is Rhythm. She invited guests from diverse cultures to share their music's rhythms on her show.
In 1956, Jenkins decided to become a full-time freelance musician, a vocation she has pursued for over 50 years. She began her career as a children's musician touring school assemblies in the United States, often sleeping in a different place each night and encountering racial discrimination. As she performed in more varied venues, she began to write music about her experiences. Later that year, a friend recommended that she bring a demo tape to Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways Records. Asch was receptive to her music and in 1957, her first album, Call-And-Response: Rhythmic Group Singing, was released by Folkways. Since then, Folkways Records and, more recently, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings have released 39 albums, including the popular You'll Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song. Her 1995 album Multicultural Children's Songs is the most popular Smithsonian Folkways release to date. She has not only been an important force in children's lives, but in the lives of parents and fellow music educators as well. She has participated in many conferences on music education, and has offered workshops for music educators, parents, and caregivers all over the world.
As a performer and educator, Jenkins has traveled extensively, performing her songs on all seven continents (even Antarctica). As she travels, she not only shares her music and experiences but also learns about the cultures of the people she is visiting, taking with her musical traditions and languages that she then shares with her audiences. She has also made television appearances on shows including NBC's Today Show, CNN's Showbiz Today, and PBS programs such as Barney and Friends, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, The Me Too Show, Look at Me, and in films shown on Sesame Street. She performed at America's Reunion on the Mall in 1993, America's Millennium Celebration in 2000, and at Smithsonian's 150th Birthday Party on the Mall in Washington, DC in 1996. In collaboration with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, she has acted as a U.S. delegate to Hong Kong, the People's Republic of China, and the former Soviet Union.
Jenkins' favorite people are children. She sees them as genuine, down to earth people who should be listened to and recognized as having much to offer. Fellow music educator Patricia Sheehan Campbell lauds her as "a pioneer in her early and continuing realization that children have something to sing about, that the essence of who they are may be expressed through song, and that much of what they need to know of their language, heritage, and current cultural concepts may be communicated to them through song." Through her songs, she hopes to develop greater intercultural understanding and rhythmic-consciousness, and to help people discover the joy of singing and communicating through active participation in songs.
Jenkins' repertoire includes nursery rhymes, holiday songs, bilingual songs, African-American folk songs, international songs, rhythmic chants, and original songs. Drawing from cultures all over the world, she sings in many languages, exposing her audiences to diverse cultures and promoting greater cultural awareness.
Through her style of call-and-response singing, Jenkins promotes group participation. Found in cultures worldwide, from Greece to the Middle East to West Africa, call-and-response singing involves a leader or leaders singing a phrase and the rest of the participants commenting or responding with another phrase. Using this technique, she breaks the barrier between audience and performer, and turns everyone into a performer. By encouraging active participation, she promotes the development of a warm group feeling, cooperation among the participants, greater attentiveness, an enjoyment of singing, and a desire to sing. She also encourages children to lead songs, make up their own variations of songs, and experiment with fun and silly sounds. This allows children to think independently, develop leadership skills, and improvise, resulting in increased self-confidence.
In helping children discover music and participate in its creation, Jenkins provides them with a new tool of communication that they can use and enjoy for the rest of their lives.