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."


Lawhead Alan said...

British nationalism returns in 2016. Here's a clip of Rule Britannia from the last night of the Poms, performed at the Royal Albert Hall 2009. Nothing like singing it in the Mess Hall in Minnesota:

Joe said...

Alan, thanks for the link.