Thursday, January 31, 2008

Song #4 - Life of a Voyageur

I did a little digging on this song today, sometimes known as "Canadian Wilderness." Since Camp Ajawah is in Minnesota and canoeing is a fun part of the lakefront activities, this song always felt apropos.

It has an interesting, complex melody, the lyrics paint a vivid picture, and the theme resonates will all who love the outdoors. And it's fun to sing the parts like "smoke rising from the fire, reach for sky in a stately spire" when the melody rises in a quick, steep burst.

On iTunes, where I am compiling an iMix of Camp Ajawah songs, this was one of the few for which I could find none.

But I did find a cool site which I have yet to fully explore, but seems to include huge database of folk songs as well as good discussions of various summer camp song origins, lyrics, etc.

Find it here:

A poster there give the song's origins:

****I learned this song in the mid-'70's at Camp Manito-Wish in northern Wisconsin. It was written by a woman affiliated with that camp, and I believe it must have dispersed from there.

It's a beautiful song and well received whenever I sing it.

Quoting from: "Songs of the Northland, Manito-Wish Song Book."

"... written in 1960 by Mary Satterfield Swanson. On the first of many trips back to the Quetico, Mary brought along her baritone ukulele, which she fondly named Sarah after her adventures on Sarah Lake as a camper in 1959. It was on Sarah Lake that the words and music to 'The Life of a Voyageur' came to her. Mary brought the song to camp with her that summer and taught it to her cabin and later to the entire camp community."***

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Song #3 - Row, Row, Row

Here is a song that virtually all Americans know, even if they've never been within a hundred miles of a summer camp. It's sung in preschools, families, on children's CDs, etc. The twist at Camp Ajawah is how we sung it. After singing it once through, we would sing is again but leave off the final word, "stream." Sing again, leave off the last two words, "the stream." And thus we would continue, leaving off one more word each time. We would end with the chant-like "row, row, row... row, row... row."

It's a fun variation on a familiar tune, one which require concentration. There is always someone who forgets (or pretends to) to stop and sings out a word or two solo, leading to laughter and gentle embarrassment.

It can also be sung as a round, but we never went that route.

Wikipedia has an excellent entry on this old English song:
Good trivia section!

Finally, this simplest of children's songs is distinctive for being so subtly complex philosophical - one could write an entire blog contemplating the line "life is but a dream."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Song #2 - To Stop The Train

I may as well continue with unlikely songs from England... so I have chosen another song I remember being introduced to Camp Ajawah (unlike most songs, which had been sung long before I came along). Bruce, like Bob a great camp leader for many years and a teacher during the school years, taught us this simple song:

To stop the train in cases of emergency pull down the chain
pull down the chain
penalty for improper use: 5 Pounds

I picture some really bored songwriter riding the tube years ago, distractedly reading one of those informational signs that blend into the background in public spaces, and challenging himself to put the words to music.

A little searching on the internet turns up nothing on the songs history. Anyone?

Here is a version of it with a slightly different tune from Ajawah's version:

Finally, like some of the songs at Ajawah (and more so during the girls sessions), there are physical actions that accompany this song. Waving one's hand to stop the train, pulling down the chain, wagging a finger to warn of the penalty, and ending with a five fingers held out (5 Pounds) and a palm out for money on the last two notes of the song.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Song #1 - Rule Britannia

One of the things I relished at Ajawah was the very long and diverse roster of songs we sang. By the time I showed up as a nine year old, the camp had been going strong for 40 years. Also, there was a great deal of continuity of leadership and campers from year to year, so the institutional memory was terrific.

So while some may think of camp songs as being a roster of a few dozen upifting songs like "Kumbaya" (which we did sing), at Ajawah the music ranged from spiritual to nonsense, Broadway to Boy Scouts, pop charts to traditional. While we sang of peace, love and understanding, we also sang of murder, deadly disasters, and mayhem... of cowboys, sailors, soldiers... and of Irish bandleaders, Zulu warriors, and Australian sheep.

So I thought the first song I would write about is one that probably is sung at few camps: Rule Britannia. Most people would recognize the bombastic instrumental version of the chorus; the lyrics and the verses, not likely. (Hear it at

When Bob, the Assistant Camp Director, handed out copies of the lyrics to all the tables in the Mess Hall one summer day, I was amused that he thought he could get 80 young boys to learn the complex melody and archaic language. For example, the first line of the song is "When Britain first at Heaven's command arose from out the azure main." The word "first" stretches across five notes... and "arose" over ten. Insanity!

But a funny thing happened. Bob kept leading the song and before you know it, we were all booming it out with gusto. It was - and is - a fun song. The things that make it challenging to sing also make it rewarding. And the chorus is simple and powerful enough that it's easy to sing that part while getting up to snuff on the verses.

Thus, an 18th century British anthem became a 20th century American camp song. As is often the case, Wikipedia has good information on the song, including lyrics, at

Finally, I remember a few years later, after camp had ended for the summer, a few dozen leaders were driving in the camp bus near the Minnesota-Canadian border for a canoe trip. We picked up a pair of hitchhikers who turns out to be Brits. As soon as we realized this, to the amusement and amazement of our guests, we all burst forth into "Rule Britannia."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Why "When We Sing"

I would like to answer the question I pose in the title twice - why this blog? And why this title?

My intention in writing here is to share with other the lasting joy I have derived from the songs I learned over many summers at Camp Ajawah in Minnesota. By writing a little bit about each song and linking to recorded versions and other resources, I hope this blog will help spread this music to those who also enjoy the types of songs by groups around a campfire... or on a hike up a hill... or after a meal.

As for the phrase "When We Sing," it is simply the first three words of the lyrics to one of the enduring songs at my camp: "The Ajawah Rouser," which I will write about soon. These three words evoke the spirit of communal song. Works for me...

I welcome any suggestions, questions, and contributions.