“Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry, merry king of the bush is he
Laugh, Kookaburra! Laugh, Kookaburra!
Gay your life must be
Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Eating all the gum drops he can see
Stop, Kookaburra! Stop, Kookaburra!
Leave some there for me.”
If you went to summer camp as a kid, chances are you know “Kookaburra,” even if some of the lyrics varied in the version you sang. Maybe you sang the monkey-counting verse, or maybe the word gay was replaced with the word fun. Though it is often referred to as a nursery rhyme, “Kookaburra” is a camp song through and through, written in 1932 by a music teacher, Marion Sinclair, for an Australian Girl Guides songwriting competition. Because it has been passed from camp to camp, kid to kid, year to year, with regional variations commonplace — typical for folk music — Española resident Patricia Averill includes it in Camp Songs, Folk Songs, a book that she wrote 40 years ago, which she recently unearthed while cleaning out her garage and subsequently self-published via Xlibris.
While completing her dissertation on country music for the American Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania back in the early 1970s, Averill took several folklore courses and began to regard her 12 summers as a Camp Fire Girl as time spent in a folk community. “That’s what camp was,” she told Pasatiempo. After finishing her dissertation, she began writing to camps around the country — including Brush Ranch Camp in Pecos — to ask about the songs campers sang and about lyric and verse variations. She then put together a lengthy and detailed accounting of the information, dividing it into such sections as “Age Group Influence on Repertoire,” “Gender Influence on Repertoire,” and “Midwestern Influence on Repertoire.” The book, which is scholarly in nature, takes the camp setting for granted. It is in speaking to Averill that you really get a sense of the significance of summer camp in her life and the passion that inspired the project.
Averill went to Camp Kitanniwa in Battle Creek, Michigan, for two weeks every summer during the 1950s and early ’60s. There were several one-week sessions and just one two-week session, which she said was filled with girls who really loved camp and returned to it each year. In the book, she is very clear that she is writing about sleep-away camp, not day camp — even though day-campers sing many of the same songs.
“When talking about what traditions survived — and why — at each camp, it came down to continuity. It wasn’t that camp was coed; it wasn’t that the kids had diabetes. If they only had the kids for a week or two and there were very few returning campers…,” Averill trailed off and then added, “If you got to go to camp for eight weeks, then you ran the camp. Not the staff. The staff were your servants. They made sure you had food.” Continuity, along with duration, distinguished the one- and two-week agency camps — Camp Fire Girls, Girl Scouts, and so on — from the more expensive and elite private camps, which lasted all summer and routinely saw regular campers become counselors once they were college age.
In “Camping Through Time,” a section of photographs, Averill pays close attention to the uniforms of female campers. Middies and bloomers were common in the early 1930s. By the late 1950s, girls were wearing pedal pushers, sans knee socks, which was considered quite an advancement by those who were tired of having to cover their legs when it was hot out. “There’s pride in and disdain for your uniform at the same time,” she said. “It makes you a group, but you’re a teenager, and anything you’re proud of, you deny.” Camp was a place where girls could be themselves and learn skills, often without the influence of boys. “As soon as you had boys around, they did everything, and the girls watched. In a coed situation, you start dressing for the boys. At coed camps, girls didn’t cut wood and build fires. Girls-only camps give girls a sense of being able to do stuff.”
Some organizations, such as Camp Fire Girls, were considered prestigious in the 1950s and ’60s — the proper place for a mother to send her daughter — and important enough, Averill said, to get written about in newspaper society pages. Mothers who had gone to camp when they were girls knew it wasn’t always quite the nice, sweet place the papers made it out to be. And many of the bawdier songs, including “I Gave My Love a Cherry” (also called “The Riddle Song”), reflect that. The song is believed by many to be about courtship, marriage, and family, but Averill said the verses allude to the loaded topic of losing one’s virginity. Not to be overlooked are the gross-out songs like “Great Green Globs of Greasy, Grimy Gopher Guts”:
“Great green globs of greasy, grimy gopher guts
Mutilated monkey meat, little dirty birdie feet
Great green globs of greasy, grimy gopher guts
And I forgot my spoon!”
Many of the songs in Averill’s book are more obscure — ones that have by now fallen out of fashion. These include old folk ballads and even crooner songs from the 1930s and ’40s. With or without their lyrics altered to reflect camp life, kids just don’t sing them anymore.
Soon after she’d written her book, Averill sent it off to an academic publisher. She received a letter of rejection indicating that the manuscript would be returned along with notes as to why it was declined. But the package never reached her, and all she was left with were carbon copies, which she packed away. When she found those copies in a box in her garage decades later, she read through the work and realized that she had captured a history of what she didn’t know at the time was a dying tradition.
Of course, kids still go away to camp, she explained, but the duration tends to be shorter, there are far fewer returning campers, and camps tend to be geared to specific activities — band, cheerleading, and so on. Less emphasis is placed on fostering independence and resourcefulness. Today, Camp Fire USA is a very different — and coed — organization, and even Girl Scout camps have fewer sessions each summer.
As Camp Fire Girls, Averill and her friends camped overnight in the woods alone. One morning, when it was raining and they lacked the proper tools, someone in the group started a fire using insect repellent. Averill remains impressed by her friend’s daring and ingenuity. “A few years ago, we lost our natural gas in Española and Taos,” she said. “It was crisis time. People were trying to get space heaters for every room in their house. I just moved everything into one room and camped at home for three days. It was a pain to be without heat, but instead of trying to maintain the status quo, I looked at it as an adventure, which is an attitude I got from camp.” ◀