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Some folks figure being a folksinger is mostly a matter of definition and deeds.
Until the standards start flowing, from names like Bob Dylan; Woody Guthrie; Joan Baez; John Denver; Peter, Paul and Mary and so many other icons.
Around here, the name Gill rings some bells, including a relative newcomer. That would be Oak Park's Ella Gill, 18-year-old songwriter/actor/singer and senior (OPRF High School), who has always been drawn to songs of political action — songs that help audiences mull their place in the world.
Gill has performed originals and covers at local schools, FitzGerald's Nightclub in Berwyn, Val's halla Records, and Eastgate and the Buzz cafés in Oak Park — often with her musical collaborator, violinist Scott Daniel. Together they have made the rounds, including two performances of "Songs of Hope & Struggle," an annual concert benefiting Prevail (formerly the Walk-in Ministry), starting in 2012. Prevail is a non-profit that provides immediate and compassionate response to individuals and families facing financial crisis. It offers supportive services with the goal of future stability.
The connection was established in 2010 when Gill received an email from her folk hero, Pete Seeger, "personally" telling subscribers how Sing Out! Magazine, a struggling folk music publication founded by Seeger, was going broke and needed saving. Inspired, Gill rallied her family and spearheaded a successful fundraising concert, in which she performed with working musicians, including her father, Jim Gill, a children's music specialist.
Afterward, Prevail reached out to Gill and Daniel. This year's concert, on Wednesday, April 23 at FitzGerald's, will feature her talents as guest jazz vocalist with the Don Stiernberg Trio, the headliner of this year's event.
"It's phenomenal what Ella has been doing with us," says Cristy Harris, executive director at Prevail. "In doing our concert for the last two years, she has put herself out there in a significant way, both as a performer but also for us because she has raised quite a bit of awareness and funds. She is both courageous and generous."
What rings true
Early on, Ella's mother, Sue, said her daughter showed a passion for folk tunes. She has always been drawn to, and inspired by, the labor and protest songs of Seeger and Dylan.
"My dad introduced me to folk music when I was really young," she says, adding that he has supported her musical journey. "I love the political messages that go along with all this, and with me, to the Prevail benefit. I have known Don since I was a little kid, because he played on a few of my dad's recordings. He just knows how to work every note of a song, and I am so excited to be part of his show and so thrilled."
Jim Gill recalls a moment when his uninhibited and precocious preschooler was outraged and outspoken about the civil rights work, and the assassination of, Martin Luther King, which was an awkward adult moment for him, but not her.
"My first-grade talent show was right at the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2003. Being the little political first-grader I was, me and my parents sat down and decided that for my [performance] I would sing "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" [written in 1950 by Ed McCurdy]," she recalls. "So I got out there and sang, with Dad sitting next to me, accompanying me on the banjo. I'm like my dad in so many ways, and I think that just shows it. We both have this love of music that inspires you and starts a fire in you to think and start something."
In sixth grade, she picked up one of her Dad's old guitars, tuned it, taught herself three chords, and began playing old folk songs that her mom says provided the lion's share of music they heard on family road trips in the car.
"In ballads, she just sees the beauty in simplicity," says Sue. "The labor and protest songs [are] what speaks to her on a political level."
One of the best songs in her repertoire is "Danny," her first, written when she was 14.
"The best songs I write come to me in five minutes," says Ella, who debuted "American Beauty," her latest, at FitzGerald's in August. "They come to me in a rush, and I get it all out. If it is a really good song, as I'm writing the words down, I can hear the melody in my head. It's like that, and that is what happened with 'Danny.'"
She has sung "Danny" countless times, including the 2013 Songs of Hope & Struggle concert (which you can link to here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7xu-Slq7bg).
During her high school years, Ella has danced on numerous stages with Momenta, and directed a few plays at school. She also landed a few key roles, including Tzeitel in OPRF's recent production of Fiddler on the Roof, and Eponine in the 2013 production of Les Miserables.
"That was my first musical," she recalls.
Val Camilletti of Val's halla Records in Oak Park says Ella's first gig was on the stage at her store, along with many young performers over the years.
"I have heard a lot of pretty voices," Camilletti says, "but Ella could sing and write her own songs at 14 … which blows me away. At the first concert in my store she did some Joan Baez ballads, and then she did ' diamonds and Rust.' I'm going to just throw it out there: A 14-year-old can't do 'Diamonds and Rust' … except Ella did, and she understood the lines, and phrased the words in a way that was not what you would hear from someone her age."
From behind the counter at her record store, Camilletti praised the young woman named after Ella Fitzgerald, noting that unlike other folk performers, this Ella can swing and is a versatile vocal stylist.
"Ella is tired of me saying this, but with her song, 'Danny' … if she had written that song now, four years later, I would still be very impressed," Camiletti says. "But to have written it at age 14? That was a sign of what is coming."