My Childhood Soundtrack

From camper to camp staffer, music played a role in happy summer memories

| 03 Jun 2021 | 05:48

My camp experience has a very disjointed soundtrack.

There’s the classics: “I Wanna Linger,” “Sweet Caroline,” “American Pie,” “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing.” Then there’s the more folksy contemporary stuff: “Gravity” by John Mayer, “Tug of War” by Carly Rae Jepsen, “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman. You progress through all the EDM and House music we play at dances (“Levels” by Aviicii dominated the number one spot until “Love Me Lots” overtook it as a staff favorite), to the music that became inside jokes (why do we listen to “E.T.” by Katy Perry ft. Kanye West every dance? Beats me, but we have to.), it goes on and on.

The music is woven throughout all of my memories of my favorite place in the world.

I started at camp in 2006. I was eight years old, and had begged my parents to let me go after my older brother got to go the summer before, leaving me behind and pouty. The minute I stepped off of the barge onto the girls camp island, I knew that there was no going back. Thus began my 14 year love affair.

When I think of those first early years at camp, the music doesn’t start playing in my head until 2008, the first summer I went for a month. I remember my staff playing Katy Perry’s newly released “I Kissed a Girl” while we paddled to boys camp, and thinking it was the most scandalous song I’d ever heard. From that point on, any time a staff had a speaker out, I would beg for that song to be played.

This is how most of the music I associated with camp came to be. The staff in charge of me, who I believed were the coolest people in the world, would play music, and I would eagerly write down lyrics to Google when I got back home if I didn’t catch the name. My music taste was defined by whoever was in the stern of the canoe. Pop, folk, rock, rap, reggae, regardless of what it was, if my staff played it, I thought it was cool.

The music takes a real front seat in my memory as I go into my tween years. With the dawn of the iPod, all of a sudden music was a part of almost everything we did. Paddling over to boys camp? “Countdown” by Beyonce. Choreographed dances? “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha and “Dynamite “by Taio Cruz. Nights in the tent on my long canoe trips as a teenager would be filled with Bob Marley and Billy Joel. We’d eagerly share whatever songs we thought were coolest and write playlists in the backs of our trip journals so we’d have a list ready to download the minute we had to go back to the city.

Introducing a Song

The music keeps playing through the memories of my staff years, this time starring me in the stern seat with the speakers on. One of the best feelings in the world is when you introduce a song to camp. It’s as close as I’ve ever come to fame. I introduced “Wait a Minute!” by WILLOW and felt a surge of pride every time I heard someone else request another staff to play it. Claiming a song as being introduced by you is a dangerous game. I had to call my camp friends to verify that this was the case, and I have contacts to back up this claim. Staff members being “good on aux” was the pinnacle of achievement; dance playlists could easily be three hours long, and a proper mix of fast-slow-popular-classics-bangers was a tricky equation to get right.

While the music broadened my artistic horizons and provided me with my own soundtrack, the real importance of it are the memories of the people that I listened to the music with. I see my counselors, who influenced me beyond just my music taste, showing me how to lead with compassion and how to mentor others. I see the faces of my cabin mates and my co-staff and my dearest camp friends, dancing, singing, swimming, anything. I hear my campers asking me to play a song again, or absent-mindedly singing it all day. Music as a connection to the people around you is one of the purest ways people relate to each other, and having so many memories associated with my music is one of the best gifts camp gave me.

Last summer my camp didn’t operate due to COVID, and this summer it won’t operate again. It makes me sad to think of another summer of silence on the lake; the cabins empty, the docks not overrun with kids, the staff room not charging a million phones at once. But there is something beautiful in the silence too. So much of my time at camp was defined by music, but some of my most poignant memories are of the quiet. Canoes on the water, or sleepily sitting around the campfire after a long day on trip, or the natural music of loons calling across the lake and water hitting the shoreline. I would think camp sounds beautiful even now, even without us there.

When my camp reopens in the summer of 2022, I know it will be filled with three years of music to catch up on. I still catch myself finding music and thinking, “Oh this is a dance song. This is a canoeing song. This is a tent at night song.” I send them off to all of my camp friends and they agree, pass it along, play it out loud. The soundtrack plays on.

While the music broadened my artistic horizons ... the real importance of it are the memories of the people that I listened to the music with. I see my counselors, who influenced me beyond just my music taste, showing me how to lead with compassion and how to mentor others.