[This week my sons return to their favorite sleepaway camp, this time with my older son as a Counselor-in-Training! As ever that gives me serious empty nest syndrome, but more relevantly it also gives us an opportunity for some Summer CampStudying.]
On the very American afterlife of a classic camp (sorry) song.
In 1963, comedy writer and TV producer Allan Sherman wrote (along with musician and songwriter Lou Busch) the comic novelty song “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp).” The hyperbolic lyrics were based on the less-than-ideal experiences of Sherman’s son Robert at New York’s Camp Champlain (Robert had such a miserable camp experience that he was eventually expelled!), and captured pitch-perfectly both the exaggerations and extremes (and vicissitudes) of a young person’s perspective and the mythic presence of summer camp in our childhood and national imagination. The song was such a hit (occupying the #2 spot on the Billboard singles list for three August weeks) that Sherman wrote and performed a sequel on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson less than a year later, cementing the song’s status as the nation’s unofficial summer camp anthem.
It was in 1965, however, that the multi-faceted American story of “Hello Muddah” began to unfold in full. In that year Milton Bradley released a Camp Granada board game, advertised by a TV commercial featuring yet another version of the song performed by Sherman himself. Moreover, the 1965-66 TV schedule featured the first and only season of Camp Runamuck, an NBC sitcom based on the song (including character names and plot details drawn from the lyrics). Those cultural and material extensions of the song have been amplified, in the decades since, by a children’s book, an acclaimed Off-Broadway musical revue, and numerous pop culture allusions and references. Indeed, while the original version of the song continues to exist (even in the pre-YouTube days of my childhood I remember hearing it somewhere), it’s fair to say that “Hello Muddah” has become in many ways more of a brand than a text, revised and reframed and made new for all these distinct cultural and commercial purposes.
That process, by which an individual and isolated artistic work gets adopted into the multi-faceted, multi-media mélange that is American popular culture and society, is anything but new, as my Dad’s pioneering website Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture makes clear. But as that website itself illustrates, this kind of American cultural evolution has become significantly more visible, and more exactly recordable and traceable, in our 21st century digital moment. I won’t lie, I didn’t know anything about the “Hello Muddah” board game and TV show until I started researching this post—but now they, like the many permutations of the song itself (which I have a dim memory of singing during my own, thankfully far less extreme and far more positive, experience at Virginia’s overnight Camp Friendship as a middle schooler in the late 1980s), have become part of my own evolving American perspective and identity.
Next camp context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Summer camp stories you’d share or histories you’d highlight?
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