Saturday, December 9, 2017

"The Ash Grove" and its Welsh origins

Many camps and youth groups sing "The Ash Grove," a lovely song about the memories evoked by a walk in the woods.  The melody is the same one used in the original version of the song, which appeared in Wales in the early 19th Century.  The title, "Llwyn Onn," is Welsh for "ash grove."

Where it differs is the lyrics, which detail a tale of young lovers who die tragically.  Here is the English translation:

In the grand Ash-grove Palace, there lived a bold chieftain
And he was a squire and ruler of the land.
He had a fair daughter with many to court her
But none would she take for to give up her hand
Save her sweetheart, so handsome, so poor but of pure heart.
Her father unwilling and threatening the worst
Did shoot at the lad, but the bowstring was twisted
So crooked the arrow struck deep in her breast.

Too late to recall the dart back to the bowstring,
The poor girl lay dying, so mournful and sad.
In anger, the squire, his sword at the ready,
Did thrust at the heart of the unflinching lad.
Oh wealth is a master, so old and so peevish,
And from its cruel clutches she desperately strove.
"'Tis better to die by my own lover's side
Than to live in sorrow in the Palace Ash-grove."

Let's listen to both versions, each sung by a popular baritone in decades past. First, the modern version:

And here is the Welsh version:

Whatever the lyrics or language, the song retains its haunting beauty.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

They Go Wild (mosquitoes or the opposite sex?)

"They Go Wild" as sung at camp refers to the bothersome insects in the woods.  But in the original song, a big hit in 1917 in the early days of recorded music, "they" refers to members of the opposite sex.

Here is the camp version:

They go wild, simply wild, over me
They go wild, simply wild as they can be
Ev’ry morning noon and night
In the evening how they bite
The wood ticks, mosquitoes, and ev’ry fly in sight

Ev’ry morning on my pillowcase
A daddy longlegs stares me in the face
In my bathing suit and shoes
They assemble for a snooze
They go wild, simply wild, over me

And here are a couple of verses from the original:

They go wild, simply wild, over me
They go mad, just as foolish as can be
I meet so many kind I have to leave a few behind
They love me, they kiss me, I guess they must be blind

Every night how they fight over me
They all fall for my personality
I'm not good looking, it is true, but it's the little things I do
That make them wild, simply wild, over me

"They Go Wild" was composed by Fred Fisher with lyrics by Joe McCarthy.  Here is Billy Murray's version, the one that popularized the song:

The song has been recorded in many genres over the past century.  I haven't found the camp version anywhere, so I will leave you with this wester swing version from the 1930s, one of my favorites:


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Waltzing Matilda photograph

If you are familiar with what is called Australia's unofficial national anthem, you will recognize these lyrics from the third verse:
Down came the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred,
Down came the troopers, one, two, three! 
The squatter and troopers find the swagman (vagrant worker) who stole a jumbuck (a sheep), but fail to detain him because he drowns himself in a billabong (pond) rather than be captured.

Little did I know until today that a picture exists showing the troopers and the squatter:

The troopers (one, two, three!) are in the dark shirts. The fourth man from the right is the squatter (which means wealthy landowner; his jumbuck is the one that was purloined).

The words to Waltzing Matilda were written in 1895 by A. J. "Banjo" Paterson and set to music by Christina Macpherson.  Paterson was staying at the Macpherson family's sheep and cattle ranch in Queensland, where he learned of an incident four years earlier.  This inspired the song, and the photo above from the State Library of Queensland captures the men involved.

I'll leave you with this 1938 recording, which was the first hit version of "Waltzing Matilda."

Friday, October 27, 2017

Tattoo Song (Daisy on My Toe

Many summer camps and Girl Scout troops sing this song:

What they often don't know is who wrote what is generally known as "There's a Daisy on My Toe." In fact, most seem to assume it's a folk song, handed down over so many years that no one remembers where it originated. It's time to correct that misconception.

In fact, "Tattoo Song" (the actual title) debuted in 1965 on a best-selling album by the Smothers Brothers, "Mom Always Liked You Best." Like most of the duo's cuts, it combines humor and music.

So who wrote it? A man who has been awarded an Emmy and two Grammys. A man who is an accomplished guitarist, comedian, artist, poet and author. His name is Mason Williams, and he is best known for ""Classical Gas," a huge hit in 1968 whose popularity has never waned in the decades since its release.

Williams received his two Grammy Awards for composing and performing "Classical Gas." At the time, he was head writer for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a groundbreaking, controversial and popular television variety show. For this work, he landed his Emmy.

Somehow, this song migrated from an album cut on a comedy album to the repertoire of summer camps far and wide. One side effect, which I am sure is not limited to my camp, is a fair number of counselors have actually gotten tattoos on their toes.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Perhaps the most reviled camp song, at least in some circles, "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" is a lively tune that is easy to learn.  So why the animosity? Because it involves standing up and, essentially, doing calisthenics for five minutes as you touch each body part every time you sing its name (or hum it).  

So any campers or staff who are sitting at the dining table, groggily finishing breakfast, let out a moan when they hear the song leader chirp, "Everybody stand!"  They know what's coming. HSKandT.

After singing though the song once, it is repeated at a slightly faster tempo, this time humming the word "head" instead of singing it. Third time through, even faster and also humming the next body part (shoulders).  Repeat (one body part at a time) until the entire song is hummed at a frantic pace. Finish by reprising the original tempo and singing all the words.

Head, shoulders knees and toes, knees and toes
Head, shoulders knees and toes, knees and toes
And eyes and ear and mouth and nose
Head, shoulders knees and toes, knees and toes

The song is sung to the tune of "There's a Tavern in the Town," which can be traced back at least as far as the 1883 edition of William H. Hill's Student Songs, a popular songbook at Ivy league colleges.  I assume some student revised the words one summer while working at a camp and HSKandT spread from there.

The song was popularized by Rudy Vallee, one of the most popular entertainers in the early days of mass media. He released two versions in 1934 (under the title "The Drunkard Song"), the second of which featured Vallee losing control and laughing away in the middle of the song:

This recording reached #6 on the pop charts.

Returning to HSKandT, there are many versions of this on YouTube, but almost all of them are aimed an nursery school kids, with versions from all of the usual suspects: The Wiggles, Sesame Street, Teletubbies, etc.  But the song works just as well with a bunch of teenagers who could use a little waking up.  

That said, I'll end with a cute version I found, performed by young children learning English in Thailand:

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"It's a Beautiful Day Today"

I just did a little housecleaning on the long list of camp songs featured on the right side of this page. Deleted a few duplicates, changed the title of a few, and added ten or so songs that are either newer to me or that I'd mistakenly omitted.

One of the songs I added has an unusual origin, as it's an obscure song released in 1968 by the psychedelic/folk rock band Moby Grape (great name, it's the answer to "What's purple and swims?").  It wasn't a hit at the time.

Moby Grape came out of the San Francisco scene made famous by the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but never attained similar commercial success, despite the great musicianship of the band's members. Unfortunately, they've endured decades of legal battles with their ex-manager and two of the band members were diagnosed as schizophrenic and ended up homeless for a while.

One of these two members was bass player Bob Mosely, who wrote and sang lead on "It's a Beautiful Day Today." He now lives in Santa Cruz and performs regularly there.

I don't know how this song found its way to my camp, nor if it's sung at any other camp - but it should be.  As you can hear below, it's a lovely song, perfect for campfires.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A book about camp songs

Just a quick note to share something I recently came across, a book that was published last year titled "Camp Songs, Folk Songs" by Patricia Averill.  She has a website with an exhaustive list of songs as well as information about her book and herself.

This is not a songbook, FYI, but an academic book about the history and usage of these types of songs.  If that's of interest, check it out.  I'll be doing the same.