A Return from Summer…and Lessons Learned

Hello again!  It’s been a while, but summer is over and we’re ready to get back to business here at The VU Backstage.  First things first: we have moved from 8pm to 9pm central.  I’m sick of competing with Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.

Summer is over.  It didn’t really hit me until I typed that short three-word sentence.  Syllabus week isn’t really school, after all, and with my schedule providing me four-day weekends every week it was hard not to imagine these last few days as an extension of what was a glorious four-month hiatus from class.  Though it was not a four-month hiatus from responsibility…being a counselor at North Star Camp sounds fun (and it is, a lot), but it can be very hard work.

Probably the best thing about working at camp was that I got to play a ton of music.  This is probably not a surprise, considering what you loyal readers know about my passion for music and the images that come to mind when you picture summer camp, some of which probably involve a guy at a roaring bonfire with an acoustic guitar leading a group in a song by Harry Chapin or Cat Stevens or some other folk singer.  Indeed, that would be very close to the truth, right down to the campfire setting.  My buddies and I played a lot of those folksy types of songs over the summer, and not only was it so much fun getting to jam out and share this music with the campers, but we sounded darn good.  Like three-part harmonies good.

But the type of music we played at camp got me thinking, Why is this folksy music so associated with camp?  At home, I rarely listen to Simon and Garfunkel or James Taylor or Joni Mitchell, yet here I was playing their songs and singing along perfectly with every word.  It felt so right to be playing that particular music in that particular setting.  But why folk music?  Why not Kanye West or Rush?  (Incidentally, those two artists played a large role in my summer, as I became a fan of Yeezus and I made my campers into fans of 2112.)  One could say that it goes back to the whole idea of escaping from technology; there’s no electricity at a campfire, so acoustic guitars are the best way to make music.  But I think it goes deeper than that.  The whole idea of folk music is that it isn’t being produced primarily for commercial value, but rather for the message of the song.  And much of the music generally considered to be “campy” comes from a time–the late 1960s and early 1970s–when musicians were reacting to the tumultuous times by preaching love and respect for our fellow human beings through their lyrics and melodies.  Upset by how quickly the world was moving, they turned to song to ensure that old-fashioned human decency wasn’t forgotten.  These are the types of messages that camp is supposed to get across to kids who are otherwise ensnared in the rapidly flowing current of the “real world.”  They go to school and are expected to work hard and succeed.  They have fun by using technology as a crutch for creativity.  They have little time to think about anything but what activity they have next, or what assignment is due tomorrow, or what video game they will be playing at the slumber party next weekend.  At camp, kids get a rare opportunity to escape from this cycle and experience a climate in which fun is the ostensible priority but the underlying goal is to allow for tremendous personal growth.  And not in terms of academic ability; in terms of values.  Things like taking responsibility, or learning to appreciate the differences in people, or creatively making the best out of anything from a boring afternoon to an apparent crisis–these are the lessons taught at camp.  These are lessons that can be learned at home, but are learned far more effectively when their teaching is the sole teaching that occurs and their message is undiluted by what we refer to as reality.  And these are the lessons taught in the folk music that is so associated with camp.

Long before Spongebob wrote the Campfire Song, folk music was being played around campfires everywhere you could find a pile of wood and an acoustic guitar.

Long before Spongebob wrote the Campfire Song, folk music was being played around campfires everywhere you could find a pile of wood and an acoustic guitar.

For better or worse, this is a major realization that I had this summer.  But at the basest level, it provided me an opportunity to stay musical even without hosting the best talent Vanderbilt has to offer every Sunday night.  Speaking of which, Michael Pollack will be our first guest of the season.  He had a big summer, playing at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square and otherwise advancing his musical career.  Even if he wasn’t one of the fastest-rising stars on campus, I’d still have him on the show first for the sole reason that the recording of his show in February was compromised and never made it on the website.

So that’s that.  Though the summer was incredible, like the notes of a folk song it had to end eventually.  Keep those campfires burning and keep up with The VU Backstage on Facebook and Twitter for a great season of live music.


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