We rushed our after-dinner cleanup to catch the evening ranger program scheduled in the national park campground we were camping in that night. This was the first evening program either of my kids had attended at ages 5 and 7, and they were stoked. We arrived at dusk to a roaring fire and a full amphitheater. The ranger greeted everyone and in the next 45 minutes, magically drew us into the story of our country’s national parks through song. This group of complete strangers all belted out songs together like “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie and “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad” together. Voices blended, people laughed and smiled at one another, and memories came flooding back. I’ve attended many ranger programs in my time and I left that one feeling like I’d experienced something special. The difference? Music!
Meet Ella Jenkins
Ella Jenkins, known as the “First Lady of Children’s Music,” knows this well. After decades of singing and writing memorable music for children, Smithsonian Folkways has released her newest project this summer, “Camp Songs With Ella Jenkins and Friends.” As a child in Chicago, she remembers her brother teaching her the songs he learned at Boy Scout Camp. Later, Ella began to sing and lead songs at camp herself. Though in her 90s today, she still warmly recalls the people she met and the experiences she had at camp.
Singing is a well-known tradition at summer camps. There were many opportunities to sing together: riding on the bus, at mealtimes, while hiking, during variety show performances, and especially around the campfire at night. Of course, singing and telling stories around a campfire is a tradition as old as fire itself. There’s something about the low light, the flickering flames and the night sky above that provides the perfect environment for bonding. You can do this through stories, conversation or song. But song, in particular, has the magic ability to transport someone back to a particular time and place – even decades later.
Music Ties Us Together
As a mom, I love the concept of using music to cement my kids’ memories of the warm, silly, fun, crazy times we’ve had camping together. What a great gift to them to create a well of good feelings and pleasant memories that they can draw upon later in life when they want to feel close to family or home or are facing a tough time.
So how can we, as families, use music to create memories like the ones at summer camp?
- On the drive to the campground or trailhead, queue up a soundtrack of camp songs to get everyone in the mood. Ella Jenkins’ “Camp Songs” is a great one to start with.
- Sing around your family’s campfire! It may feel a little awkward at first, but just do it! Ask each family member to pick a favorite song – from the youngest to the oldest – and start singing. If you aren’t sure where to begin, “Camp Songs With Ella Jenkins and Friends” can provide some inspiration. In fact, the last five songs on the album were designed to represent a campfire sing along, with parents leading kids in song.
- Bring musical instruments on your next camping trip. Does someone in your family play the guitar or harmonica? Here’s a chance to use that gift in the great outdoors! Even if you have no accompaniment, don’t despair. Many, many campfire sing alongs are led by voice alone.
- Create your own mix of campfire favorites. You can literally create your family’s own unique, personal soundtrack for the outdoors – how cool is that?! Camps nationwide have their own unique sets of songs and you can too. Use songs your kids already know and love, then mix in some of your own favorites. Not sure what songs to sing? Any song can be a campfire song.
- Those with repeating lyrics or a call-and-repeat format are easier to remember.
- You can use patriotic songs, religious songs, military songs, show tunes, cowboy tunes, African-American spirituals or songs from your favorite genre.
- A popular tradition is to alternate slow or contemplative songs with more upbeats ones.
- Make up new songs together. Campers are notorious for writing their own songs or lyrics to songs. Track #12 on Ella’s album – Hill Was Steep and Tall (When I Signed Up for This Hike) – is a song she wrote after getting really lost in the woods with a group of campers! (She still laughs about that experience.) You can do the same thing. Have a memorable or funny experience on the trail or while camping? Take a familiar tune, then spend your next rainy day at camp creating an original family song.
- Sing on the trail too. Hiking in bear or mountain lion country? Singing is a great way to keep wild animals away because it is much louder than trinkets like bear bells. Human voices are always a bigger deterrent than other sounds. A peppy or silly song can also provide motivation when little legs are weary or older kids need a boost to keep moving.
Pick one idea and see if you can use it on your next trip as a family into the great outdoors. But above all, have fun!
Check out “Camp Songs With Ella Jenkins and Friends” on smithsonianfolkways.com. Lyrics to all songs are provided in the CD liner. Do you have a song that you like to sing around the campfire? Share it with us below.