In the days before we started cramming 30 days worth of music onto a device we can fit into our pants, music had to be sung out loud to travel distances. When someone goes to a campfire, or when they’re on a hike, or just traveling to a faraway place, and they sing out loud, they’re participating in a folk tradition of sharing music that is as old as music itself. It’s just about the closest thing to a “spiritual experience” I’ve had while camping or traveling.
So, why the hell would you want to ruin the experience with “On Top of Old Smokey,” or “Kumbaya?” I think it’s got something to do with the songs we normally associate with summer camp. Counselors tend to choose songs kids can easily sing along to. That means simple melodies, irritating choruses, and something that inevitably will get stuck in your head for days. Speaking as a former camp counselor, there is nothing more irritating than trying to corral a dozen 12-year-olds with the melody of “You Are My Sunshine” on a permanent loop in your head. Now, when I camp, hike, attend bonfires, or travel, these are the songs I sing out loud, or just quietly to myself.
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I know what you’re thinking; “What could a band of Brooklyn bar-crawlers know about hiking songs?” The Strokes’ first album is littered with great sing-along songs. I like this one a lot, because it’s not particularly about anything, most of the words are mono-syllabic, and despite how complicated it sounds, the words are easy to remember. It’s easy to sing along, without being boring, which is kind of the whole point.
One-hit-wonders tend to stick in your head. This is a great tune for driving out to the destination, with hearts full of adventure. It’s also a great tune for the last hour of the journey, just before rolling home.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been a fan of Paul Simon. I like his songs, but I hate his voice. As such, I particularly enjoy his songs being sung by other people. If you plan on singing this at a campfire, it would be best to do it with someone who can harmonize.
Does someone have a guitar? Great. Can they play more than three chords? No? That’s fine. Can you alternate between singing at a whisper, and singing at the top of your lungs? Perfect. Have at it.
My father once called this song a “single-entendre.” It’s funny, slightly dirty, easy to sing along to, and only uses two chords. The right hand picking pattern can get a little complicated, but it’s worth learning. Also, if you’re up for it, the rhyming scheme is pretty simple, primarily using couplets– it would be remarkably easy to write some new words, if one were so inclined.
Anders Fahey played this tune for an all-night, outdoor jam at my place once. I’m of the belief that every single sing-along needs a tune in a minor key. You don’t need to be as expressive in your singing as Cab Calloway, but it helps to have something to aspire to. Try using the “Let her go, let her go, god bless her” as a chorus, and get people to join in.
Just as every sing-along needs a minor tune, they also all need a goofy tune. It’s very important to not take yourself too seriously. For lessons on how to not take yourself too seriously, please enjoy this instructional video of five grown men singing three-part harmony to “Sweet Daffodil Mulligan.” Bonus points to you if you can find someone to play concertina for this tune. Special thanks to Danny Flinn of New York Brogue, who showed me this.
Before Oscar Isaac played it in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and before Dave Van Ronk picked it up in the old Gaslight days, this song was sung as a jumprope song by kids in Baltimore. Just like “Hard to Explain,” it’s a nonsense song, whose lyrics don’t actually mean anything. I used to enjoy this tune as a lullaby when I was a kid, and still enjoy playing it at gigs. It’s a good song for waking up.
I picked this tune because of it’s obvious associations with travel, the open road, and the beauty that is the Great American Outdoors. It’s worth mentioning, however, that just about any of Woody’s songs will do for a campfire.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3fBKRf007k
This is one I learned from another all-night jam with strangers. Similar to “Candyman,” it’s got an easy melody to follow, and is also slightly dirty. It’s a great tune for walking, hiking, or getting lost.
When I was in Inverness, at a hostel overlooking the River Ness, after drinking for three hours with four Frenchmen and a South African, in a common room with a shitty guitar and twenty other strangers, the Portuguese couple on holiday broke out this song. Everyone knew it, and everyone sang it loud.