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11. Songs

Everybody knows the old favorites, the songs that are sung at every campfire, large or small. “The Long Trail,” “Old Black Joe” and their fellows can be carried in the memory, they don’t need a book. No campfire songfest would be complete without them. Their popularity is deserved, and I have no desire to belittle them, but I feel that a book like this should attempt to meet the demand for something to sing after the familiar tunes have all been sung.

The first requisite of a group song is clearly defined, pleasing melody, that fits the words and is easy to sing. Most of the following songs are folksongs, the rest are songs composed for group singing, many of them relics of the days of the Renaissance when everybody sang. They have been drawn from a wide variety of sources, French, Indian, Russian, Mexican, African, Japanese, but the majority are English, American or American Negro. English words have been provided in most cases, but naturally the songs sound much better in their original language. Even if you don’t know the language, and I for one know no Russian, little Spanish and certainly no Bantu, Japanese or Dakota, make a stab at the words. Good songs have a lot of personality and most of it escapes in translation.

Another requisite of the group song is that its melody is constructed on intervals which can be taken by untrained voices singing in unison. This, by the way, is not quite the same thing as an easy tune for solo singing. A majority of tunes are based on one or the other pentatonic scale, the intervals of the black keys on the piano.

Finally, the words should have some poetic value, not necessarily great beauty, but they should be moving in some way, even if they move only to laughter. When one comes to know the best folksongs and the songs of other times and peoples, he realizes the terrible poverty of the contemporary popular song with its hackneyed phrases and false sentiment. The intense competition and immense production of the radio, movies and night clubs seem to have raised the level of popular melody over the depths of half a generation or so ago, but the popular lyric, almost without exception, remains at a level of sheer asininity which will astonish future ages.

It is not only words alone, taken as a poem away from the melody, but a blending of words and music into one indissoluble unity, that makes a great song. We sing a lot at our house, at parties, at camp, hiking along the trail, driving the car, or just sitting around in the evening. Our song library is large. We even collect folksongs in an amateur sort of way. Out of hundreds of songs, of all times and places, these are the ones we sing most and the ones I like best. The fact that they are also very easy may be due to the fact that I am not very good at carrying a tune.

[Unfortunately, the book manuscript does not include the words and music for these songs, or even a list of them. Presumably they would have been added at a later stage if the book had been published.]


Chapter 11 of Kenneth Rexroth’s Camping in the Western Mountains (unpublished manuscript, ca. 1939). Copyright 2003. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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