More Thoughts About Campfires
Posted On: 2021-08-26

Reg Roberts
The Leader, December 1985

As promised in the August/September Issue, here is the second in a series of articles about campfires. Again I have used as my resource some material provided by Dave Stephenson of North Vancouver, B.C.

The last article dealt with such things as campfire leadership, instruments at campfires, and problems that might arise at a campfire. This time I'd like to look at campfire program content - what we do while we are together.

There's a kind of magic about campfires. It's not evident right away because that's the rowdy fun time but, later, in the fading fire's glow as we sing spirituals and listen to a short yarn, huddling together perhaps for warmth but, most importantly, for human companionship - that's when the magic begins.


A successful campfire is made of an infinite variety of items - songs, skits, and the happy give and takes that signifies this is a pleasurable place to be and a suitable finale to a busy active day or evening.

Of all the material available to us, songs must surely be the most important. Songs break down barriers of reserve and shyness, promote fellowship, generate happy feelings, build morale and bind us together, deepen our loyalty and strengthen our ideals. It seems obvious that it's important to sing the songs in such a way that they express the true spirit of Scouting.

Many "modern" songs have no real place at a Scout campfire, but others fit very well. Every age has songs we should remember, introduce to our campfire programs and pass along to future generations. We may still fondly sing I've Been Working on the Railroad and There's a Long, Long Trail A-Winding, but let's not overlook Four Strong Winds and Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Look also at today's music from groups such as Abba, Alabama, and the Oak Ridge Boys, and consider as well Bony M's Waters of Babylon, the Coke song I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing and the very popular We Are the World.

Songs are meant to be sung, not shouted and, when properly sung, sound wonderful. The words themselves provide the clue to how to sing a song, but sometimes a very brief explanation of how the song came about or its significance to us can help generate the appropriate sensitivity and expression, particularly with sea shanties and spirituals. Help participants "learn by doing" at the same time as they're having fun.

Try to introduce new songs to a campfire regularly but in small doses. Whenever possible, introduce them at a regular meeting first. Above all, if you are going to lead it, know the song reasonably well before you start.

Types of Songs

Spirituals, those wonderful songs full of rich emotional messages, are usually favorites at a campfire. They all tell stories that reflect faith and beliefs as important to the original singers as our sacred music is to us today.

Sing cheerful, upbeat songs like Daniel, Rock of My Soul, and Michael Row the Boat with vigor and enthusiasm. Jacob's Ladder, Kum by Ah, and Swing Low are slower, more thoughtful songs. Try to have the audience enter into the spirit of the music, be it fast or slow, lighthearted or serious.

Everybody enjoys Sea Shanties. Reminders of the old-time sailing ships with their cargoes of tea, cotton, spices, and rum, songs like Blow the Man Down, Fire Down Below or What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor? almost make us feel the roll of the ship and the salty spray as we sing. Sailors sang many shanties to help them keep time, so you can add hammer striking actions or slow foot-stomping for effect.

Many Rounds have an "Olde England" background and go back at least to the 17th century. Because they sound so beautiful, they deserve to be sung more often. Rounds are also a way of introducing youthful voices to the idea of harmonizing, which isn't always easy.

Sung well, rounds are beautiful. Sung poorly, they can sound dreadful. It will lead to more success if you have everyone sing the round together a few times before dividing it into sections. A natural division for groups is in sixes or patrols and it helps to have a leader for each section. Remember to remind the boys that rounds are not intended as contests to see who can shout the loudest.

Perhaps the best-known round is Row, Row, Row Your Boat with its million versions from Chew, Chew, Chew Your Food to Soap, Soap, Soap, and Towel. But don't forget other rounds such as London's Burning, Little Tommy Tinker, Oh How Lovely is the Evening, The Kookaburra Song. Frere Jacques and Three Blind Mice.

Then there are Action Songs. Many songs just naturally lend themselves to some kind of action, whether simple hand movements or dancing around the campfire in a Zulu extravaganza. Actions are a natural and expected part of a campfire program. They are particularly welcome on a cold night but any action, from foot-stomping to hand clapping, provides a lot of fun on any night.

Chester Have You Heard About Harry, Ach Von Der Musica, One Finger, One Thumb, and Head and Shoulders are all happy, fun action songs. My Bonny, Peter's Fountain, Love Grows Under the Wild Oak Tree and Green Grow the Rushes are a little more thoughtful and serious - good to use as a lead-in to the quiet part of the evening.

Two-Part or Split Songs are those favorites where one half of the group sings one part of the song and the other half sings a different part. Probably the best known is Ging Gang Gooli but Animal Fair and the old chestnut Ham and Eggs are other good examples.

Then there are Mixed Melodies or Combination Songs where one half of the group sings one song and the other half a different song. For example, one half might sing There's a Long, Long Trail while the other half sings Pack Up Your Troubles. How about Three Blind Mice with Are You Sleeping?

For this kind of singing, you really need a leader for each group and some strict timekeeping, but the resulting sound can be truly delightful.

Whenever people come together, you'll hear Nonsense Songs. Whether they are Scouts, Guides, or campers at Camp Opeongo, the words likely have a special meaning to that particular group.

Ach Von Der Musica, When It's Springtime In Alaska, My Tall Silk Hat, and Insy, Winsy Spider are just a few of the many daffy songs people love to sing.

Always try to make a place in the program for Folk Songs. They are the songs that tell the history of a country and its people - a way we have of passing on our heritage to future generations. This Land is Your Land is one we know well in Canada, but how many other folk songs are there? The Atlantic provinces seem to have cornered the market with songs such as Jack Was Every Inch a Sailor, The Squid Jigging Grounds, and Nova Scotia Farewell. I can also think of Quebec's Alouette, but what do we have from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, or the North West Territories?

Skits, Stunts, Sketches

A campfire without a skit is like a pie without the filling. You can rest assured that, although you may be hard-pressed to get young people to volunteer to present a song, you will be overwhelmed by volunteers if you ask them to present a skit or a stunt.

A humorous skit provides a welcome break, especially since the leaders usually are the butt of the jokes. Most often the skits are just clean fun but, occasionally, a skit can be downright embarrassing and you'll need to come up with some appropriate comment to ease the campfire out of a difficult situation. As I mentioned in my last article, you can generally avoid this type of problem if you set out, in advance, guidelines to what is and what is not acceptable.

Funny skits are always acceptable and so are serious ones. The young actors will usually opt for something funny and that's fine. It's their show and the serious input can come from a leader later on. Scouting's traditions and history, the writings of Baden-Powell, and everyday life offer a wealth of material. Costumes can enhance the skit, but sometimes the simpler the better.

Remember to tell performers to keep skits short (about three or four minutes) insist on originality, allow time for adequate preparation and rehearsal, and advise against harmful practical jokes.

Finally, recognize the training value in skits and stunts. A shy boy may blossom behind a set of rope whiskers or a floor mop wig where his shyness flies away to be replaced by developing self-confidence.

There's still more to campfires and I'll tackle that in a final article in the near future. For now, though, while parts of our country are in winter's icy grip, I hope you're not overlooking the potential of indoor campfires. For those who live where the climate is less severe, a winter evening around a blazing fire under the stars will be a memorable experience. Pass the hot chocolate!

Article #R142.
From: (Jim Speirs)

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