By Ed Keithly
Three Things First: Thanks, Listening Instructions and a Disclaimer:
Thanks: Last year, with lots of help, I put together five Spotify playlists* of camp music from across the decades. This year, I've pulled together two more: "2015 St. G's Playlist" and "80s Dance." Thanks to Michael Yuhas and Churchill Gibson for the 2015 playlist and Henry Burt and others for the '80s playlist.
A big thanks as well to the alumni who have sent me dance playlists from many Shrine Mont Camps through the years. Before I put out the call for those playlists, I had already written this story about my own experience with the musical legacy at St. George's. In the coming weeks I'll put more camps' playlists on Spotify. My hope is that we can look at what music unites the camps, what music makes them unique, and dance like insane people to those playlists from our respective corners of the valley of the world.
*The playlists I created for an article I wrote last year: "The Dance," “St. G.’s Rebellion,” "The Slideshow,” "The Green Book" and "Shrine Mont Jams."
Listening to the playlists: Your options are 1) playing the embedded playlists in this article 2) clicking on any of the hyperlinks in this section, or 3) searching Spotify for my username "ed.keithly" and following the playlists from there. This requires a Spotify account; it's easy to sign up for and free with some commercial interruptions. Or you can play along by remaking your own playlists via other methods (e.g., YouTube or iTunes).
Important disclaimer but not quite Tipper Sticker: There are a couple songs on the playlists that parents might not want young children listening to, but in most cases you’d have to be listening carefully. There are no songs that couldn't be played on the radio, and nothing that bears an “Explicit” tag, save the song in the post script, which doesn't appear on any playlists.
Without further ado...
Down the Deep River: THE CAMP MUSIC LEGACY
Camp is proud of its music. And at camp, music is everywhere. Cabins. Rec halls. The Shrine. All of the in-between places where counselors strummed their guitars and held impromptu “song fests.” For me and for many, going to camp was like having a music-obsessed older sibling. A sibling who made you want to trade in your top 100s pop records for albums by The Beatles, R.E.M., The Who, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Talking Heads, The Rolling Stones. There’s a legacy of music at camp, a river of sound that we all swim in.
But that legacy can feel daunting to program directors, the camp staffer usually charged with making playlists for dances. In 2010, when I asked Kendall Metz, then the PD of St. George’s, about her dance playlist, she made a joke about “the overwhelming burden of the [camp] alumni’s judgement”—and that was her second year as program director. It’s easy for self-consciousness to creep in. Sometimes our music seems like a museum—something that’s great and worthy of our appreciation, but curated by some distant authority. We think we better not touch anything. If a PD wanted to “not touch anything” and pull their songs from all decades past, they could manage that easily. The “Shrine Mont Jams” playlist I created last year for an article on this blog has almost five hours of music on it, and that’s just one Nalgene’s worth of water from the river of camp music. So how does a program director incorporate that massive history into what he or she plays in a 90-minute dance? They don’t. They can’t. And that would leave no room for new songs.
Paris Ball, director of Shrine Mont Camps, and I talked for a little while about musical legacy. She said, “I was a camper over 20 years ago. I’m not sure that the counselors now are that connected to the musical experience I had. If you asked me to make a dance playlist, I could shout out five songs that should always be in a camp dance, but I don’t think any of those songs are still played. Like, there’s no way I would make a camp dance playlist without 'Fight for Your Right' [by the Beastie Boys].”
Some folks from Paris’ generation might think it’s a tragedy – or at least a minor sin – that the Beastie Boys aren’t in rotation anymore. But to me, a camper/counselor of a later generation, that’s no big deal, and I love the Beastie Boys. "Fight for Your Right" wasn’t part of my camp experience, and it’s not part of camp’s experience now. Though Paris’ point wasn’t that she should commandeer a PD’s computer during a dance and fight for the campers’ right to hear some Beastie Boys, she meant that we shouldn’t overestimate the permanence of camp’s musical canon.
The 2015 St. G’s Dance
I asked Michael Yuhas, the current St. George’s program director, for his dance playlist. He listed seven songs before he shrugged and said, “It’s on [Assistant Director Churchill Gibson’s] computer. You should ask him.” Hold on. All four years I worked at St. George’s, the camp dance playlist was a [mostly] benevolent dictatorship ruled by the PD. If a counselor requested a song he was presumptuous, and to have a request granted was an honor. It looks like St. G’s went through a regime change with Michael and Churchill sharing the responsibility as co-democratic presidents.
Based on the hour I spent with St. George’s last week, it seems that this democratic spirit runs deep in 2015. Before a team building exercise on the director’s porch, where St. G’s has its staff meetings, Rachel Hill, a first year counselor from Liverpool, England, sat down in “The Director’s Chair.”
Playlist: 2015 St. G's
After creating a Spotify playlist with most of the 2015 songs, here’s what I noticed:
- Taylor Swift. If you’re a hater, you’ll appreciate that she’s not on the playlist because of her fight with Spotify. If you love T. Swift, I’m sorry that I couldn’t include the five songs that made it: "Red," "Bad Blood," "22," "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and "Shake It Off." (If you are a hater, follow my lead and get over it. Her album "1989" is good fun.)
- The “Camp Canon” Lives. "You Shook Me All Night Long" by AC/DC, "I Wish that I Had Jessie’s Girl" by Jamie Springer, "Brown Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison, and "Love at the Five and Dime" by Nanci Griffith, songs that have featured at dances for years, all made the 2015 playlist.
- Boy Bands. "Bye, Bye, Bye" by N Sync, "Juliet" by LMNT, "Just the Girl" by The Click Five. Most counselors would have been between 3 and 7 years old when "Bye, Bye, Bye" came out in 2000. I don’t mean this as ageism. E.g., “Look how young they are and how old I am!” That kind of thing is annoying and divisive. I just want to point out that St. G’s relationship with those boy bands is different from mine. Whereas I lived through Justin Timberlake’s frosted tips, N Sync stands for something else for the 2015 staff. They’re playing a goofy, fun song from an earlier time when people must have been pretty strange—they’re right, we were. (Confession: I not only lived through JT’s frosted tips, I had them when I was in sixth grade. I thought they looked great. )
- Current and 90s Pop. "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars is the only current pop song besides Taylor Swift. "All Star" and "I’m a Believer" from the 90s pop band Smash Mouth made the list. Fun note: Smash Mouth played a show at Shrine Mont on Friday alongside Toad the Wet Sprocket.
- “Sounds like a Camp Song.” "Shut Up and Dance with Me" by Walk the Moon and "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" by Jet get my votes for songs that sound the most like camp music that came before. I would put "Uptown Funk," a great song, in this category, but it might be so overplayed that it outstays its welcome before it can become a tradition—we’ll see.
- I Love this Place. For years "No Woman, No Cry" by Bob Marley ended just about every camp dance. "I Love this Place" has taken its place as the final song, and rightfully so. It’s written by former St. G’s director Rad Burt about Shrine Mont. Camp knows this well, and it comes across in the song. During "I Love This Place," rather than just slow dancing, whole groups of campers and counselors dance together in circles, eventually becoming one circle as the camp transitions into the Goodnight Song and heads to bed. (Unfortunately, "I Love this Place" is not on Spotify either. If you see Rad Burt, be sure to hassle him about this.)
Same Beat, Different Tempo: The '80s Dance
Last weekend, Henry Burt, former director of St. G’s and program director from '86-'88, was up at Shrine Mont to drop off his older son at St. George’s Session II. He and I sat together on couches in the camp offices while he listed off 40+ songs from his dance mixtapes.
[Note about the '80s playlist: Like Taylor Swift on the 2015 playlist, the '80s playlist has some artists who are too fabulous for Spotify. "Twist and Shout" and "Birthday" by The Beatles and "Little Red Corvette," "Let's Go Crazy," "Purple Rain," "When Doves Cry" and "Computer Blue" by Prince were all in heavy rotation in the '80s, but you'll have to find them somewhere else. Personally, I like that not all of the songs from the playlists are available. I'm glad Spotify allows us have this shared experience, but part of what made these songs so special was that, for many, the only place they ever heard them was at Shrine Mont.]
Playlist: Eighties Dance
For Henry, music from The Big Chill didn’t really speak to his generation, or at least not anymore. Instead, he and his contemporaries brought into rotation bands like R.E.M., Talking Heads and The Cars. For many, R.E.M. especially epitomizes camp music of this generation. Songs like "Superman," "Driver 8," "Sitting Still," "Shiny Happy People," and "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" bring back fond memories of camp dances. But camp has been around since the early '60s, and those songs came out between ’83 and ’91. R.E.M. quickly became a camp dance staple, but in the '80s their music was something new rather than dipped in amber.
Henry’s playlist didn’t totally jettison all the music played by his predecessors. The B52s, The Who and Led Zeppelin* all made the playlist, quintessential dance songs from earlier years.
- *A Stairway to Awkward: For years camp would play "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin, which is a hilarious slow dance song because it’s not one. The song starts at a slow dance tempo, campers ask each other to dance, and then about four and a half minutes in (longer than most campers had probably hoped to lock arms and try not to make eye contact) the tempo changes just enough to make the couple wonder if they should go their separate ways or just sway faster. Then at six minutes, the song goes into a guitar solo, the tempo speeds up again, and Zeppelin launches into one of the most epic rock breakdowns of all time.
I love the songs on the '80s playlist. Many of the songs folks will recognize from Hoss shows and dances in the '90s and '00s: "Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads, "I Will Follow" by U2, "I Melt with You" by Modern English, "Message in a Bottle" by The Police, "Superman" by R.E.M. But ultimately I feel like I would rather have the '80s playlist be the score of a movie about my life starring the Brat Pack than hear it at a dance. But then again, I wasn’t a teenager in the '80s. The accepted style and tempo of a dance song in the '80s was probably much different than it is now.
Camp is a place that exists outside of time in a lot of ways; that's part of what makes it special. But campers and counselors over the years were raised in different cultures, so they respond differently to different music. And that’s OK. One common thread, though, seems to be a rejection of what doesn’t work. Both Henry and Churchill talked without prompting about clearing out the music of previous generations to make room for what works better. And thank God for that--without new music, the river of camp music would dry up, and who would want to swim in it then?
Dance with the One that Brought You
So I'm glad to hear that St. George’s is opting for tunes that facilitate dancing (or learning to flail confidently), just as Kendall Metz’s 2010 playlist did, rather than playing what the campers “need to hear." As a formal apology to Kendall for giving her crap about her playlist in 2010: my bad. In hindsight, her playlist was creative destruction, clearing a path through an over-devotion to the canon towards the fun campers are having at dances today.
That said, I wouldn’t want camp to drop the role of the cool older sibling expanding the musical tastes of everyone at St. George’s. But the camp dance is one small sliver of the sum total of music played at camp; there are so many opportunities to raise campers on good music, to "uphold camp’s musical heritage" (as I preached in 2010).
In fact, one of my fondest musical memories was wedged between the dance and lights out. From 2007-2009, Caleb Nelson Amaker, now the director of SHYC, and I played Alicia Keys’ "If I Ain’t Got You" on full blast in the boys’ latrines as everyone got ready for bed. I’m not sure if any campers – or even any one besides Caleb and me – remember that tradition, but I’m guessing there are a few college-aged guys out there with an inexplicable affinity for Alicia Keys before bed. "If I Ain’t Got You" is an incredible song (and I will arm wrestle anyone who says otherwise) but in any other context it’d be just another song on the radio. There was something about that song in that moment, in the comedown from the high of the camp dance, two [almost] grown men putting on Alicia Keys and getting into it, that created something that neither that moment alone nor that song alone could have.
Someday, decades from now, I hope that I’ll be at Shrine Mont sitting on a porch with the sounds of a camp dance playing nearby. Maybe my daughter will be a camper at that dance. I imagine there will be mostly songs I’ve never heard before, and some I have but never at camp. But more than anything, I hope that I’ll be able to listen closely so I might hear through the campers’ shouts and laughter to the generations of camp that came before them, and the generations still to come, all dancing to one continuous playlist.
But the last song better be "I Love this Place."
“Tell me 'bout the greatest show or the greatest movie you know
or the greatest song that you taped from off the radio.
Play it again and again it cuts off at the ending though.
Tell me I'm always gonna be your best friend.
Now you said it one time, why don't you say it again?”
“Maybe they told you 'bout the summer sky,
maybe they said there's a great gold spirit in the summer sky
or all your friends (all your best, best friends)
are gonna gather around your bed at night.
Well that'll make it all right because it is still so far from all right.
Oh, kid, I know.”
In his day job, Ed works for the Diocese of Virginia as the deputy director of transition ministry, shepherding future priests and deacons through the discernment and formation process, and helping churches search for a new priest.
Ed graduated from Sewanee in 2010. He lives in Richmond.
The View from the Mountain is written by a rotating cast of staff writers and contributors.