Hands hold a book of camp songs in front of a campfire and a colorful sunset.
Design by Jennie Vang.

When I was 8, my parents sent me to Girl Scout camp for the first time.

The camp was in middle-of-nowhere western New York. The drive felt endless to an 8-year-old, trapped in a cramped car while your mom played Phil Collins and Elton John CDs. But when the scene in the front window changed from never-ending trees to a wooden camp sign and hordes of girls heading in, my focus shifted. Maybe this drive was leading me to somewhere new and important. I don’t know what my parents expected me to find in my camp experience, but I’m sure none of us were planning on me finding a place I never wanted to leave.

Away from the social norms of third grade where pre-determined friend dynamics rule everything, camp was a free for all, a fresh start. From my two-week session that first year, I made friends that I stayed in contact with over multiple summers. I’d call their parents each summer, back when each family just had a landline, so we could skim the camp catalogs and find sessions to do together. For a few years those sessions were horseback riding, then they transitioned to more adventurous things. I spent two weeks learning how to tackle a high ropes course, and another two weeks backpacking with six other girls in the Allegheny Plateau. 

Looking back, I always remember those camp years as simply an amazingly fun time in my life. I got to go kayaking whenever I wanted, eat too many s’mores when my counselors “raided the kitchen” for us and soak in the sun doing arts and crafts outside the dining hall. Yes, there were rainy days, occasional homesickness and lots of complaints about bugs, but camp was my happy place. 

It wasn’t until recently that I realized camp wasn’t just a positive place for me, it was formative. In perhaps the silliest ways, I think it taught me who I needed to be and how to get to that ideal. For me, this becomes apparent when I think back on one of my favorite parts of the camp experience: the songs.

I don’t know why I loved camp songs so much, but they were constantly stuck in my head. It must have been something to do with the community you felt a part of when 50 girls are screaming “Alive Awake Alert” (a song similar to “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”) at 7 a.m., trying to be let into the dining hall. These counselors were smart, knowing that a little bit of healthy competition to start the day was the perfect way to build energy in us sleepy-eyed campers.

The songs gave me confidence I didn’t normally have. At school I was always shy. I still had a lot of energy, but didn’t exactly know what to do in most situations. Camp songs gave me an outlet for my energy that was never frowned upon. Instead, it was actually considered a good thing. If my unit of campers sang songs like “Little Birdies” loud enough, we got to enter the dining hall first, and I would do anything to get those cinnamon french toast sticks. I went from quiet and on the outskirts to singing “The Princess Pat” wherever we went, always wanting to learn more songs or teach them to other people.

With a lot of Girl Scout songs come patience and perseverance. You see, songs like “Alive Awake Alert” are sung in repetition. After completing the song you would sing it again, but louder. As we would say in between these repetitions: “second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a whole lot worse.” I learned from camp songs that sometimes you have to hold back until the right moment; you have to conserve your voice and your energy. This is something I’ve never been great at — overcommitting myself is kind of what I am known for. But then I became a camp counselor at a Girl Scout camp the summer before starting college.

Wrangling 10 4-to-6-year olds for a week is no small feat. Then you have to deal with heat and rain, and getting the group from place to place without injury. It’s a lot of effort. But whenever I struggled to search for something to do, I went back to where it all started for me. Turns out kids still love to scream songs about “Pink Pajamas,” “Tarzan,” “Bazooka Bubble Gum” and “Chocolate Chip Cookies” across a campground. 

I learned a lot that summer about time management and choosing the things that make people the happiest. It’s funny to me that songs can teach you that, but in teaching the songs to a new generation of campers, I was able to persevere through the long days and make sure everyone was having fun without overextending themselves. It was an oddly full-circle moment for me to see my campers embracing the tunes and stories I grew up with. 

Camp songs, no matter how ridiculous they sound away from camp, keep people engaged and smiling. They get people to have fun, shaking out the tired and homesick parts of their day by doing silly dance moves or pretending to be a penguin. At the end of a camp session, when the slower songs are being sung, they make you nostalgic for the summers that have passed, and grateful for the friends you have made. 

I will always look back at my camp years as the time I found the best version of me — happy, carefree and courageous. The songs will always and forever be ingrained in my mind, but I’ll never mind it, because they are a part of my best memories and a part of who I am now.

“Hmmm, and come September 

Hmmm, I will remember, 

Hmmm, our camping days and friendships true. 

Hmmm, and as the years go by, 

Hmmm, I’ll think of you and sigh, 

Hmmm, this is ‘good night’ and not ‘goodbye.’”

Daily Arts Writer Mallory Edgell can be reached at medgell@umich.edu.