Camp Songs
Saturday, May 26, 2001
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Up in the north woods of Minnesota, on Lake Minnibigosh, is a Lutheran Bible camp beloved to thousands and thousands of Lutherans who went there as boys and girls and lived in the log cabins along the shore and learned to swim and canoe and clean fish and learned about redemption through faith and how to live a godly life and how to stay regular even using an outhouse. Every night the campers cooked weenies and marshmallows over a campfire and sang Kumbaya and We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder with Eric the counselor playing his guitar and they still remember it. Camp Minnibigosh has been in operation since 1933. That was the year that Prohibition ended in this country and liquor became legal. And what most Lutherans don't know about the Camp is that it was donated by a non-Lutheran, Isidore Blumenfeld, Kid Cann, the most successful bootlegger and rum-runner of the Twenties, who used the camp to store whiskey and rum and gin that came over the Canadian border. Some of his best friends were Lutherans, and when liquor became legal, he no longer needed the camp, so he gave it to them. Along with the camp came a couple hundred barrels of very good bourbon, and the sale of that whiskey provided an endowment to offer scholarships to composers.

The first was John Philip Sousa who stayed only a day and loved Kumbaya and wrote out this rousing arrangement of it.

[Ensemble Singers of the Plymouth Music Series]

Igor Stravinsky spent only one night at Camp Minnibigosh and then he left for a hotel in Duluth. He loved the weenie roast --- and a melted marshmallow in a hot toddy --- though he felt that the singing around the campfire was rhythmically limp. He got the campers to march around with flaming branches and really sing…..

[Ensemble Singers of the Plymouth Music Series]

Olivier Messiaen was French and he felt not quite at home at Camp Minnibigosh. The food was nothing you'd feed to your dog or cat, the games were silly, the bed was lumpy, the toilet facilities barbaric, the theology lacked subtlety and elegance, but at night when the sparks from the campfire flew up toward the stars, he felt a sort of transcendent connection to the heavens, and to God, and of course to France.

[Ensemble Singers of the Plymouth Music Series]

Aaron Copland arrived at Minnibigosh wearing jeans and cowboy boots. He was a New Yorker and to him everything west of Riverside Drive was The West and he was expecting the Lutherans to be colorful and rugged and handy with their fists and exuberant dancers.

[Ensemble Singers of the Plymouth Music Series]

Leonard Bernstein came to Minnibigosh and distinguished himself at Capture The Flag. Lennie was extremely competitive. He was the captain of any team he was on and his team won Capture the Flag four times in a row and he taught a lot of Lutherans how to handle a cigarette.

[Ensemble Singers of the Plymouth Music Series]

Philip Glass was very popular at Minnibigosh. The famous minimalist composer. Lutherans are minimalists, too, and like Glass, they believe in the power of repetition, and when Glass rewrote the camp songs in his own style, many Lutherans were deeply moved. That was how they had always sung them.

[Ensemble Singers of the Plymouth Music Series]

Every year a new composer arrives at Camp Minnibigosh ---- someone who has never seen the Midwest before, never been among Lutherans, never sat around a campfire and sung Kumbaya, and some of them stay in their room and leave quietly the next morning and others are deeply moved, like John Williams ---- he said that Bible camp to him was like a whole other universe.

[Ensemble Singers of the Plymouth Music Series]

© Garrison Keillor 2001

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

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