Tag Archives: campfire song

“The Johnson Boys” Campfire Song

Context:

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.

Analysis:

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).

Campfire song: ‘A Boy took a Girl in a Little Canoe’

Text:

NP: “We sang this song at campfires once a week. It was a traditional thing that they would do every week since the camp started in 1924. And the whole thing is that we would sing the same songs every year that the girls had always sang.”

The song:

Well, a boy took a girl in a little canoe with the moon shining all around

And as he applied his paddle

You couldn’t even hear a sound

So, they talked, and they talked till the moon grew dim

He said you better kiss me or get out and swim

So, whatcha gonna do in a little canoe with the moon shining all around?

Well, a boy took a girl in a little canoe with the moon shining all around

And as he applied his paddle

You couldn’t even hear a sound

So they talked, and they talked till the moon grew dim

He said you better kiss me or get out and swim

So, whatcha gonna do in a little canoe with the moon shining all a—

Boys paddling all a—

Girls swimming all around?

Get out and swim!

Context:

The informant is my sister. She is a 22-year-old college student from New York City who attended a girls’ summer camp in Kent, Connecticut from ages 12 to 15. Though she thinks this song sends an archaic message, promoting gender stereotypes and heteronormativity, she remembers singing the song fondly. NP remembers feeling a sense of safety during these weekly congregations at the campfire, which fostered a sense of connection between her and the other girls.

Analysis:

I think that this song sends a simplistically feminist message. While one could interpret it as empowering or as an espousal of female courage and independence, since the girl in the story refuses to kiss the boy despite the unpleasant and possibly dangerous action she must take to avoid doing so, it also conveys sexist, heteronormative ideals. The song promotes gender stereotypes and, whether intentionally or not, problematic ideas about the value of female chastity. 

         Still, the song feeds into the atmosphere conjured by the campfire tradition, which can be seen as a celebration of girlhood and female community. I think that this environment is intended to make girls feel supported, empowered, and safe. With this weekly tradition, girls are free from the pressures of the male gaze and experience a sense of connection with the other campers as their voices blend. Moreover, the fact that these songs and the tradition of congregating at the campfire have such a long history connects current campers with previous generations of girls who attended the camp.

Camp Song

“The final campfire, we would sing a song, well, it’s been a while so I forget how it goes, but so our camp was on one side of the lake and on the other side of the lake was a Jesus camp. Apparently that’s what it was called, I dunno, but that’s what we called it. We kind of liked to mess with them a little bit, I dunno if we thought that we were better or something, but it was just a fun thing to do for us during camp. And so what we were singing about was really, I mean it wasn’t malevolent at all it was just a fun camp song, but the last line of the song was “AND NOW HE’S DEAD”* and we would just scream it across the lake. And we had all this fire, so, it would look at all scary.”

*At this line, all of the campers would shake their arms up in the air.

This was a custom enacted by the children at my informant’s camp. It always occurred at the end of the summer, a last huzzah of sorts. The religious camp across the lake was different from the camp my informant attended; it’s possible that there was something of a rivalry, or perhaps they just didn’t get along, but the screamed last line was a definite intentional goading. More importantly, though, it’s a tradition at the camp that unites the campers against the ‘others’ across the lake, and most likely played into numerous jokes at the other camp’s expense. It would be done on the final night to re-cement this impression and the unity among the campers before they had to disperse, ending the period of the summer to start a new one.