Tuesday, April 05, 2011


I’ve got a pretty sweet Pandora station to listen to when I need to work but don’t want to. It’s based on Iron & Wine and it plays all kinds of gentle folk rock by soulful kids living in Brooklyn—a little Coldplay, lots of Sufjan Stevens, some Neko Case, moments of Phillip Glass, Penguin Cafe Orchestra. But I had an intense reaction of fascinated loathing when The Vision of a Dying World’s “Barges” came on.

We used to sing “Barges” at Camp Sealth, a Camp Fire Girls camp on Vashon Island (and less often at the Y-owned Camp Orkila) and I always found it creepy. First of all, of all the sea-going vessels that passed through Puget Sound, or any waterway, barges hold the least romance for me—and have the ugliest name. Singing “Barges, I would like to go with you / I would like to sail the ocean blue” always seemed sorry to me. I dreamed of ships, of islands, of adventures, but they never involved a barge.

Then, too, at sleepaway camp, I worked hard to guard myself against group sentiment. I was homesick at night and I knew that the counselors preyed on that generic feeling to build esprit de corps. Dreamy and bookish, I resisted anything that smacked of manufactured sentiment.

My feelings about the song are really strong. If you asked me when I was ten, I would have told you that it was really stupid, but something in it moved me deeply and I resented being moved. I still do.

Turns out that this is an old camp song and feeling about it run high from those who were campers in the 50s and 60s. (I would have been at Sealth in the mid-late 70s), as this discussion board attests. Many of those campers were burdened with the dubious origin story that it was written by a crippled, dying child who longed for escape from her hospital room. If that is not enough to secure a permanent contempt for the song and the custom of terrifying little girls away from home for a week, I don’t know what is. I was delighted to learn, decades too late, that it spawned some delicious parodies. Here is one:

Out of my tent flap, glowing in the night
You can see the leaders' cigarette light

Silently flows the whiskey from its flask

As the leaders do go for a blast

Leaders, I would like to go with you
I would like to share your whiskey too

Leaders, are there boy scouts in your bed?
Are you prepared for the night ahead?

That's one I'll remember to teach my kids should the occasion arise.

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