Tag Archives: campfire tale

Campfire Bear Song


[The whole song is sung as a call and response. A line will be sung by the leader and then repeated by all present. After four unique lines, those lines will be repeated together by everyone to a different melody. To streamline reading I’ve not written the whole of the song like this. For the first ‘verse’ I’ve bolded the lines the leader sings alone and italicized the repeated section sung together. The rest of the song is written without this formatting, but when sung it is repeated in this way]

The other day

The other day

I saw a bear

I saw a bear

A great big bear

A great big bear

Oh way up there

Oh way up there

The other day

I saw a bear

A great big bear

Oh way up there

“He looked at me

I looked at him

He sized up me

I sized up him

He said to me

Why don’t you run

I see you aint

Got any gun

I said to him

That’s a good idea

So come on feet

Lets up and flee

And so I ran

Away from there

And right behind

Me was that bear

Now up ahead

There was a tree

A great big tree

Oh glory be

The lowest branch

Was ten feet up

I had to jump

And trust my luck

And so I jumped

Into the air

But I missed that branch

Oh way up there

Now don’t you fret

And don’t you frown

CauseI caught that branch

On the way back down

That’s all there is 

There ain’t no more

Unless I meet 

That bear once more

The end the end

The end the end

The end the end

The end the end

ME: where did you learn this song

P: I learned it growing up camping in Illinois

A: I learned it from my dad

F: I learned it from my dad too, in our backyard when we sat around a campfire and sang songs. 

A: yes indeed

ME: any personal analysis or thought on it?

P: it’s a campfire song for sure

A: It’s about a bear

F: and running away from said bear

P: and getting everybody to sing along around a campfire cause that’s good times

A: and questioning why he missed the branch and then didn’t miss the branch 

F: yeah he’s a good jumper 

A: yeah, he’s a really good jumper

P: Did ya ever think he was gonna get eaten by the bear?

A: I don’t know, I just remember knowing the song

F: as a kid: yeah

A: I just remember knowin’ it

F: what?

A: that’s it

ME: okay I’m gonna end the recording”

The following link leads to a recording of this performance: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1p7GPZLqfs9hA5d5ZCgvwC448XQJtGZr-/view?usp=sharing


The informants are my father (P) and sisters (A and F). All of us have gone camping together many times. All of us have gone camping during our childhoods. We all grew up in Illinois. Campfire stories and songs are common in the midwestern United States. Growing up my family would frequently sing them around fires in our backyard and when camping away from home.

P learned this piece while “growing up camping in Illinois.” A and F learned this song from P.

The song/tale is usually performed around a campfire, outside. It is also usually sung alongside other campfire songs and stories.

This performance took place in our living room, because I asked for it for my class collection project.


This song while maybe not obvious, is also a tale. the story is told from a first-person perspective, but it is not believed to be a true story. Additionally, the tree and woods this takes place in/near are not said to be any real location.

This tale references a bear attack; bears do not live wild in Illinois. This discrepancy would indicate that this story originated elsewhere, or that the trope of bear attacks while camping is very very common in this culture.

This tale also indicates a common fear of bears. And, the common ways of dealing with bears: guns/shoot them or run.

As P said this song is also popular because it is good at “getting everybody to sing along around a campfire cause that’s good times.” The call-and-response style of telling makes this tale easy to participate in and engage with. This would make it popular in an intimate setting like around a campfire.

The Golden Arm

A is 54 years old. She was born in Ft. Waldon, Florida and moved to Sylvania, Georgia at 2 years old. She’d been there all her life until last year (2021). A has a thick Southern accent that’s very pleasant to listen to. She told me this story, or rather instructions on how to tell the story, in conversation. It’s a ghost story that’s meant to be performed around a campfire.

“There’s one that’s like an old campfire tale, if I can remember how it goes… ok so this woman had a golden arm and this man knew about her right, and he had plotted and planned on how to get that golden arm to sell it and make some money off of it so he went and… he went to try and get it from her while she was asleep and she woke up and he ended up killing her, well as the story goes he killed her, got the golden arm and buried her out in the woods by the swamp and he was… one night out with some friends talking and all of a sudden… after his friends had left… he kept hearing something and it was the woman saying “I want my golden arm…” and remember this is by the campfire and it’s dark so each time you repeat that line “I want my golden arm” you have to say it louder and louder (laughing) and then you pick someone that’s sitting near you and you yell out “you have it!” and grab ‘em! It scared the bejesus out of me every time I heard it! I was probably 13 when I first heard it, you know we went on family trips with friends… on weekend trips out by the river so… I used to tell it too.”

According to John Burrison (see Burrison, John A. (1968). “The Golden Arm” The Folk Tale And Its Literary Use By Mark Twain and Joel C. Harris. Atlanta, Georgia: Georgia State College. pp. 1–23) The Golden Arm or ATU 366 (see http://www.mftd.org/index.php?action=atu&src=atu&id=366) is a very old folktale that has been documented for 200 years but its oral tradition goes back further. The belief underlying the tale is that the dead “can find no rest until its physical remains are intact.” The lesson of the tale may initially have been respect for the dead, but variations have made it a cautionary tale about greed. There are many variations across different cultures where the missing item is not an arm, but some other body part. In media, the tale was told around a campfire by Andy Griffith in a T.V. show. A version similar to the one A told me was a favorite of Mark Twain’s and can be found in How to tell a story and other Essays (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3250/3250-h/3250-h.htm#link2H_4_0003) For more about Mark Twain’s version and a fun but somewhat unrelated story about a ghostly Twain and copyright law please see https://marktwainstudies.com/happy-halloween-twains-favorite-ghost-story-and-twain-speaks-from-the-netherworld/