I attended Camp Woodland, a progressive summer camp in upstate New York, for four summers starting in 1955 when I was ten years old. When Pete died last year, it was my fellow Camp Woodlanders that I most wanted to connect with.
Fortunately, a camp reunion in 2012 had revived many old friendships. “Pete’s music was the soundtrack to our lives,” one former camper reminisced on the camp listserv. “Pete modeled our values and transformed how we lived in the world, just like at camp,” another wrote.
While Pete and his music touched many lives, those of us who grew up in left-wing families during the 1950s and were campers or counselors at Woodland felt a special connection. Our memories of Pete and what he meant to us—on a personal, musical, and political level—are inextricably bound up with our experience of camp.
Camp Woodland, an interracial, intercultural camp located near the Catskill mountain town of Phoenicia, was founded in 1939 by a group of progressive educators from New York City, including Norman Studer. Studer, who ran the camp until it closed in 1962, was attracted by the experimental pedagogy of Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village where he taught for many years. He went on to help found and run Elisabeth Irwin High School, and later became the director of Downtown Community School (DCS), a progressive parent-teacher cooperative that sent many of its students to Woodland.
Pete was connected to Camp Woodland at many levels. His father-in-law, Takashi Ohta, was the camp caretaker during the late 1940s and early ’50s. Pete had a close relationship with Norman, becoming the music teacher at DCS after he was blacklisted in the 1950s. His annual extended visits to camp, where he led separate workshops for different age groups and a final, glorious, all-camp concert, were the highlights of my summers.
Along with its connection to Pete, Woodland provided an extraordinary environment for the children of leftist parents, where the progressive ideals we had inherited were nourished and put into practice. Many campers and counselors—around 30 percent, by some accounts—were African American, drawn from the ghettoes of New York City and the segregated South. Several counselors each summer came from foreign countries.
Traditional camp activities were revamped and infused with social content, turning every event into a political lesson. Instead of color wars, we participated in an annual summer Olympics, featuring teams from insurgent nations like the Congo and Cuba, which gave us a chance to learn about popular rebellions in faraway lands.
Still, the sensibility of camp was intensely patriotic, with campers gathering at the flagpole each morning to pledge allegiance—at least to the democratic and egalitarian ideals that the flag was supposed to represent. As one former camper recalled at the reunion, “There was no overtly political speech, or indoctrination, or singing of Young Pioneer songs. It was simply people learning to respect different cultures, and living their values.”1
For some “red diaper babies” like myself, camp was a place finally to make sense of a childhood fraught with contradictions. Both my father, an organizer for the United Electric Workers union, and my mother, a freelance writer of socially themed fiction, had been Communist Party members—although I did not know that, or much else about their activities, until decades later.
In May 1955, my father was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), an event that threw my family into turmoil and left me with many unanswered questions. Too fearful to expose me directly to the causes that consumed them, my parents sent me to camp instead, where they knew their values would be reinforced.
At Camp Woodland, I was astonished to find other children, less sheltered and more knowing, who shared the same convictions. Some, including my 1957 summer boyfriend, even had parents who were in jail. For those children, even more than for myself, camp truly provided a refuge from the traumas of everyday life, a place where politically persecuted parents were appreciated and their children could just be children.
My new friends at camp knew the same Pete Seeger and Weavers songs that I had learned from my parents’ 78 RPM records (the breakable ones) and 45 RPM discs (with the plastic center inserts). The songs—standing in for our shared values—triggered an immediate recognition that allowed fellow campers to become instant soulmates, creating bonds that would last, in some cases, for a lifetime.
At camp, we also forged deep connections with our rural Catskill neighbors. Through visits to local craftsmen, woodsmen, storytellers, and musicians, campers explored, documented, and helped to preserve the disappearing heritage of local mountain communities, including their work cultures, crafts, and folklore. In turn, local personalities like Grant Rogers (an accomplished fiddler), George Edwards (a woodsman whose ballads were later recorded by the Library of Congress), George Van Kleeck (a blacksmith who never missed a square dance), and Mike Todd (a bear hunter who played a rhythm instrument called the “bones”) became regular fixtures at camp, developing strong bonds with individual campers. Upon his death, we learned at the reunion, Mike Todd bequeathed his “bones” to an admiring Woodland camper.
The collaborative efforts between camp and the local communities took many forms. The camp magazine Neighbors: A Record of Catskill Life featured regular stories documenting the lives and struggles of Catskill mountain people. A museum of farm and work tools was assembled in Phoenicia to demonstrate the traditional crafts, with campers acting as “docents.”
Most important were the community linkages forged through music. The camp music directors—talented musicologists Norman Cazden, Herbert Haufrecht, and Bob DeCormier—composed socially themed cantatas based on the history and struggles of the region. “Dingle Hill” was set in the nineteenth-century anti-rent wars, while “We’ve Come From the City” recounted the story of local resistance to the Lackawack Dam, which drowned several villages. “Sojourner Truth” was a tribute to the abolitionist and feminist leader born in nearby Hurley, New York. “Boney Quillan” told the tale of a legendary local logger.
Campers performed the cantatas at the annual Catskill Folk Festival in Phoenicia, sponsored by the camp. Local singers and storytellers also performed, showcasing the rich local mountain culture, along with seasoned musicians like Pete Seeger. The local performers welcomed the opportunity to reconstruct their neglected (and almost forgotten) past, and enjoyed having their history appreciated, and their songs learned and sung back to them, by new generations of city children.
In his introduction to Folksongs of the Catskills, an extraordinary anthology compiled and annotated by Cazden, Haufrecht, and Studer, Pete writes: “Every people, every national group, every small tribe or region, each has a contribution to make to the world of the future, if there is to be a future world at all.”2 It was the core of his musical philosophy, as put into practice at Camp Woodland.
Folk music was a constant at Camp Woodland, and a central focus of the camp’s democratic vision and practice. In Raising Reds, a study of radical summer camps, Paul Mishler writes that by combining the musical heritage of the left with that of the camp’s interracial, multiethnic population, and with the traditions of the rural Catskills, Camp Woodland helped to create a new vision of folk music as popular, democratic culture, paving the way for the folk revival of the 1960s.3
Pete was the central figure in this process. As Mishler notes, Pete had the unique ability to “weave” our songs into a “perspective larger than the music itself, and pass them on to the world.”4 Many world-famous folksongs disseminated by Pete grew from seeds sown at Camp Woodland.
For example, in 1960 a Woodland counselor added three verses to a song Pete had started to write in 1955, creating the famous “circular” version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Campers re-taught the song to Pete, and the Woodland version became known throughout the world. In 1962, Pete learned a song called “Guántanamera” from a Cuban counselor at Woodland, a budding musician studying on a Cuban government scholarship in New York City, who had been stranded by the U.S. blockade and hired by Norman Studer for the summer.
One of the most significant events in Camp Woodland’s history occurred in August 1955, at the end of my first summer. A New York State legislative committee (the Larkin Committee, similar to HUAC) investigating subversive activities in left-wing summer camps had called Norman Studer to testify about Communist Party members associated with camp, including potentially Pete Seeger. (Both Pete and Norman had appeared before HUAC earlier that month, with Pete famously invoking the First Amendment and Norman taking the Fifth.)
The hearing took place on the evening of the camp’s Farewell Banquet, with the entire camp and invited local guests assembled and awaiting Norman’s return. He showed up late, dressed uncharacteristically in a formal suit and tie. After the campers departed, Norman invited the neighbors to stay and explained what they were about to read in the morning newspapers. As Norman later recounted in his memoirs:
It was a poignant testimony to the strength of the local ties and relationships that Woodland worked so hard to build—a moment when, according to a counselor who witnessed the event, “the connection between camp and the community was so much more powerful than the fear.”6 As Mishler notes, unlike other left-wing summer camps that were driven out by hostile community neighbors during the Red Scare, Woodland survived until 1962 and when it closed it was for financial—not political—reasons.
In 1961, after Pete was convicted of contempt of Congress (a verdict subsequently overturned on appeal), I was one of many Camp Woodlanders who attended an “Upstate Meets Downstate” tribute concert to Pete at New York City’s Town Hall. Pete shared the stage with some of the same mountain musicians who joined him every summer at the Catskill Folk Festival. Norman Studer, the master of ceremonies, welcomed Pete with these words: “Pete Seeger, we honor you and say that this voice of yours must not be silenced!”7
In 2012, Pete showed up at our camp reunion in Phoenicia and played and sang along to quite a few songs. For myself and many others, it was the last time we would see and hear him in person.
The reunion ended with a poignant ballad, “Friends and Neighbors” (lyrics credited to George Edwards’s mother), that was our traditional camp closing song at every Farewell Banquet. It was our goodbye to Pete, and his to us.
Friends and neighbors, I’m going for to leave you.
I have no doubt you may think it is strange.
But God be pleased, I never have robbed,
Neither have I done any wrong.
Some may say it’s for some bad action,
Others may say it’s for something wrong.
Still others may say a different notion,
Happened to run into my mind.
- ↩See Camp Woodland Reunion 2012, DVD, produced by Dennis Shaw (Richmondville, NY: Shaw Video Productions, 2012). Copies can be obtained from http://shawvideoproductions.com.
- ↩Norman Cazden, Herbert Haufrecht, and Norman Studer, Folksongs of the Catskills (Albany: SUNY Press, 1982).
- ↩Paul Mishler, Raising Reds (Columbia University Press: 1999).
- ↩Camp Woodland Reunion 2012. Norman Studer’s papers, including detailed documentation of Camp Woodland, are archived at the university libraries at SUNY Albany; the finding aid is online at http://library.albany.edu/speccoll/findaids/apap116.htm#scope.
- ↩Camp Woodland Reunion 2012.