What’s Wrong with This Song? We Love It and Have Been Singing It Forever!

Jacki Breger
August 2021

Here you are, catching up, maybe relaxing now that camp is over. You’re reflecting on the joy of having experienced another successful season; the sadness of saying goodbye to campers and staff who have developed meaningful relationships; your readiness (or not) to review staff and camper evaluations; worry about budgets and funding for next year; and wondering what constitutes “normal” as we go forward. I am envisioning your eyes glazed over, brains exploding, exhausted, wanting/needing a vacation and thinking, And now you’re telling me that I have to throw out all those songs we love and have been singing forever?

In a word, yes. But the real issue is not individual songs that may or may not seem appropriate, but how we think about our song collections, which will guide us as we develop a process to look at the songs. And it’s hard to talk about a song collection without talking about the bigger issues related to systemic racism.

We are living in a period of immense upheaval and disequilibrium. Our camp values and traditions are being challenged as never before. Difficult societal issues of racial, ethnic, and economic disparities require us to evaluate and reevaluate our operations through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The DEI lens, in turn, requires us to examine how many of our long-held assumptions and camp traditions have contributed to and/or been shaped by such issues. The good news, as child development theorist Jean Piaget describes it, is that the very disequilibrium we are experiencing is exactly what will propel us toward our next stage of development (McLeod, 2020).

So what does the process of reviewing song lyrics look like? I will discuss what I think are the five main keys to revisiting our camp song collections:

  • The role camp singing plays in relation to our camp’s values
  • Questions to ask in evaluating songs
  • Who should be involved in the process
  • What the evaluation process should include
  • Available resources to support our work

What Role Does Camp Singing Play?

Singing may be the single most important camp activity for creating a sense of community. Camp directors intuitively know that singing brings the group together, breaks down barriers, unites generations, helps kids learn new things, teaches life lessons, helps kids value tradition, and provides campers with something they can take home and share with their families. (Breger, 2013). We learn to depend on each other when we harmonize or sing rounds. And, of course, it’s fun. The directors’ intuition is supported by a growing body of research on how singing affects our brains.

What Questions Should We Ask When Evaluating Song Collections?

Songs have words and words matter. Whether they are silly or serious, words leave a lasting impression. They have and convey meaning. We often sing the songs we love without stopping to think about and analyze what messages we absorb consciously and unconsciously. So the first question to ask is, “Does a song support or undermine our camp values?”

Additional questions include:

  • Does the song demean a person or a group? 
  • Does it perpetuate a negative stereotype?
  • Does it reflect universal “truths” or cultural values of a specific group?
  • What’s the history of the song, and what does that history tell us about its meaning?
  • Where does/did the song come from, and how did it find its way into our repertoire?

A song that could potentially demean a person, for example, is the kid favorite “I’m a Nut.” The lyrics describe all the crazy, silly things a person does that cause them to repeatedly declare in the refrain, “I’m a nut.” But kids sometimes think it’s funny to sing that refrain in third person, labeling another camper the nut. It’s OK to call yourself a nut, but even a silly song takes on a different meaning the second you change pronouns. You’re no longer laughing at yourself; you’re putting down another person (Breger, 2013).

Other questions will arise as you begin your exploration. It isn’t necessarily important to answer all of them, certainly not at first. But it is important to allow them to emerge, to lead to additional questions, and to look for patterns and hidden meanings.

Who Should Be Involved in the Review Process?

You’ve begun to ask a lot of questions, enjoying reassurance in some cases and encountering uncomfortable answers in others. Now what do you do? And with whom?

Form a committee or a group that is large enough to be inclusive, one that brings together decision-makers (including owners and directors), staff (including song leaders and other counselors), campers, alumni, and parents. In other words, a group that represents all your stakeholders. And maybe a few “outsiders” as well, people who have some knowledge and expertise in dealing with sensitive issues and who might contribute fresh ideas and help broaden the discussions. The process will be a little messy. But that’s not necessarily bad — and the process may well lead to stronger and more positive outcomes.

Once established, this committee should be permanent. To provide stability and continuity, membership terms should be overlapping (not unlike a board of trustees). Issues and questions about songs will always come up, and when they do you will want to have the mechanism and process in place to deal with them in an open and equitable way. In fact, the committee should also define the process.

What Should the Process Include?

There is value in asking questions, more questions, and even more questions before making a decision. Too often, we rush through an uncomfortably amorphous process to get to the decision or develop a policy, which is more concrete. However, no one policy nor set of guidelines can cover all possible situations. We need a tool kit that allows us the space to make decisions based on specific situations rather than trying to fit all situations into one policy. We need the flexibility to face song challenges.

What are some of those challenges and situations you might encounter? Here are just a few:

  • The camp director wants a specific song, and the song leader hates it or is offended by it — or vice versa, the song leader wants to introduce a new song and the camp director says, “Forget it!”
  • A camper or parent complains to you that a song is racist or sexist and wants it removed from the repertoire. Another camper or parent argues the opposite.
  • You and your staff determine that a much-loved song is offensive by today’s standards. Do you modify the song (i.e., change the words)? Do you remove the song from your repertoire? Do you ignore the “complainers”? What if you remove the song and a camper wants to know why it isn’t sung anymore? How do you talk about the changes in ways that are inclusive and support the value of community?

Where’s my tool kit?

In addition to or alongside these challenges, we must continue to explore our own personal ideas and issues concerning racism. No matter how well-meaning we are, biases are there.

So, what’s in the tool kit?

  1. Deep, introspective-not-defensive thinking, beginning with a very clear understanding of your own personal and camp values and beliefs.
  2. Knowledge and understanding of the deeper issues around isms, including the ways in which some people may experience feeling left out — along with the likelihood that a thorough reality check will validate their feeling.
  3. The will and dogged determination to reach equitable, sometimes elusive solutions to the issues confronting you.
  4. Knowing and accepting that the journey will be bumpy and the conversation often difficult.
  5. An openness and willingness to continue the journey and engage in the conversations — no matter what.
  6. A collection of resources: books, articles, organizations (and their websites), and people.

What Are Some Resources to Support Our Work?

Here’s a look at some resources you may find helpful, thought-provoking, challenging, and reassuring, whether you’re just beginning to assess your songs for unintentional bias, racism, and discrimination, or you are familiar with the process:

You Have to Have the Conversation

Conversations are critically important to the successful review of song collections, as well as to the larger issues around DEI. More often than not, these conversations are difficult and challenging, and it feels easier not to have them. However, they form a necessary path toward meaningful change. Fortunately, there are some valuable guidelines. For example, in his Camping Magazine article “Race and Camp: Creating an Environment in Camp Communities That Is Truly Welcoming to People of Color” (see the Resources section), Bob Ditter offers these “Six Practices for Creating Deeper Dialogue and Greater Understanding”:

  1. Listen without judgment.
  2. Replace judgment with curiosity.
  3. Understand the difference between intention and impact.
  4. Practice “radical acceptance.”
  5. Step outside the conversation and talk about how you are talking.
  6. Start with something you can both agree on (Ditter, 2020).

Julie Olsen Edwards, coauthor, along with Louise Derman-Sparks, of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children & Ourselves, shared these “Four Steps for Sensitive Discussion” with me:

  1. Try to be appreciative and nondefensive. Instead of saying, “We’ve always (or never) done this,” try “I appreciate your concern,” “I’m glad you brought this up,” or “I’m happy you came to me . . . .”
  2. Stay engaged in thoughtful conversation; try to avoid pronouncements and dismissive comments.
  3. Double-check that you understand what’s being said.
  4. What’s next? Have we reached an agreement? Do we need additional conversation? Who else should be brought into the conversation?

Another important guide is the Four Agreements of Courageous Conversations:

  1. Stay engaged.
  2. Experience discomfort — it isn’t easy.
  3. Speak your truth, not what you think others want to hear.
  4. Expect and accept nonclosure — be willing to “hang out in uncertainty” and not rush to quick solutions (Courageous Conversations, 2021).

The link to the Courageous Conversations website is included in the resources list.

Finally, the most valuable resource is people. One thing I truly love about camps and camp people is that we believe in the importance of the community and are willing and eager to share information and practices with each other. Revisiting our song collections is definitely something we can, and should, do together. Perhaps we can have a monthly or bimonthly Zoom call about specific songs and challenges as they arise (something I would be happy to coordinate).

What we want is a vibrant collection of songs in a variety of styles that are serious and silly, that represent our values, that bring us together, and that are fun and wonderful to sing!

Photo courtesy of Camp Weequahic, Lakewood, PA

Jacki Breger is a veteran songleader in camp, school and concert settings, and has been a camp counselor/song leader and director in both day and resident camps. She is a seasoned workshop presenter at local, regional, and national conferences. She hosted a radio program for kids about folk and classical music, has produced five albums of songs for children, and has written a book on how to teach songs and lead singing. She was featured on the ACA CampWire Podcast #21 on camp singing, and she has written and presented workshops about antibias curriculum for schools and singing programs.

References

Breger, J. (2013). Singing together: How to teach songs and lead singing in camps and schools. Monterey, CA: Healthy Learning.

Courageous Conversations. (2021). Retrieved from courageousconversation.com

Ditter, B. (2020, September). Race and camp: Creating an environment in camp communities that is truly welcoming to people of color. Camping Magazine. ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/race-camp-creating-environment-camp-communities-truly-welcoming-people-color

McLeod, S. A. (2018, June 06). Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Simply Psychology. simplypsychology.org/piaget.html


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