Joan Roelof wrote a comment yesterday on my post about Chester’s Zumbarg: “I wonder if you know about Camp Woodland. It was a major influence in my life.” As it turns out the book on the Catskills that I had excerpted for that post had a couple of pages on Camp Woodland just before the Chester’s passage. Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, which stood for Workers Children Camp, was based in New Jersey and like Camp Woodland catered to the children of leftists, especially CP’ers. Three years ago I blogged about Fred Baker’s experiences at Wo-Chi-Ca and perhaps I will get the opportunity to interview Joan Roelof before too long as part of my video project about the Borscht Belt and the left.
“The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America”, pp. 347-348
When he emerged from the [Committee on Un-American Activities] hearing he reacted to the cameras outside: “Ah, they’re letting me back on television. First time in years.”
-RING LARDNER JR. on Zero Mostel
“The first time I went to the Catskills was with my father, at age twelve, to climb Slide Mountain,” recalled Pete Seeger, one of the iconic figures of American folk music. Seeger, along with Woody Guthrie, had been an original member of the Weavers and an unabashed left-wing protester who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. “Another time,” Seeger remembered, “we climbed Overlook and slept up there on a cliff” Still able to picture the “sunrise over the valley,” Seeger, at age ninety in 2009, described the origins of Camp Woodland, arguably the first interracial camp in America. “Many of the teachers in New York in the 19305 were lefties of one sort or another, and a group of them decided to pool their resources and found they could buy an old church camp that was for sale near Phoenicia, up Woodland Valley. And they called it Camp Woodland.”
Woodland’s goal was to instill a democratic spirit in its campers by inviting city children of different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds to live together and learn from one another and their counselors. At the same time, they would be steeped in the rich cultural and sociological history of the Catskills.
As in a 2010 exhibition presented by the Historical Society of Woodstock, titled “The Spirit of Camp Woodland”:
Just as there is a Hudson River School of Painting, whose artists like Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Jasper Cropsey sought to capture and preserve an idyllic view of the Hudson River Valley, so too is there a lesser known, unofficial Hudson River School of Folk Music, among which Pete Seeger, Eric Weissberg, and Joe Hickerson can be counted as some of its students. Like those painters who created sweeping vistas of Catskill Mountain landscapes and majestic views of Hudson River scenes, they too are creating an image with lyrics and melodies of the lives and stories of the people who dwelled and settled in this region long ago.
SEEGER, who worked on an early version of what was to become his signature song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” at Camp Woodland, was a regular summer visitor who first came in the late 1930s, at a time when he and three oth-ers were appearing in a traveling puppet show. “I remember being struck by the wonderful spirit of the children and the fact that they took the older kids out in station wagons to visit people in the local towns,” Seeger recalled. “At the general store, they’d ask, ‘Is there anybody here who knows what it was like back in the days when the tanneries were going?’ [And they’d be told,’ ‘Oh, go see Mrs. Johnson. She’ll talk your ear off.’ And they would go find her.”
Seeger also said “the camp had one big room that could be used for square dances and a performance. I’d sing for the whole camp for an hour or so, get them singing with me. And every year I looked forward to learning new songs.”
The camp’s founder was the educator Norman Studer, who, with his codirectors, Norman Cazden and Herbert Haufrecht, set about documenting and conserving the fast-disappearing traditional folk and music culture of the Catskills. Counselors would ferry carloads of campers to visit and talk with old-time Catskills mountain folk, then drive them all back to Woodland so the locals could continue to share what they knew.
“Camp Woodland’s musical traditions included a weekly square dance called by Catskill resident George Van Kleek, who was always accompanied by his wife Clara, and sometimes the youngsters themselves,” according to the New York Folklore Society. What the old-timers sought to pass on were “traditional skills in logging, bark stripping, blacksmithing, hoop-shaving, shingle splitting, square dance calling, and … the stories of their lives, the tall tales and songs from the region.”
In 1982, years after this information was first amassed, Studer, Cazden, and Haufrecht published Folk Songs of the Catskills: A Celebration of Camp Woodland, an invaluable collection of songs and ballads that chronicled the entire span of Catskills history, from those crooned by the first pioneers to ballads about the Catskills during the Revolutionary War, and songs about lumbering and quarry ing, the Anti-Rent War, steamboat pilots and railroad wrecks, and the hoboes and tramps who rode the Catskills rails during the Depression.
The high point of every summer at Woodland was a folk festival that brought together campers and residents to perform songs, put on plays, and tell stories, all to celebrate, maintain, and pass on Catskills culture to the next generation.