Harriet Lowe, editor of Camping Magazine, and Rita Yerkes, historical series editor, were kind enough to invite me to write about the history and traditions of camp songs. However, you should know I failed history class in grades ten and eleven and I can't read a note of music. Besides, I have only been around for eighty-four of the one hundred years of the American Camp Association's existence! Perhaps ninety-four-year-old "Pop" Hollandsworth would be a preferable choice for this assignment, although it is somewhat questionable whether he can, veritably, carry a tune (even in one of his ample packsacks). Now that the cats are out and scrambling helter skelter, it might bring credence to the vital roles played by others, especially The Boys' Camp Band (Mark Baldwin, Jim Knowlton, Tom Knowlton, and Peter Rasberry), Jane McCutcheon, and Joanne Bender. Without them, camp songs and singers of camp songs would not have nearly as rich a tradition or composition.

When and Where Did It All Begin?

When Pete Seeger was a keynote speaker at the 1987 International Camping Congress in Washington, D.C., he expressed the notion that, perhaps, camp singing had its early beginnings in the Camp Gospel Revival Meetings. Rev. Larry Eisenberg, one of camp history's most influential songleaders (and the person who brought "Kum Bah Yah" to camps) tended to agree with Pete.

When Shelley Posen, Ph.D. (a camp song and folk song expert, writer, performer, and researcher) was asked when camp singing began, this was his response:

In the late 1800s / early 1900s, the confluence of the wilderness movement and establishment of National and Provincial (State) Parks, produced the drive to get kids out of the city and into the natural environment. And there was the amazing phenomenon of singing in early movie theaters ("Follow the bouncing ball . . ."), and, of course, in parlours around the home piano. But more than a mere pastime, song was widely seen as a means, in many different settings, of uniting people in action and inculcating certain values. So, you have singing at "camp meetings" to channel singers into religious fervor, singing in union halls and picket lines, singing in Sally Ann soup kitchens. England was alive with communal song: joining in with the performers in the halls; singing in the upper levels of the theatre ("The Gods") before a Gilbert and Sullivan performance; mass choral concerts at Victoria's Jubilee.

Someone would have to look at the camps, and their very ephemeral literature, to see whether and how and when group singing preceded camps at the city YMCA and other community groups who, later, established the camps. That said, camp offered the perfect conditions for group singing and it is quite likely that whatever singing came to camps, the camps gave back more than they received, in repertoire, vocabulary, songleading techniques and providing singing experiences for youngsters. (Personal communication, 2009)

What Do We Sing?

At camp, we sing songs that are fun, upbeat, harmonious, or inspiring. Most of all, the songs are easy to sing and remember.

We sing folk songs; spirituals; patriotic songs; religious songs; fun, nonsense, novelty, action songs; melodious (rounds, partner songs); popular songs that are "catchy"; songs that we write (or adapt) ourselves.


These African-American songs hold a special place in the history of folk songs; their influence in the beginning of camp singing and their continued popularity is without equal. 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.

They began in the days of slavery on Southern plantations. Owners permitted their slaves to attend church services, although usually they stayed outside just listening or looking through a window. When the service was finished, they did some singing on their own. Their religious beliefs often incorporated traditions brought from Africa and their singing used tunes and harmonies based on their remembered traditions.

They embraced the Christian message with its emphasis on the spiritual equality of rich and poor, reward or punishment in the afterlife. They especially related to the Old Testament Israelites and their Godordained escape from slavery into Egypt and attainment of a Promised Land. Many spirituals sung at camps today celebrate these beliefs.

  • "Deep River" (". . .That promised land where all is peace")
  • "Do Lord" ("I've got a home in glory land")
  • "Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho" ("Israelites triumphant")
  • "When The Saints Go Marching In" ("I want to be in that number")
  • "One More River — to the Promised Land" ("There's one more river to cross")

Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and leading abolitionist, claimed that some spirituals were used as codes to notify the time and place of escape attempts or to convey "how to" instructions (University of Denver, 2004):

  • "Steal Away": Escape attempt coming soon
  • "Good News Chariot's a-Comin'" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot": Help, guidance to escape North is coming
  • "Wade in the Water": Wade to throw off scent dogs on your trail

Some authorities have cast doubt on this claim, but in some cases, it seems hard to deny.

Many spirituals appear simply to express joy or despair or the hope of salvation: "Balm in Gilead"; "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel"; "Every Time I Feel the Spirit"; "I Got Shoes, You Got Shoes, All God's Children Got Shoes"; "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand"; "Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen."

Whatever these songs mean, they are a delight to sing around a fire at night among comrades. The number of them, still popular, is the best testimony to their value and place in tradition.

My deepest gratitude to my friend, Gary Schofield, who searched out these spirituals (and many, many more), as well as most of the war songs that follow. I worked with Gary when he was the Boys' Work secretary at the Ottawa Canada YMCA. Gary later succeeded me as the director of the Ottawa YMCA's Camp On-Da-Da-Waks, and we've recently reunited on the executive committee of the Canadian Fellowship of YMCA Retirees.

Songs from the Wars

Every armed conflict has produced folk songs. Surprisingly, many of them from distant wars are still sung at camp or by well-known performers of folk songs and music. For example, the Clancy Brothers and Paul Robeson performed "The Minstrel Boy," which dates back to the Irish Rebellion (1800). Peter, Paul & Mary performed "The Cruel War," from the American Revolution (1775).

Have you sung these songs from World Wars I and II and Vietnam? "It's a Long Way to Tipperary"; "Pack Up Your Troubles"; "Mademoiselle from Armentieres"; "Over There"; "Li ly Marlene"; "We' l l Meet Again"; "White Cliffs of Dover"; "Wing and a Prayer"; "There'll Always Be an England"; "Blowin' in the Wind"; "Give Peace a Chance"; "Universal Soldier"; "Where Have All the Flowers Gone"; "Loch Lomond"; "Rule Britannia"; "Marine Hymn"; "We Shall Overcome." And how about this adaptation of the Navy fight song, "Anchors Aweigh" (Zimmerman & Miles, 1936)?

Anchors aweigh, from camp,
   Anchors aweigh.
Farewell to camping joys,
We leave at break of day, day, day, day
Though our last night at camp,
We'll never roam.
Until we meet again,
Here's wishing you a happy journey home.

Last summer, the board of our local Big Brothers / Big Sisters Camp McGovern was invited to camp for a hamburger / chips / soft drink evening with staff. Much to my delight, the staff broke into spontaneous song. The first song they sang was "There was Butter, Butter Running down the Gutter in the Corner Market Store." Isn't that great? The terminology in the song really gave away its wartime era origins. Who ever heard of a "Quartermaster"? Marvelous!

In 1861, Frederick and Abigail Gunn founded the first organized American Camp. Their Gunnery school was, reputedly, begun to teach boys, too young to enter the Civil War, how to hike and camp out as their older brothers were doing in battle. At the same time, a New Hampshire musician, Walter Kittredge, was called up to join the Union Army. He was a member of a musical group that entertained the troops to boost morale. The night before he was supposed to report, he wrote a song expressing how he felt about the war. Things were going badly for the north and casualties were extremely high. When he reported for duty the next day, he was rejected because he had had rheumatic fever as a child and wasn't robust enough. He and his group proceeded to sing the song and lost their employment because the song lowered morale, even though the song laid no blame and named no villains. It simply conveyed that where once people pitched their tents for the gospel revival camps, men now fought and died; people were tired of the war and wanted it to stop.

In my very early years as a camper, I recall my father teaching us a slightlyaltered version. The song? "Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground."

Folk Songs and Folk Singers

Songs passed down from generation to generation; songs passed down orally; songs with no known author; songs of the ordinary people: These characteristics are the ones most often used to define folk songs. Those that have endured are easy to sing, easy to remember, and usually have some other attractive feature or features. Folk songs form the base of camp singing. They were sung, and indeed, composed around campfires long before there were camps as we have defined them. Soldiers gathered around fires in their encampments; pioneers came together on their treks into the vast new lands they settled; slaves gathered outside after the church service or secretly in the woods. Many of the songs sung at camp from the earliest days to nowadays grew out of these scenes.

Each individual song, any song, has its own story. Ergo, it behooves us to "zipper" in, as Pete Seeger would say, the songs we know and love that fit the category. And speaking of Pete, for the past many decades, camp singing has benefitted, enormously, from the myriad of folk singers and folk song writers. Here are some of my favorites with a few of their notable contributions to the camp singing scene. For certain, there are many others of each (songs and singers). However, these in particular get our toes tapping and nostalgic juices circulating:

Woody Guthrie: "This Land is Your Land"; "So Long, it's Been Good to Know You"

Pete Seeger: "Where Have Al l the Flowers Gone"; "Turn, Turn, Turn"; "We Shall Overcome"; "If I Had a Hammer" (with Lee Hays); "Wimoweh" (with Solomon Linda and the Weavers)

Peter, Paul & Mary: "Puff, the Magic Dragon"; "Lemon Tree"; "Leaving on a Jet Plane"; Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer"; Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind"

Bob Dylan: "Blowin' in the Wind"

Lomax Family: We must salute the unequalled contribution to the folk world by John Lomax, the ultimate folk song collector, along with his son, folklorist and ethnomusicologist, Alan, and daughter Bess, who performed in the Almanac Singers (1940s), with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, and others. Bess is most famous for cowriting "Charlie on the MTA," later a Kingston Trio hit.

Universality of Song

When we had our children's television show, Jack-in-the-Box, where we sang songs, played games, and had special guests on music, art, dance, sport, etc., we did some research on games around the world. We discovered not only the universality of games, but also that every game had its genesis in "hide-and-seek" or "tag." At the time, we didn't look into songs. However, in recent years, we have had some opportunity to observe singing, in many parts of the world, through the International Camping Fellowship (I.C.F.), and guess what? There is universality in songs, too.

Some years ago, a delegation of German dignitaries was invited to visit Canada. They stayed at the Prime Minister's summer residence. I was asked to lead singing for the group. In planning for it, I reasoned that, the simpler the song, the easier to teach and learn. I chose "My Hat, It Has Three Corners." When I began to lead the song, they responded lustily, "Mein Hut, er hat drei Ecken." Magnificent!

When we were planning for the fourth Internat ional Camping Congress in Toronto, we decided to have "Kum Bah Yah" as our theme, having found, unquestionably, the "universality" of that beautiful song. There were five official languages for the Congress, so we sang the verses as follows:

English: "Kum Bah Yah, My Lord, Kum Bah Yah" 

French: "Venez par ici, mon ami"

Spanish: "Venaca, amigo, venaca"

Russian: "Prihadi, moi druk, prihadi"

Japanese: "Wareno, motoni, kitare"

We ended each verse with "All the world, Kum Bah Yah."

Non-History Side Notes

The best songleaders are bound to be entertaining, but they should not be entertainers first and foremost. A songleader's raison d'etre is to enable the group singing to be pleasurable, meaningful, and memorable. Many times people have said to us that they wished they could lead singing or they didn't have singsongs at camp because they didn't have piano players, guitar players, or anybody who knew how to lead.

So in 1981 at the ACA Nat iona l Conference in Houston, we were determined to prove that anybody could lead group singing. We were on the stage ready to go, with Betty VanderSmissen at the end of the head table behind us, and Tom Curtin and Ted Cavins in the front row, when I said, "Anyone has the capability to lead singing, and to prove our point, we are going to invite the closest president or board member to come up and lead a song." After everyone nearby blanched, I signaled to Nelson Wieters, who bounced up on stage. Unbeknownst to everyone, Nelson had been bugging us for quite a while, declaring his prowess as a songleader. You see, Pete Seeger had been to Kansas City and taught "Wimoweh." Nelson had learned (and claimed he had mastered) the first part of the song. Glory be, he did it and The Boys' Camp Band bailed him out with the remainder of the song.

Well, this prompted others to get into the act. The next year at New York City, Morry Stein's friends, camp staff, family, and Morry himself extolled the excellence of Morry's leading his signature, "The Song of the Sewer," from the Honeymooners star Art Carney (who played Ed Norton). Jane McCutcheon and I finally got around to rehearsing with Morry in 1984 at San Diego. Then, he was featured at our 125th at Kansas City in 1986. He was sensational, although he missed parts of the second verse. The Boys' Camp Band bailed him out, too.

When Nelson was the chair of the Fund for Advancement of Camping, he invited us to a meeting at the George Williams College Campus on Lake Geneva. We went to dinner at a restaurant nearby (I think it was in a silo). Nelson and I were sitting opposite each other when an album of the Weavers came on through the speakers. A waitress appeared and said to me, "I understand you are one of the Weavers." I looked at Nelson and knew immediately that he had spread this false rumor. I said, "Who told you something like that?" She returned to the kitchen and came out, again, to ask, "Which one are you?" As you may be aware the Weavers were made up of Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert. My answer? "Ronnie Gilbert." Before long the kitchen door was ajar with the kitchen staff all peeking out. I guess none of them knew that Ronnie Gilbert was the female vocalist of the Weavers. What a pleasure it was to, at long last, get back at that wily scallywag Wieters!

"Kum Bah Yah" Has a Special Place of Its Own

"Kum Bah Yah" has come to stand as an icon for camp singing. In the early 1950s, when Chuck Kujawa, John Ledlie, and I were the Executive of the YMCA's North American Association of Youth Work Secretaries, we held a National Conference at Green Lake, Wisconsin. Larry Eisenberg was our Conference's incomparable songleader and he introduced "Kum Bah Yah" to us. What an exciting time that was! An African folk song, "Kum Bah Yah"!

As a campfire song, "Kum Bah Yah" has to rank right at the top for popularity. Many people assume the song began as a Negro Spiritual when, in truth, it was written by an American Minister, Norman Frey, in New York City in the 1930s. The original words were "Come by Here, My Lord." The song was taken to Africa by missionaries, and upon their return, the lyrics had transformed into "Kum Bah Yah," and had circulated around the United States. In the 1960s, the song became a very popular part of the Civil Rights Movement, and since that time, it has been deeply ingrained into camp song repertoires all over the world (Criswell, 2007).

"What is Past is Prologue" — William Shakespeare

You may have seen the fellow on TV that said, "I quote Shakespeare a lot. He is a great author. I read all his books. In fact, every time a new one comes out, I buy it right away." Sir Winston Churchill said, "The farther backward we can look, the farther forward we are likely to see."

History is only useful, I submit, if we continue to make it. What do you say we resolve to respect the past and promise to build on it in order to perpetuate the wonderful tradition of camp singing and camp songs.

Mark Baldwin has written some of the most singable and beautiful camp songs — none more singable nor more beautiful than "Let There Always be a Song." If you haven't already sung it, it is featured on page 36. Methinks you will agree.

The sign-off is reserved for the consummate master, Pete Seeger. This is how Pete closes out the vibrant musical film Pete Seeger — The Power of Song.

Once upon a time, wasn't singing a part of everyday life as much as talking, physical exercise, and religion? Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in the world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives, once more, all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And as one person taps out a beat while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.

Brown, J., Cohl, M., Eigen, W. (Producers), & Brown, J. (Director). (2007). Pete Seeger: The power of song [Motion picture]. United States: Shangri-La Entertainment.
Criswell, C. (2007). Campfire songs: Sing a song of summer camp. Retrieved from http:// musicappreciation.suite101.com/article.cfm/ campfire_songs
Frey, Rev. M. V. (1936). Come by here (now Kum bah yah). Revival Choruses of Marvin V. Frey [lyric sheet]. Portland, OR.
University of Denver. (2004). Sweet chariot: The story of the spirituals. Retrieved from http:// ctl.du.edu/spirituals/Freedom/coded.cfm

Jack Pearse is senior director of world-renowned Camp Tawingo, Canada. He was president of the Canadian and Ontario Camping Associations, Association of Independent Camps, International Camping Fellowship, and a Distinguished Service Award recipient. Contact the author at 705-789-5612 or e-mail jackpearse@rogers.com.

Originally published in the 2010 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.