Tag Archives: Boy Scouts

“The Johnson Boys” Campfire Song


KR’s grandfather was a Scoutmaster in Ontario who led Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts on camping trips and also enjoyed going camping with his own family. He remembers this piece as one of the songs his grandfather used to sing around the campfire with them.

Main Piece:

“The Johnson Boys”

Verse 1:  
Oh, the Johnson boys, the Johnson boys,
They lived on a mill on the side of the hill,
Verse 2:
Oohh, the Johnson boys, the Johnson boys,
They lived on a mill on the side of the hill,
Verse 3:
Ooohhhhh, the Johnson boys, the Johnson boys,
They lived on a mill on the side of the hill.

Continue ad infinitum, with the “oh” being drawn out longer with each repetition of the verse.


KR remembers “The Johnson Boys,” as “the song with one hundred thousand verses.” He says it’s, “a fun little song that everyone gets to chime in on,” since the lyrics were easy to remember and stretching out the “oh” always made the kids laugh. This song fulfills the classic roles of a good campfire song: something easy to pick up and remember, but with a fun twist to entertain the children. Since KR’s grandfather was a scout leader, the trips he led were mainly composed of children, it makes sense that he would have a library of these songs that are easily accessible for anyone.

This facet of folk song is interesting to me because while it is folk culture, it is also in some ways an institutionally pushed song. By this I do not mean that it was integrated into standardized education, or utilized by the government/corporations, but it significantly differs from some other children’s songs because it is a song that was taught to children by adults, and generally performed between children and adults. Often, folkloric children’s chants and songs evolve within the young population, perhaps even against the will of the adults surrounding them. But this song, and other campfire songs like it, are more of a bridge between the cultural worlds of the child and the adult leaders. They are neither the children’s song (because the children did not create it or claim it as their own to change and sing on their own) but also not a song for the adults (because the adults sing it primarily for the enjoyment of the children).

Bigfoot and the Zodiac Killer

“So we went on a scout trip near Bodega Bay, and the campfire talk was all about Bigfoot. Bigfoot is a huge hairy creature that lives in the woods. We kept arguing about whether he was real and whether he would come into a camp with a fire or not. So we all decided that the fire had to be big enough to scare him away. So, of course, you can imagine the size of the fire. The kids wanted to cut down trees and put them into the thing. This was also during the time of the Zodiac Killer, so we were even more paranoid and jumpy. We slept with the fire burning, and Bigfoot never bothered us. After that, I always made my campfires as big as possible because I was taught it would keep people safe from whatever is in the woods.”

Context: The informant grew up in Sacramento, and was a member of the Boy Scouts.

Interpretation: The act of making a campfire with fellow scouts is in itself a unifying activity, but claiming it is in defense against a common enemy strengthens the bond of the troop even more. Whether the threatening creature in the woods is Bigfoot or the Zodiac Killer, the thought distracts scouts from the much more tangible threat of nature itself. In fact, the troop arguably put themselves in more danger by creating a larger fire, but their fears were focused elsewhere. The parallels drawn between the Zodiac Killer and Bigfoot are particularly interesting. Both figures are predatory and shrouded in mystery, but they are viewed very differently by the public. 

Mexican Boy Scouts song

My informant is my father, a 48 year old pediatric oncologist at Stanford University. He is bilingual, binational and bicultural, born to a white American father and a Mexican mother. He grew up in both countries but spent his formative adolescent years in Mexico City, where he joined the Mexican Boy Scouts or “los escouts” as he calls them. It was there that he learned this joke from a fellow Escout, who he is still good friends with today.

He performs this piece of folklore frequently, usually in the presence of children—before, when my sister and I were little, he would teach it to us when we were camping, and now, since we’re older, he usually does it around our younger cousins, especially around mealtimes.

Here is the song:

“Queremos comer!
Sangre coagulada
revuelta en ensalada
higado encebollado
de sapo reventado
y de postre!
Helado con caquita de venado!!”


We want to eat!

Coagulated blood

Mixed up in a salad

Onion-fried liver

of a scrambled frog

and for dessert!

Ice cream with little deer poops!

This little song has gone from being a piece of his adolescence to being passed on to our generation, so it means a lot to him as both a part of his past, and a reminder of old friendships, as well as a part of his family life now. He uses it to bond now with his younger relatives over the humorous idea of such a disgusting meal, and to reconnect, I think, with his inner child.

Eagle Scout ceremony

“I never became an Eagle Scout, so the whole ceremony of it all was really magical to me. So they get the rank already, but this is the official ceremony where the mom gives the rank to the Eagle Scout. She’s the one who pinned on the thing. Because she’s the one that drove him to the troop meetings and made lunches and everything. So the mom gets the honor of putting it on.

So there’d be a…what is it called. A toast? Kind of like a toast. Because the Eagle Scout wouldn’t actually do much. But then it would be his friend–like his best man–would be the emcee, and call people up to give keynote speeches about what this person did and why they were so great and why they deserved to become an Eagle Scout.

And there would be representatives. Like the governor would come down, and you would get a letter from the president. Saying congratulations. And then there was one ceremony where the governor came in and recognized this Eagle Scout, and then he was like, ‘So I formally declare today ‘Michael’s Day.’’ Like the day becomes the Eagle Scout’s day on the calendar. That’s how great they were. It’s a lot of hooplah.

Because they spent the majority of their childhood working towards this rank. And there’s a community service project they have to plan and coordinate to get there. So, I believe it’s worth it. But not a lot of Eagle Scouts I see…like, “oh, you’re an Eagle Scout.” They should be just…a good citizen. Someone who sticks up for the little guy and also, like, is there to work hard for the betterment of your country. And just. I don’t know, just good people.”

My informant was a Boy Scout for ten years. Although he never achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, he attended many ceremonies and therefore was able to give me this description of a typical Eagle Scout ceremony on Long Island, NY where he grew up.
The mystery and ceremony surrounding the presentation of the Eagle Scout award clearly made a huge impression on him; he spoke of those who had achieved the rank with a certain level of awe, although as he makes clear, many of those he saw receive the rank were not worthy of it in his mind. This level of disillusionment seems only natural in an organization that prides itself on an honor code; not everyone can live up to it.
The ceremony itself seems fairly typical for this sort of organization. The parents, who raised the child and helped nurture the young man, are present, and the mother gets the honor of pinning the award on her son. The amount of “hooplah” likely varies from troop to troop, but it was big enough in my informant’s hometown to leave a lasting impression. It makes sense that we, as a society, would want to honor those who choose to live by a certain moral code and give back to the community, and so the involvement of the governor, while a great honor for the boy involved, is not too surprising.

Boy Scout Birthday Dirge

Contextual Data: We had gone out to dinner to celebrate my Uncle’s birthday, and once we returned home, my family was talking and joking as we debated whether or not to put a candle on my Uncle’s cake and actually sing “Happy Birthday.” My brother then piped up and recounted this “Birthday Dirge” that he learned when he was younger. I asked him to sing it, and after, I asked him about when and where he heard it. He replied that he learned it at Boy Scout camp, when he was about fifteen years old — the counselors taught it to him: they would sing it in the morning in the mess hall as the campers were eating breakfast, whenever a camper was celebrating his birthday.

Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)
Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)
There is sorrow in the air,
People dying everywhere,
But Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)
Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)

The song is sung as a sort of chant, and my family did chuckle a bit after he recited it. My Uncle offered a sarcastic “thanks.”

My brother said that they all loved it at camp. He enjoyed sharing it with others because he found it funny. He did qualify it by saying that he had taught it to some of  his friends when he returned home, and not everyone reacted the same way. Some laughed, others found it inappropriate and random. (He mentioned that gender didn’t really play a part when it came to this — some girls found it hilarious and some guys found it idiotic and vice versa). I actually remembered my brother teaching it to me after he first returned from camp, and I shared it with my friends to similar reactions — some laughed, others dismissed it.

He mentioned that the song was never taken seriously or meant to be a sobering song — and to expand upon this, in some ways, this song does seem to be a bit of a practical joke that taps into this idea of a birthday as a liminal phase, as a person transitions from one year into the next. The song subverts the traditional expectation that a person be wished well and bidden good luck as they move into a new year of their life and that’s where the humor seems to come from. More than this, in American culture in particular, birthdays are thought of as a person’s “special day,” but this song seems to mock that idea through both the lyrics and the somber tone in which it is sung.

Beyond that, it’s so short and repetitive that it is really easy to remember: my informant still recollected it nine years after he first learned it. I imagine the context of learning it at Boy Scout camp also helped — it was a fun experience and one that he remembered fondly.