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The Savanna campfire



Ian Tamblyn has written more than 1,500 songs over his lifetime and released more than 30 albums, earning a Juno nomination and a Canadian Folk Music Award in the process.  So we were thrilled here at Roots Music Canada when he offered to share some of his wisdom with us.  Ian has reflected on and written about many facets of artistic life over the years, and we’re publishing some of those writings here on the site.  Thank you, Ian!
Ever since we discovered fire we have been gathering around a campfire to cook food, keep warm, tell stories, and sing songs. The singing of songs binds us together. It can take us through the night. It is part of who we are. Though we have known it for a long time, only recently have scientists been exploring how singing songs around a campfire or elsewhere affects the brain. As it turns out, singing together creates a sense of community, a sense of belonging. We work better because of song; singing releases endorphins; singing brings us together. We knew this on some level all along. Beyond the campfire, as the song travelled, it carried the news – a terrible story of a lion or a polar bear, stories of kings and queens, stories of comedy, tragedy and revenge. Songs were used to help the work, whether it was hoisting sails, toting bales, or lifting rocks at Giza or Stonehenge. The song helped comfort or conquer our fears. It was the song, from the cotton field to the road gang, that made the days more bearable and helped carry the weight of each day. A collection of campfire songs became the folk songs of various tribes. It defined them and, to some extent, continues to define tribes today, whether it be Rai, Bulgarian, Celtic, Corsican or so on.

During various times in history, the heart and culture of campfire song has been threatened for various reasons. Often when one tribe overwhelmed another tribe, cultural aspects of the defeated tribe were suppressed. This happened in Scotland in the seventeenth century when the English suppressed the Gaelic language and song and, in some cases, banned the singing of Gaelic songs all together. However, the tradition was held together, in part, by the singing of mouth music, which intoned Gaelic but was only sounds. Ah, those mischievous Scots. In Ireland and on Haida Gwaii, the song was nearly lost because starvation, sickness and deprivation took so many people that the cultural chain was affected. The link to the past was broken, and it took years to rebuild and recall the cultural tradition. The campfire was nearly extinguished in such cases

The aural tradition is key to the continuation of the Savanna campfire, for it is the passing on of memorized song that keeps the whole thing going. If the tradition is lost, the connection to the past is lost as well. This “lost” can be quite literal. I recently spoke to Norman Halladay, who wrote the book Inuksuit. He was talking to me about a series of cairns, gates and Inukhuit that are found at the south end of Cape Dorset. For years he had heard about them, but he could never get anyone to take him there. It was felt by some in the community of Cape Dorset that this area was to be avoided because it was said to have evil spirits. One day he mentioned this to an elder in the community who laughed at the story. The elder said the place was in fact quite wonderful and full of good spirits. He said the problem was that the people had forgotten the “song” that accompanied a trip there. According to the elder, there are lots of shoals and rocks at the south end of Cape Dorset, and it is quite tricky to get there safely. However, the elder said there was a song he knew that would guide one safely, as the song directed one’s way along the coastline, very much like Bruce Chatwin describes in his book Songlines, about Australian Aboriginals “singing” their way across the desert. Halladay asked the elder if he could take him to this spiritual spot and, with the elder’s guidance and song, they travelled safely along the shoreline. But now that elder is gone. A few years ago, I met a remarkable man named Marino Aupilarjuk, an Inuk who lived in Rankin Inlet. He sang a song that he said was 200-300 years old. When I asked a friend to translate it, she said she could only get some of it because Aupilarjuk was singing words from a poetic form of Inuktitut that Inuit only used for song. Aupilarjuk passed away this year, and with him that link to the aural tradition of his people was lost.

It would have to be said that the church of various descriptions both discouraged and encouraged song. As another form of repression, the Indigenous song was seen by the church as barbaric, animistic, or sacrilegious and was replaced by “western” music supporting the church’s doctrines. Sometimes this suppression was so complete there was nothing left of the aural tradition. For example, Greenlandic Inuit have lost most of their Indigenous songs to Lutheran hymns and are quite amazed to hear the “Canadian” Inuit sing their songs. In other places like the Southern US, the Baptist church’s action led to southern gospel music, which has its roots in the call and response field hollers, and so the campfire song morphed into something new but was not snuffed out. A similar morphing happened in the Bahamas. In the 1800’s ministers from England came to the Bahamas and taught “freed” slaves religious tunes. For one reason or another, the ministry left around 1870. When Sam Charters came to record Bahamian music in the 1940’s the people were still singing those hymns, but in his words, the music “had gone back to Africa.” Listening to the syncopated music of Joseph Spence you can hear that decidedly African influence.

Another threat to the campfire was the Gutenberg revolution, the invention of the press. By the mid 1800’s the combination of the printed word and the Industrial Revolution threatened the aural tradition in song. As people moved to the cities to work in the mills, the call to the campfire was lessened, and with the news now being transmitted by newspapers, there was less need for the minstrel to bear the news, to carry the message, to sing the songs. By the end of the Victorian era, the songs that had been carried by the aural tradition for hundreds of years were so threatened that people like Cecil Sharpe and Francis Child began collecting the songs before they disappeared forever. The traditional folk world in Britain is still holding this tradition. In Canada this tradition was document by Edith Fowke, Helen Creighton and Marius Barbeau in the early part of the 20th century, ensuring that the fire would not go out.

It could be said that the era of recorded music – the last hundred plus years – has also threatened the aural campfire as it individualized the listening experience. However, with the invention of radio, the aural tradition was brought to the airwaves, and now the campfire song was being broadcast as far as the wattage could carry it. The folk song was replaced by the popular song, which, once off the hit parade as it were, was recycled to the campfire song. Everybody knew the songs of the day whether it was the Andrew Sisters, Jimmy Rodgers, Wilf Carter or Woody Guthrie. During my formative years, we all listened to the same radio station on the AM band. If there was a new song by a band or group, everyone was singing it by the weekend, and the local band was playing it at the dance halls. It is no accident that the literal campfire songs of this day come from the period spanning 1930 to 1980. It was the era of the radio – affordable and common to all.

The most recent threat to the Savanna campfire, which has been burning for at least 18,000 years, has been the invention of the Walkman and its successors. With the invention of the Walkman, the individualization of the campfire became complete. Each person now had their own campfire songs, but they were no longer shared by the community. To complete the possibility of isolation, include cyberspace, the iPod and downloading. Today, though there has never been more music available from around world, the ear bud threatens the continuance of unique tribal voices because they are not heard by the community as a whole.

And yet the need for the campfire has never been more evident. Though the church is not the force it once was in the western world, the relatively recent boom in community choirs speaks to the original notion that singing together and sharing songs gives people a sense of well-being, a sense of community, a sense of belonging that hearkens back to the songs around a campfire a long time ago.

I think as well that the street corner campfire continues to burn as well. Whether you like them or not, a whole set list of Neil Young songs or Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” now represents a new set list of campfire songs.

Recently, I attended the Folk Alliance International conference in Montreal. Long after the hustle and the showcases were over, what were musicians and audience members doing in the hallways and meeting areas? They were playing around the hotel campfire, singing through the night. It was not for the hustle; it was for the comfort found in song. It is a long way from the Savanna campfire of the distant past, but in many ways, the songs and the event serve the same purpose as the original. I find that endurance in itself most encouraging.


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