No one expects to leave camp with a song stuck in their head, much less one that will stay with you your whole life long.
Maybe you sang “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Or maybe “Rocky Mountain High.” Or maybe Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” Maybe you sang “The Border Trail.”
By Lake Duncan and Clearwater/to the Bearskin, I will go./Where you see the loon and hear his plaintive wail./If you think that in your inner heart/There’s swagger in your step/You’ve never been along the Border Trail.”
If you ever went to summer camp, there’s probably a song that brings you back to a particular cabin or campfire just as surely as seeing that scar on your ankle. Camp songs can be as much a part of the experience as lanyards and leeches.
“Music has a way of taking people from all walks of life and bringing them to a common experience,” said Betsy Moss Jorgenson, who was a camper and counselor at YMCA Camp Menogyn on the Gunflint Trail near Grand Marais, Minn. “It’s a symbol of what camp does, and it stays with you long after that canoe trip. I mean, for the rest of my life, I’ll hear a John Prine song and I’ll be right back on some river.”
It’s difficult to say when camp singing began. Voyageur fur trappers paddled their canoes to the beat of a song, with French and Ojibwe tunes regulating the endless strokes.
Folk singer Pete Seeger, speaking at the 1987 International Camping Congress, thought camp singing had its roots in gospel revival meetings — a theory that internationally known songleader the Rev. Larry Eisenberg backed, according to an account on the American Camp Association website.
(Eisenberg, by the way, is credited with popularizing “Kumbaya” in camps.)
The gospel-meeting connection helps explain the influence of African-American songs in camp singing, the account continued. “They are melodious, easy to sing, and their simple tunes combine with compelling rhythms to exactly suit the mood and needs of a group singing around a campfire.” Think “Do Lord,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
Leave your iPod at home
Many camp songs are old, even corny, yet that is part of their magic, Jorgenson said.
“Kids who come to camp for the first time, they’re a little nervous already, and here are people singing these songs and it seems so stupid and they’re reluctant,” she said. “But by the time they go home, they’re singing the loudest. It’s a way of saying, ‘I belong here. I know what’s going on. I’m a part of this group and I’m not afraid to let my guard down and sing with my imperfect voice.’ ”
Voices are what turned Jorgenson into a passionate advocate for camp songs. During camper reunions at Menogyn, there often would be a group of older adults off in a corner singing songs they’d learned as campers. “It was just so cool to see all these songs coming back,” she said. “These oldtimers would pick out songs for grace that we didn’t know and teach us the melody.”
Over the course of time, some of those old songs had been lost when a more generic songbook was introduced. It was, Jorgenson recalled, “kind of horrible.” It lacked many songs of the Northwoods, as well as songs unique to Menogyn. She convinced then-camp director Paul Danicic to let her assemble a new book, which was testament to tradition, as well as to the fact that the times, they’re always a-changin’.
“We ended up with songs like ‘Free Fallin’, which was 1990s Tom Petty, as well as voyageur songs from the 1700s,” said Danicic, now executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. “They were songs that people sing to reflect the culture of the place. It’s an oral tradition in a lot of ways — a microcosm of a tribe, really.”
Rebecca Meyer, an educator in the Center for Youth Development with the University of Minnesota Extension Service in Cloquet, said songs are part of the camp ritual. “There’s an essence of what camp is, and songs are one of those essences,” she said. “It imprints those memories on us.”
Camp, she added, is “a place where barriers are broken down for kids. They build a sense of their own identity and develop relationships in a community that may be different from school, where there may be an assumption about who they are. At camp, they can be somebody different.”
Singing songs, particularly silly ones, can help breach some barriers. “And it’s not just the kids being silly,” Meyer said. “The adult role models are, too. It opens the door to different things.”
Jorgenson, now a first-grade teacher in Grand Marais, said a good song crosses the generations. “Bill Staines, Bob Dylan — camp is how I learned about these artists,” she said, but added that some songs live on “just because they’re super-silly. Where else do you sing songs like that?”