Happy Camper

Almost two decades apart, a couple of summer camp adventures make for one long, strange musical trip

by Lee Abraham

Got a phone call a couple of weeks ago from an old friend. Someone I hadn’t talked to in a long time. In fact, the last time I saw the guy was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, when we were both camp counselors in Connecticut. The call wasn’t a complete surprise. I had been tipped off while doing a telephone interview with somebody I had never met, or ever spoken to before. Sound strange? It was. At least on the surface. I’ll explain later.

In any case, talking to my old friend reminded me of that summer - it was the first point on a line that came full circle with the ring of his call. Although the camp counselor thing worked out great, it was not my number one option that summer. But given the circumstances, it was the best available option. Unfortunately my faithful car, a ’67 Ford Falcon dubbed the ‘White Knight’ for its battle tested, Pearl enamel paint job, had recently died an untimely death.

The tragedy occurred while I was away at SUNY Binghamton in upstate New York. By that point, I had experienced my first few adventures ‘on the road’ going to Grateful Dead concerts. I was also thoroughly enjoying the uniquely decadent lifestyle found only in coed, freshman dorms. School was definitely alot of fun. But when summer rolled around, I was ready to hit the highway. Unfortunately though, my kaleidoscope eyed visions of beach hopping bedlam and sand dune romances were dashed by the demise of an old and abused transmission. I was bummed. Being stuck at my folks house in Long Island while the rest of the world was ‘dancin’ in the streets,’ wasn’t what I had in mind for my final summer as a teenager. That was 1979.

Sitting at home one morning, waiting for a friend to pick me up enroute to our favorite beach in the Hamptons, I looked through the classifieds. Not for anything in particular, just to check out what the real world was offering. What I found was pretty slim pickins’. Without a car, I was pretty much out of luck. And then I came across a section of the Help Wanted ads for camp counselors. Hmm, I thought to myself, -this- could work. As a kid I went to sleepaway camp a few times and loved it. Although I had no experience as a counselor, I was always a pretty happy camper. I made a few phones calls, just to see what would happen. Before I knew it, I was on a bus headed for Camp Kendale, in Willamantic, Connecticut.

They started me in the bunk with the smallest kids, noisy little buggers in the 9-10 age group, but thankfully I was quickly moved to the oldest bunk, the 14-16 year slot. These kids were a promiscuous bunch. Plenty of sex, drugs and rock and roll going on, thanks in no small part to the oldest girls bunk, which was even wilder than the boys. In fact, the only group getting away with more high spirited hijinx, were the counselors themselves. Only a few years older than the oldest campers, and about the same size as a couple of them, I felt like more of an older brother than a drill sergeant to this group.

My co-counselor was a guy named Paul Karp. The very first hour of the first day at camp, while everyone was unloading their stuff from the four or five Greyhound buses that converged on the camp’s front parking lot, this curly haired guy carrying a guitar case saw my tattered guitar case, with its Steal Your Face sticker prominently displayed, and asked noone in particular, ‘Who’s guitar is this?’ It was Karp. Being moved to Karp’s bunk was a big relief. I’d much rather talk to kids about the Grateful Dead and girls than whether or not the they’ve been brushing their teeth and changing their underwear. Just seemed a little more up my alley. Not only that, being assigned to Karp’s bunk meant there’d be music in the air. And there was. Karp had a really nice Martin guitar. Plus, he knew how to play it. The guy was a really good finger picker. Damned if he didn’t sound just like Jorma Kaukonen when he played Hot Tuna songs. Of course, we jammed a few times. We even performed together as a duo once or twice at camp talent shows. I think we did a couple of Simon and Garfunkel tunes.

Almost twenty summers later, nineteen to be exact, I found myself in another camp. This time in Ohio. Not for long mind you, just a couple of days. Including a four minute and seventeen second point on the line that was one of the most intense experiences of my life.

Here’s what happened. When Jorma’s -Fur Peace Ranch- guitar camp opened up a couple of years ago, I pitched a story idea to Relix magazine for a feature about it. Although the request was originally denied because someone else had beat me to it, I got a phone call a few months later asking whether or not I was still interested in writing the story. Responding in the affirmative, I made the arrangements as soon as I got off the phone. The weekend at the Fur Peace would be the first leg of a trip that would take me back East to the All Good festival and a series of other events that I was either covering or just enjoying for the fun of it. Kicking off the adventure with the Fur Peace made an already great itinerary even better.

Jorma holds guitar workshops and performances at the Fur Peace several times during the year. Usually on weekends. Situated in Meigs County, the camp lays out on over 100 wooded acres of gently rolling countryside. In addition to being surrounded by nature’s beauty, they’ve got great food at the Fur Peace. In fact, the entire camp is downright cozy. There’s a separate little, 35 person capacity gourmet restaurant right on campus, as well as a performance hall that’ll seat 70 people; a beautiful, two-story library; a large bathhouse; and 18, two person cabins. It really is quite the spread!

Anyway, the first two days are a combination of instructional workshops from Jorma and guest instructors. In between there’s plenty of spirited meal time table talk and evening jam sessions. Most people who have been to the Fur Peace for a weekend agree that the bonding among students is one of the best parts of the experience. After meeting, hanging out, and playing guitar with Jorma that is. Always accessible during the days and at meals, Jorma is easy to talk to. He’s funny, smart, and so cool that just hanging out with him is surreal. Especially at first. But when the last day of the weekend rolls around, Jorma’s has presence become familiar, like an old friend. By this time everyone is over the nerves and first impressions. After eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, not to mention playing and studying guitar together for two full days, that sort of thing happens.

The third day though things change. The last official item on the Fur Peace itinerary is the grand finale ‘performance.’ That’s when everybody gets a shot to take the stage and play. Doesn’t have to be stuff from the weekend or anything in particular. Wanna play solo? Fine. Feel like the arrangement might benefit from a little lead guitar? No problem. Just so happens, that this guy named Jorma is in the house and the scuttlebutt around the coffee dripper is that the guy loves to sit in... talk about a dream gig for Jorma fans! As it turns out, some of the students on this particular weekend invited Jorma onstage, along with any combination of guest instructors, while others preferred to perform solo. Now from my standpoint, I was there as a journalist, not as a student. Sure, I brought my guitar. After all, I was going to need it somewhere down the line for a command performance in the living room of a trombone playin’ buddy of mine. And yeah, I -had- sat in for a class or two during the weekend, and had even gone so far as to jam a little when the vibe was right, but for the most part, I was covering the story, not -in- it.

And that’s how the performance started. Digital camera in hand, second row center, I snapped shot after shot of the students onstage with Jorma. Time zipped by. Not knowing why, I found myself getting nervous. Although I hadn’t really thought about it, I knew that after all the students had their turn, there would still be enough time for one more song. Just thinking about it made my palms sweaty. There was no decision of whether or not I would play. The question never crossed my mind once I knew there was plenty of time. No way was I going to let this opportunity pass! I figured I’d better do an original. I used to be in a band, and have written a few tunes over the years, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to play one. After all, it’s a lot harder for people to notice a screw up on a song they’ve never heard before.

I decided on ‘Youngest Old Timer,’ a word play celebration of the late Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, that weaves together song titles to tell his story.

I heard him sing ‘Good mornin’ little schoolgirl, how are you?’
I heard him so many times, everything he sang was true
I heard him before he was big, before he was a star
just a kid fifteen or so, jammin’ in some bar
when other kids were playing games, he was playin’ the blues
when he was twenty, he’d been around forever, my how time flew

he could sing, yeah he could sing, that man could sing the blues,
he was the youngest old timer that I ever knew

he did the Lindy he did the Rub, he was the king bee
ain’t it crazy miss Katie Mae, turn your love light on with me
when he was onstage he was a caution,
you never knew what he’d say
stealin’ all our good lovin’,
he blew the crowd away

his life it passed like an easy wind,
his midnight hour came too soon
sleepy alligator, it’s hard to handle,
it hurts me too
it’s the same thing Mr. Charlie told me, big boss man too
smokestack lightening, sick and tired, wang dang doodely doo

it’s been so long since he took the stage, June seventh, seventy-two
it’s never been quite the same
we bid goodnight to you

he could sing, yeah he could sing, that man could sing the blues
he was the youngest old timer that I even knew

I picked that song for a couple of reasons. Number one, I knew I’d be nervous as hell and this is an easy one for me to sing. Nice and low in the key of E. The other is the obvious lyrical tie-in. Anyway, after the last student finished up, Jorma asked if anybody else wanted to play. So I stood up and said I’d like to play one. As I walked over to grab my guitar, I asked Jorma to stay on stage, because I wanted him to play as well. "What do you want to play?" he asked while setting up the microphone. I told him it would be an honor to have him join me on an original. After quickly going over the chords, it was time to start. Me and Jorma. Holy shit - this was a heavy moment!

I started strummin’ and got a little disoriented. Actually messed up the intro, but I don’t think anybody really knew the difference. Once I got past the first line though, the nerves gave way to a semblance of clarity. Looking out to the forty or fifty faces in the audience, all people I had come to know over the weekend, was like playing in front of a bunch of friends at a party. It started to become fun.

There’s a solo after the second verse, and making eye contact with a simultaneous, raised eyebrow cue, Jorma was all over it. Never mind that he hadn’t heard the song before, his solo blew me away! Playing rhythm as he worked through his lead, it was like a dream. Then came the end of the solo, which Jorma timed perfectly with the start of the third verse. Man that felt good! Now energized by Jorma’s solo and the neat timing of it all, I was on top of the world singing the last verse. After the last strum of the final chord, in the fleeting nanosecond before people started to clap, time stood still. Looking over at Jorma we shared a smile. I extended my hand, and as applauds rang out, we shook. Wow! I still get goose bumps thinking about it.

Flash forward almost two years to the present. Well actually to a couple of weeks ago. As usual, I’m chained to my IBM Thinkpad, doing something I’m supposed to be doing, although I can’t recall exactly what. The phone rings. It’s Karp! Hadn’t talked to the guy since the farewells on the last day of camp, way back when. I think we exchanged postcards once or twice in the months that followed, but overall, we hadn’t had contact for almost twenty-years. Turns out he read the Fur Peace article in Relix and had been trying to track me down since it came out some time ago. Because I’ve been moving around a bit, that hasn’t been easy.

Anyway, he finally got hold of me. It was great to chat with him. But that’s not the end of the story. There were two twists to the tale. The first - Karp had been to the Fur Peace himself, and in fact, went often. That in itself was no surprise. Karp was made for the Fur Peace. He’s a guitar nut. -And- a huge Jorma fan. Although a little bit of a coincidence, the fact that Karp was a Fur Peace alum made perfect sense.

The second twist was a little weirder. While trying to contact me, Karp called Jeff Tamarkin, a well known music journalist, editor/writer who was Relix second editor for a couple of years in the late ‘70s. He still contributes articles to the mag on occasion. Anyway, by coincidence, I called Tamarkin a month or two ago to interview him for a project I’m working on about Relix magazine. Turns out that Karp had called him -the day before-, looking for me.

Now that was really strange, because I had never talked to Tamarkin before, and hadn’t talked to Karp in so long. The Fur Peace/Relix connection didn’t occur to me at first. For about a minute, things were total Twilight Zone. The conversation just wasn't making any sense. Then the pieces to the puzzle began to fall into place. Seems that Karp knew Tamarkin because both are big time Jefferson Airplane fans. He also knew Tamarkin was affiliated with Relix, and thought he might get my number through him. It was just really weird to call someone for an interview who I had never spoken to before, only to have that person say somebody I hadn’t spoken to in almost two decades had called -them-, looking for me. After we talked about it a little though, we figured it out.

Over a month later I finally got the call from my old buddy Karp. We had some laughs, recalled Camp Kendale memories, and caught up on each other’s lives. Of course, we also talked about the Fur Peace Ranch, exchanging our stories of how amazing it was to play guitar with Jorma. That was particularly cool. Knowing that Karp had the same experience at the Fur Peace made me smile. I mean, alot of things have changed over the years, but it seems that at least one thing remains the same - music still matters. A lot. And having friends to share it with at a few connected points on the line, with will make anyone a happy camper. --- For information on the Fur Peace Ranch call (740)-992-6228 or check their website at www.furpeaceranch.com.