I never went to camp — that is, until my wife sent me to Banjo Camp for my 40th birthday present. My mental images of summer camp come from Alan Sherman's "Camp Granada" (hello mudduh, hello faddah), from the movies (comedies and horror flicks, mostly), and from the stories friends have told me (typically about their earliest sexual awakenings).
Today, I mostly hear about camp from my wife. Routinely, I turn to her to announce that I've made some fantastically paradigm-smashing ethnomusicological discovery — an obscure song long-forgotten in this age of mechanical reproduction, the tune and lyrics of which finally unlock some nagging mystery of the American imagination.
"Oh, sure," she says, "we sang that at camp!" At this point, she shout-sings all of the lyrics to my new discovery, complete with elaborate hand choreography, animal sounds, rhythmic clapping, etc. A field recording of Maybelle and Sara Carter's rendition of the "The Ship That Never Returned" was such a discovery. The song turned out to have been reworked by the Kingston Trio as "M.T.A.", and was a favorite of the counselors at some Bible camp or other in Minnesota, where my wife heard it a couple decades before I did.
This experience is always a little deflating, needless to say. I begin to wonder what I could possibly have to contribute if all my greatest discoveries turn out to be well-known to every Brownie in the country. But I appreciate being reminded that these old folksongs are still alive, both in my wife's memory and in my curiosity.
Sometimes I think I really missed something by not having gone to camp. More often, I suspect that, had I learned more of these old songs back then, I would not have the fanatical zeal for them that I do today. And I enjoy my fanatical zeal ...