So I wanted to switch things up a bit this week and not go down my usual electronic music pathway, having been inspired by David Byrne’s ‘How Music Works’. Something that really stuck for me is how he speaks about the architecture of where music is performed – whether it be Classical Music in a symphony hall or Punk Rock in a grimy club – the structure and size of a space, the objects within a venue and even the lack of structure – ie outdoors, are all factors that can shift and transform the nature of the music itself into something completely new.
This got me thinking about when I used to go on a camp called Forest School Camps where, once every year a hundred of us would congregate in a field in the middle of nowhere to cook on fires, shit in the ground and, most importantly, sing around the campfire every night.
The songs we’d sing mostly originated from folk and the Underground Railroad, with the occasional Dylan and Marley songs changing the mood, and, perhaps more importantly, to include the younger generation – yes the YOUNGER generation such as my six-year-old self, who weren’t familiar with the likes of Woody Guthrie just yet. My memory of this environment – sitting on logs in a huge communal circle, surrounding a monstrous campfire and taking turns to pick songs from our songbook (that may, at times, have been soaking wet from the pouring rain) is one that is incredibly sentimental. Singing these songs cheered us all up, no matter how bad the weather or with the knowledge that I was on to my last pair of clean knickers. The present was a happy place and that was all that mattered.
I think the first song I learnt was ’16 Tons’, best known version by Johnny Cash and originally by Merle Travis. What’s interesting about this one is that none of the versions I could forage on Spotify come near to replicating my experiences of singing it on camp. What you’ll hear on both of these versions is the guitar and percussion taking a higher ground than the vocals, giving the song more of it’s country routes. But unless everyone around a campfire had an instrument (there were guitars, violins and even vietnamese harps among other things), these parts were obviously weaker than the hundred person ‘choir’ we had going and, therefore, 16 Tons was much more about harmonies, tempo and pitch. Hearing 60 year-old-men singing along with children such as myself created an atmosphere of unity and security that has yet to be replicated amongst any recordings that I have heard.
Another song that differs a lot between the recorded version and ‘our’ version is ‘Follow The Drinkin’ Gourd’. Supposedly, this song was passed on from the Underground Railroad Operative, Peg Leg Joe, so doesn’t have an original recording artist for me to signpost to. What’s interesting is that all the recordings I’ve listened to, including Richie Havens’ version, are sung in a staggered and staccato style (I’m aware that describing this music genre as staccato/legato isn’t the norm but in order for me to give a good picture of this, I need to bend the rules slightly). They’re recording in a studio with only one person singing and playing, whereas on camp (and even more so on the railroad), the sounds took longer to travel to the mass of people and so the notes would be more drawn out – legato style. Our reasons, unfortunately were very different. The nature of a lot of camp life is a relaxed environment – where people are allowed to be who they are, dress how they like and if all else failed we had the knowing that, in two weeks time, we could all go home – the polar opposite of the underground railroad. Even so, there may be some truth in the relation of camp and railroad styles that merges us closer together in comparison to the modern day recordings. One can easily imagine that in the sweltering heat, slaves needed every morsel of positive energy to boost their morale – lengthening their notes to ensure that the people at the back were (near enough) in time with the front would allow them to sing as one unit – singing would have been a rare medium to express themselves creatively and feel alive in some sense, and lengthening these notes meant that this feeling of power could last just that little bit longer. Camp can be quite laborious and the connection between the open landscapes and the movements of the singers trying to stay in time with each other stays stronger to the roots of the songs in comparison to a recorded version where this trudging effect is non existent.
Another one of my favourites was ‘Midnight Special’, known best by the incredible Leadbelly. One thing that Forest School Camps was a bit of a sucker for was it’s calls and responses, this song was definitely no exception. Sometimes we’d go as far as to repeat the end of every single line (this wasn’t my preference). I think this was more of a youthful interpretation. As we all continued to camp over the years, there became a more agreeable way to sing a lot of these songs by those of us who had sung them year-in-year-out (Midnight Special was a favourite amongst most campers) – this was usually by keeping the repetitions to a minimum and instead we’d play more with the harmonies. It’s worth pointing out here that these songs weren’t solely sung with the whole lodge or around the campfire – they were also sung whilst we’d prepare lunch or venture out to nearby waterfalls in smaller groups, therefore the architecture of the same songs would change once again – because our architecture was the open landscape, it was us – the performers – that could encompass ourselves within different parts of it and feel a change in the music instantly. Singing these songs whilst hiking in a valley added reverberations – call and response was fun to play with here as one could hear the echos of their own voices if loud enough. Reverb was then intensified when moved into smaller and more confined spaces such as caves, though I think people’s own fears of these small spaces may have been more at the forefront of their minds as opposed to what the music sounded like. Then of course, singing in a tent with a maximum of four people (that’s all we could fit) had a more personal but bland effect to the music. Leadbelly’s recorded version stays more true to the origins of the song. It was from the viewpoint of the American South prisoners and he encapsulates this more due to the song performed in a confined space – as opposed to masses of open land.
On camp, we the performers were also our own audiences. We were judging what sounded good by the noises we chose to hear in our heads, different to how we hear a recorded version of the same song, which we hear through our ears. This is something that David Byrne explores in his book – the fact that throughout history, artists have been trying to recreate the same sound they hear in their heads without ending up with the dreaded phenomenon of hearing one’s own recorded voice played back to them. Capturing the essence of the sounds would be a tricky business – remember we’d normally be in incredibly windy places, not to mention the sparks and crackling of the campfire or the constant rearrangement of people’s waterproofs, which all added to our architecture but hearing it played back, even with the highest quality technology obviously wouldn’t be an exact replica of what we could hear. That’s not to say it wouldn’t make for an interesting recording but technology has not yet reached a point where recordings are able to sound like what we hear in our heads.
The recorded versions of these songs have therefore become irrelevant to me the listener, in comparison to the feeling of experiencing these songs in their original environment. I’d put this down to the fact that I the listener, was also the performer, and the architecture of the landscape interlinked with the sounds I heard in my head resulted not in a sound, but an experience of the sound that is impossible to replicate. The sounds we created on camp were solely for us the performers’ enjoyment and memories, whereas the artists that have recorded these songs have an external audience in mind. That’s not to say that one can’t appreciate the recorded versions – Nina Simone’s version of the ‘Work Song’ is all time favourite for me, but is difficult for me to draw much comparison to a camp version as the only thing that is a constant between the two is the lyrics.
If you are still interested in what I’m listening to at the moment, here’s my latest playlist