Ah, summertime. Beers on the patio, attractive women parading about in varying degrees of undress, and for the more adventurous of us – camping. Now I'm not talking about real camping – the trip I just took bears little in common with the kind of camping experiences I've had in the past (which basically equates to “drinking in the woods”) but I still hold a special place in my heart for those lazy evenings spent tending an amateur bonfire, consuming unhealthy amounts of whiskey and strumming my guitar with my friends singing along. So today, in tribute to those simple, happy times, I present a very special Best Of list: the top ten Campfire Songs as chosen by my various Correspondents from Turning Down the Suck, State of Affairs and beyond.
House of the Rising Sun (The Animals)
Nothing speaks to a song's staying power like the number of times it's covered by other acts, particularly if nobody has any real idea who wrote the thing to begin with and therefore gives credit to the most successful of the apers – in this case that term is exceptionally clever since the band most credited is English outfit The Animals. But the list hardly stops there: “Rising Sun” has been covered by dozens of other artists including Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Shawn Mullins, Bachman Turner Overdrive and even Muse. With that many versions of the same tune floating around it's a guaranteed crowd pleaser because everyone around the fire has heard at least one of them about a million times. The only kicker? Getting everybody to agree on the gender of the song's narrator – turns out the infamous House has been the ruin of many a poor girl and boy in its time. Deciding this early on will also determine whether the gamblin' man is his father or her sweetheart.
Hey Jude (The Beatles)
No singalong anywhere would be complete without at least one obligatory Beatles tune, and John and Paul's ballad entreating the titular character to “take a sad song and make it better” has a big group wind-up at the end that ensures it a place on this list. The chords are pretty easy if you avoid the major sevenths (depends how drunk you are) and when it comes to singing along it doesn't matter how drunk anybody is – as far as lyrics go, it's extremely difficult to screw up “nah nah nah nah” and it still sounds pretty awesome even if nobody can agree on what key to sing it in. My advice? Just pour another drink and sing louder. The rest of the campers in the park will definitely thank you for it.
Sweet Caroline (Neil Diamond)
This song is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all campfire songs, ever, thanks largely due to that Labatt commercial from a few years back. You remember the one: some loser serenading his obviously-disinterested girlfriend when suddenly all manner of colourful characters emerge from the woods to join in the chorus. At least, I assume that was what made it so popular, because at the end of the day “Sweet Caroline” isn't actually that great a song, nor does it have much to do with camping – granted, most of the songs on this list don't have much to do with camping either, but this saccharine pop number is probably unique in its mediocrity given it was written by Neil “What Else Has He Done Recently” Diamond. Doesn't matter though; as long as you can get through the “bap-bap-baaaa” part you'll probably enjoy it.
Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
Also known as one of the very few Pink Floyd songs people who aren't into Pink Floyd will actually know the words to. Also known as one of the very few Pink Floyd songs people who aren't David Gilmour can actually play on an acoustic guitar. Everyone has at least one stoner friend who will insist on dragging out this hoary old chestnut either by manhandling your guitar away from you and awkwardly trying to strum the tune while keeping hold of their gorilla-finger joint, or else by reaching for the sonorous ethereal harmonies and not quite making it, giving the whole thing a decidedly minor-key feel of impending doom. Oh, and they'll probably do the wind noise at the end by making ridiculous pucker-lips and eagerly blowing smoke in your face.
Wheat Kings (The Tragically Hip)
Since Drinking in the Woods is a fundamentally Canadian practice right alongside consuming maple syrup direct from the tree before cutting it down and using the wood to build a canoe, it stands to reason that campfire singalongs have to include mandatory Canadian content. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a more suffocatingly, moose-lovingly, leaf-wearingly, Molson-drinkingly Canadian outfit than the Tragically Hip. I was torn on which of their ballady acoustic numbers to include on this list since they constitute most of the Hip's catalogue; I almost went with “Bobcaygeon” just to hammer the True North Strong And Free backslapping even further into your moist frontal cortexes, but instead I chose “Wheat Kings” because the studio version of the song actually samples the ambient sounds of the woods. And it still mentions Prime Ministers and the CBC (and the song is about David Milgaard), which are all so principally Canadian they could only be outdone by the entire band appearing in a film cameo as a curling team. Oh, wait.
And It Stoned Me (Van Morrison)
Van Morrison has always been synonymous with the outdoors to me. My dad turned me on to Van when I was a small child; he recounted stories of listening to songs like “Into the Mystic” and “It Stoned Me” while sitting on the shores of Hudson's Bay when he lived next to a Manitoba polar bear research station in the 70s. Seriously. But regardless “It Stoned Me” is an ideal campfire track for two major reasons: one, the lyrics don't make any sense (“stoned me just like Jelly Roll”?) and two, the song requires precisely three chords to play through, and when you've consumed enough whiskey to kill an entire den of beavers, you'll be grateful for the simplicity. Besides which, I love this song, and it's my list, so I'm putting it on whether you agree or not. So there.
Mrs. Robinson (Simon and Garfunkel)
This one is recommended for the advanced campfire player only: the guitar parts are considerably more complicated than most of the rest of this list, and most people don't know any of the lyrics other than the chorus involving Jesus. Simon and Garfunkel are almost certain to be on the request list, especially if your fellow campers are any older than about 35, so you'd best be prepared, and if you have your eye on a Mrs. Robinson of your own, this song is guaranteed to impress even the most jaded cougar. By cougar, of course, I refer to a Kim-Cattral-Sex-in-the-City cougar, not the kind who'll leap from the bushes and eat you, guitar and all. I'm in no position to recommend a song that will save you from an untimely death at the hands of a ravenous mountain cat – maybe “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”? You can try it, but I refuse to take responsibility if you come back without a face.
Free Fallin' (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)
Before all you nascent rock stars out there start jumping on my head for this – perhaps the most eye-rollingly obvious selection on this entire list – let me preface my choice with the disclaimer that if I never played this song again for as long as I live, you'd have to jackhammer the smile off my corpse. The number of times people request this most famous of Tom Petty's poppy ballad set comes in just ahead of “Sweet Home Alabama” and just behind “The Gambler”, and frankly I'd rather take a cheese grater to my own face than hear any of those three songs again. But even in a campfire setting, for better or worse the guy or girl with the guitar is relegated to “dancing monkey/human jukebox” for the duration, and it's their own damn fault for showing up with an instrument to begin with, so if somebody requests “Free Fallin'” (and they will) you will have no choice but to play it. Life's tough, get a helmet. If, however, somebody has the gall to ask for “Don't Stop Believing” you have my express permission to feed them to the chipmunks.
Sugar Mountain (Neil Young)
As The Mule made abundantly clear to me (and he's entirely in the right), if I didn't include Uncle Neil on this list I would immediately be required to hand in my Canadian Musician badge and then likely be executed for this inexcusable crime. Simply put, there is no scenario in which playing a Neil Young song is inappropriate or unwelcome. Bonus points if you can ape Neil's signature “I sound like somebody's granny” singing voice. I was particularly pleased to find a live version of this song to share with you, dear readers, if for no other reason than it features Uncle Neil in his prime. Check out those mutton chops, will you? Just look at them. They're magnificent. And you too will be this magnificent if you haul out a toe-tapping favourite like “Sugar Mountain”. Well, maybe not quite this magnificent, but if you find yourself being favourably compared in any way to the Godfather of Grunge, you're in august company of the highest order.
The Weight (The Band)
When I first heard of The Band my immediate thought was “golly, they'd better be some kind of amazing outfit if they want to call themselves THE Band”, and after watching Martin Scorsese's absolutely brilliant musical documentary “The Last Waltz” in which The Band is joined on stage by pretty much anybody who's anybody in the mid-70s music scene and proceed to play their asses off for two plus hours, I gladly acknowledged that The Band deserves to be The Band over and above any other Band I'd heard up to that point. “The Last Waltz” is on my list of desert island albums (post coming soon) and I don't see it being usurped anytime in the near future. “The Weight”, better known to amateur classic rock afficionados as “Take A Load Off Fanny”, is one of my all-time favourite songs by The Band, and nicely rounds out my top ten by virtue of being perhaps the most sing-along-able song on this entire list. What made the group windup at the end of “Hey Jude” so much fun is repeated in every chorus of “The Weight” - and there are no fewer than five choruses in the song. If somebody you know can remember every verse, you're guaranteed to win the hearts of not only your own campfire circle, but every campfire in the park. Believe me; I've seen it happen, and there is nothing cooler than an entire provincial park worth of campers screaming “you put the load right on me”. Guaranteed good times.
What Did We Learn?
Obviously this list is a suggestion only; one of the many things I've learned as an impromptu performer over the years is that you have to play to your audience, because as I mentioned, as soon as you pull out the guitar you're automatically Juke Box Man for the rest of the night. A lot of this list heavily favours 70s era rock and ballads, and sometimes you'll get a group who wants to hear something recorded more recently than 30 years ago; you might as well have the likes of “Wonderwall” and “Good Riddance” ready to go on your internal playlist in case somebody's taste in music sucks. But at the end of the day, remember to have fun – campfire singalongs are the kinds of memories you'll carry for a lifetime. Now get out there – the Great Outdoors is waiting.
Alex James is the head writer at State of Affairs, and can regularly be found chasing Will 'o the Wisps through the woods on nights when the moon is full.
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