UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 37, 29 August 2020: Ukes Around the Campfire–A Gift of the “Campfire Spirit”

Growing up in the 1950s, one of my favorite summertime experiences was “going to camp.”  For me, this was Boy Scout Camp with all the fun of archery, Indian lore, crafts, canoeing, swimming, and outdoor adventures.  I did this for a few years both as a camper and as staff.

Each evening, just after dark and before “Lights Out,” all of us would assemble at the camp’s lakeside mini-amphitheater to end the day with what was simply called “Campfire.”  The big bonfire was lit “miraculously” by the camp “spirit” and, after announcements, demonstrations, and—from time to time—a skit or story, it ended with the camp “Sing.” 

We were all young enough and innocent enough in those days to join in with singing those good old camp favorites that had been around for years and, indeed, for generations.

We could even hear the Girl Scouts from their camp across the lake but, as would be expected with the youth of those days, we were too young and naive to notice. Sort of . . .

When I was on staff, I was assigned the daily task of “fire spirit” and set the tinder, kindling, and wood and—at the mysteriously correct time—pulled the hidden cord that dragged the weighted wood block studded with strike-anywhere” matches over the sheet of coarse sandpaper hidden beneath the tinder.  Flame, then fire, then CAMPFIRE!  Hey, it was the 1950s!  Times were simpler then.

Those so-called campfire songs—sometimes published with appropriate ukulele accompaniment chords—have been around for years and songbooks for boys, girls, and grownups filled with these were readily available but seldom needed. We already knew almost all of them.

And, of course, the most popular songbook of all for campfires or anywhere! Alas, no uke chords with this one. But most songs were too well known to really need them.

The songs were familiar and, usually, more than three chords were all that were necessary. How’s this for a favorite oldie? Only two chords! Don’t tell me you have never sung this one around a campfire or somewhere else.

Every once in a while someone–usually one of the adult leaders would have a guitar, harmonica, or even a ukulele! Alas, not me in those days.

Jim and Liz Beloff’s “Camp Ukulele” book is the quintessential reminder of all these old campfire chestnuts and only a handful of the forty or so songs in the book are unfamiliar to me.

Needless to say you’ll also find most of these songs in their Yellow and Blue Books that we use every week, but it doesn’t hurt to hear some other folks give a good performance of one of these. Click or tap on the next image for a listen to some good baritone uke strumming on this campfire favorite.

Or, how about this one from their book–a bit more fun for the young campers of today. Click or tap on the next image once you have your uke in hand and campfire ablaze!

Needless to say, some campfire songs go way, way back.

Tap or click on the next image for a simple version of this Civil War camp ground song.

There were even campfire songs back in days of World War One.

The Scots had their campfire version of “Annie Laurie” and the Yanks did a take on “Tenting Tonight. Sorry, no YouTubes for these but the covers say it all.

Here’s another World War I favorite. That’s a banjo mandolin being played. Close enough to a uke for a campfire!

Even during World War II there were singalongs and what could easily pass as campfire songs.

And, of course a bit of singalong trench humor!

Moving on, other campfire songs are, shall we say, a bit more modern.

Tap or click on the next block for the late Allan Sherman’s performance of his ultimate camp song!

Even more contemporary than “Hello Muddah . . . ,” here’s one from good old (?) Spongebob Squarepants, himself! Click or tap on the next image for what I am sure is a campfire favorite of today. Well, it is 202o . . .

There was also a style of ukulele specifically called a “Camp Uke.” 

This was soprano scale with a circular body almost like a wood-topped banjo uke.  Lyon & Healy of Chicago pioneered these but , as would be expected, a lot of folks copied the style and the name.  Here are a few from my collection.

Here’s also a campfire-ready ukulele from Martin, their so-called “Backpacker.” It’s a bit of an odd shape but it has good tone and volume. You could really carry it along.

And there’s the all-polycarbonite (plastic to most of us) “Outdoor” ukulele from Oregon. Don’t get too close to the campfire with this one, however!

Of course, most other ukes work just fine around a campfire–in the woods, on the beach, or in the backyard. Especially to serenade your sweetie!

Just keep those ukes out of the kindling pile!

So, as this summer of sequestration comes to a close, and whatever camps and campgrounds that were open have closed their gates, hopefully you were able to enjoy an evening campfire in the great outdoors. Perhaps not . . .

Whether camping, glamping, RV-ing, or fire-pitting in your backyard or nearby woods, hopefully you were compelled (coerced?) to pull out that old uke, strum a three-chord progression intro and launch into a few of those smokey old songs that everyone already knew from their campfire days.

So, stay safe, stay sequestered, and put that fire out properly . . .

. . . and thoroughly before that evening hike back to your tent with new and old friends and lights out. But don’t forget those campground intruders!

And also, don’t forget those pesky (but necessary) face masks even in the great outdoors!

And, let’s not let our campfire fun get too 2020-ish . . .

. . . nor should we forget those delicious old campfire days!

And, we should all dress properly!

Most important, however, STAY TUNED!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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