What fun to sing around the campfire

By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
Staff Writer
If someone asked you, “Do your ears hang low,” you might be offended.
That is unless you’ve been to camp. Then you’d know that the question is actually the title of a children’s song that has echoed around campfires for years.
Patricia Averill is nearly 80, but the former Michigan resident knows a lot about camp songs. Her book, “Camp Songs, Folk Songs,” was published recently by Xlibris Corp. The 714-page edition features 19 in-depth studies of songs such as “Kookaburra,” “Kumbaya,” “Flicker of a Camp Fire” and “Skyball Paint.” The book also includes 65 historic photographs, including several from Camp Glen, the summer resident camp for Camp Fire Northwest Ohio near Tiffin.
“Songs change every year,” said Averill during a telephone interview from her home in New Mexico. “What doesn’t change, if the camp has any sense of tradition, is the reasons kids sing.”
She has hands-on experience. Her mother was a Blue Bird leader when the Camp Fire organization was just for girls. And Averill spent several weeks each summer at Camp Kitanniwa in Hastings, Michigan.
“I was aware of Camp Fire from the start,” she said. “So when they sent out information about camp, I was like, I want to go. I want to go.”
She was only 6 when she went to a week-long camp session for the first time. Averill recalls getting sick while at camp.
“I think I was just not used to being out in that much fresh air. But even so, I think my body said, ‘We need this,'” she laughed, “This is good. I need this air.”
She enjoyed the experience so much, she signed up for the two-week session the following summer.
“I liked it so much, I just went every year for probably 10 years,” she said.
Averill also found time for 4-H camp.
“At that time, 4-H didn’t have any town members. It was strictly rural. Now there are 4-H clubs for youth who live in town, but there wasn’t in the ’50s,” she said.
Averill said she liked being with other youth who also liked camp.
“I think it was just being there,” she said. “As a teenager, it was being with all these other kids I knew at camp. Because there was only one two-week session, all the kids that liked camp all went to that two-week session.”
The songs also had appeal and she remembered them in the mid 1970s while working on her thesis at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” used lyrics of country music recordings to examine changes that occurred when World War II exposed Southern-born whites to a wider world.
Averill said many of her college classes were in the folklore department. And as she took those classes, she decided that camp was like a folk community.
“Although it was just a one-week session, there was still a sense of community with all these traditions that got passed on,” she said. “This was as folk as anything we were studying.”
While she waited for her dissertation to be typed, Averill taught at Heidelberg College for a year. She also spent time doing more research on camp songs.
She started by visiting her old stomping grounds, Camp Kitanniwa, in 1974. During the visit, she talked to a girl from Findlay.
“This is where it’s really evident how folk communities work,” Averill said. “Here was this girl from Findlay who was like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to visit Camp Glen,’ which is why I called Camp Glen. That was the connection.”
She noted that counselors sometimes go to different camps where there’s an opening, but they usually stay within a certain type of camp such as those for Camp Fire or Girl Scouts.
“Songs would move when people moved. They took songs with them,” she explained.
When Averill visited Camp Glen, she met a girl from Seattle who was sharing songs she knew from the northwest. One of the songs she heard was “Flicker of a Campfire.”
“It was new to me in the ’70s. … It was written by a girl in New York,” she said. “I talked to a friend of this girl, and she wrote the song in 1958, we think. And she worked one year at a Camp Fire camp and then spent the other years in a Girl Scout camp, so it also spread to the Girl Scouts.”
The counselor from Seattle had learned the song when she was 8. Averill said the song traveled from New York/New Jersey to Seattle in just five years. It then made its way back to Michigan.
“The camp really wasn’t open the next year (due to a fire), so she worked at another Camp Fire camp in South Bend (Indiana). She took the song there,” Averill said.
In doing research, Averill sent inquiries to Camp Fire Girls councils and received song books from many. She identified the most popular songs and sent a questionnaire to other camp directors in 1976. She heard from 175 people who were in camps in 44 states and Canada.
She said the songs sung at camp now are more complex and rhythmic because of the way music has changed over the years. Still, Averill found a few old favorites still being sung like “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.”
“Kids love it because they get to yell,” she said. “They get to make as much noise as they want. If they get softer and softer, it’s even better to get loud. And I think those needs that kids have haven’t changed.”
“The song they use may change,” she said. “‘John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt’ may not be politically correct now, but some other song, some other game, will allow them to scream, to do that which is kind of forbidden.”
Regardless of the changes, she said, young people still want to have fun when they sing.
“Eight-, 10-, 11-year-olds, you’re not dealing with real sophisticated,” she said. “They’re probably more interested in rhythm and hand gestures. The songs change all the time, but kids don’t.”
Cassie Turner, OSU Extension educator/county director of 4-H youth development, said singing is still a popular pastime at camp.
“The majority of campers love the camp songs, it’s a great tradition,” said Turner in an email.
Some of the more popular offerings at 4-H camp this year included “The Little Green Frog,” “The Noble Duke of York,” “The Weenie Man Song,” “Roll Me Over,” “Hermie the Worm,” “Boom Chicka Boom” and “Shark Attack.”
“There are songs after flags, before meals, after meals, counselors teach songs on walks back to sessions or if there is down time. We do songs at campfire and sometimes evening rec,” said Turner. “You will hear little voices singing the latest catchy song as they are out and about.”
Songs are taught at club meetings each year so members will know them when they get to camp, she said. Song books have also been compiled in the past.
“This year we actually incorporated PowerPoint slides with the words on them to assist counselors while teaching the songs in the dining hall,” said Turner. “I’m sure many families and clubs are learning (new) songs since we have been back (from camp). We had 80 first-year campers this year — so teaching the songs was really important and a lot of fun.”
Averill said she eventually finished the manuscript and sent it off for review, but it was lost. By this time she had given up teaching and become a computer programmer.
“I didn’t have time to spend retyping it,” she said. “I had all the carbons, but you can’t send the carbons out to someone. I just sort of dropped it.”
A few years ago, she was cleaning the garage when she discovered the box containing the carbons.
“And of course now I’m retired and I’ve got time,” she said.
Averill spent about a year doing more research and getting the book ready. She said completing the project may have been more about fate than free time.
“In Blue Birds, you have the Blue Bird Wish … and one of the lines is ‘To remember to finish what I begin.’ Maybe I felt I had to finish this because of that Blue Bird Wish,” she said.
The softcover edition of the book costs $23.99 and is available from Xlibris by calling 888-795-4274 or online at Orders@Xlibris.com.
Wolf: 419-427-8419 jeanniewolf@thecourier.com

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