Tim Johnston, Simon Doolittle and the Kawanhee Music Renaissance of 2007
By Graham Marvin
I think there is a special bond between music and camp. It's a bond that's especially impressive considering how its strength is more subconscious than anything. Example - Singing “Living on a Prayer” at the halfway point of the camp season (a recent tradition) is always a fun time, but the thrill of hearing that song out of nowhere, months later, and the feelings and memories it instantly instills, is the real joy.
That is perhaps what motivated me most to join the ranks of the Magne brothers and Sam Reynolds, this past summer, to create some camp songs. The first step is finding a catchy, spirited “popish” song, then to plug Kawanhee lyrics in, then add an extra Kawanhee “edge” to it. Maybe we'll have the chorus involve audience participation, maybe we'll sprint around the campfire at a certain moment, or maybe we'll rip our shirts off at the end so the crowd can read “Kawanhee 2014” written in sharpie on our chests. Or maybe all three.
Helping create two songs this past summer, “Kwan Love” (“Safe & Sound” by Capitol Cities) and “Gimme Kwan” (“Gimme that Love” or “Let Me In” by Grouplove) was as fun and rewarding as it sounds. As proud as I am to have been a part of the creative force, we really owe it all to the rich history of Kawanhee musicians, particularly two of them, Tim Johnston and Simon Doolittle. Not only did they create the most memorable and catchy Kawanhee songs the community had ever heard, but in a time when we needed it most, used their musical abilities to amplify (some may say “save”) the Kawanhee spirit.
Tim Johnston, always bearded, and always smiling, was known for many things around camp. He was the adventurous, playful tripping guy who would challenge campers to face their fears or challenge them to a watermelon-eating contest. He was also an MVP for skit night, as his talents in drama and humor frequently led to his lodges' victories. He was also the triathlon champ to beat multiple years in a row. And finally - he was THE musician. He participated in a band outside of camp called “Fork and Spoon Rasberry,” and released his album, “Welcome to Goober Island” at the camp store in 2001. With his singing, lyrical, guitar, and percussion abilities, Tim was a campfire musical force.
Simon Doolittle, on the other hand, was not a professional musician. Simon, a tall, classic over-enthusiastic Kawanheean, was a DOA at camp for various summers. He and the other DOA Russ Jessen's trademarked Grey/Maroon slogan described him best. He had “Spirit, spunk, and sportsmanship,” and a lot of it. His passion for camp and ability to share that passion with campers and staff alike were evident every day, whether he'd cheer kids on at baseball games or perform absurd Kawanhee raps at Mr. Kawanhee Night. Even though some may remember him best for his music, to my memory he didn't perform one song at campfire my first summer (and barely any songs until 2007).
I am sure the Kawanhee music scene can be traced way way back, but my first memory of it obviously coincides with my first summer - 2000. 2000 to 2002 were the peak enrollment summers at the time, and what my lodgemates and I would at one point refer to as the “glory days.” Of course, you'll notice the “glory days” are often coincidentally related to the summers one is 10, 11, or 12 years old.
I remember Tim Johnston running around council point with a guitar in his hand, yelling “Oh Oh, uh-uh-uh Oh, Oh, uh-uh-uh Oh Oh, uh uh uh OHHHHHHH Kawanhee...” His original camp tune would kick off every campfire that summer, and the one after. Two or three other songs would often be scattered throughout the campfire, from the serialized noir about camp dogs “A Few Sniffs Told Me The Doggy Was Dead” to raunchy crowd favorite, “The Kitchen GIRLS (Yeaaaaah the kitchen girls).” My lodgemates and I always eagerly awaited to hear what new ideas Tim and his crew would come up with - who they would choose to pick on, what trending camp topics they would dig into, etc. Some were hits, some were misses, some we'd sing all summer, some we'd never sing again, but it was always a thrill to watch them in their element.
Fast forward to the summer of 2007 when things are a little different. As camp management transitioned and tough decisions were made, enrollment began to slip a little bit. Before we knew it, three lodges were empty and ceased to exist that summer (and the one before it). With a decline in enrollment, always comes a thin layer of trepidation. The weeks leading into that summer, there was a make-or-break feel to it. Having personally not been around for any major transition yet at camp, this feeling was especially easy to buy into. Everyone looks forward to going back to camp each summer, but the age old question for any serious Kawanheean is “will this summer feel the same?” “Will we ever beat the glory days? It was my 8th summer there, and 2nd summer as a JC, and that's what consumed my mind. Little did any of us know that 2007 would become known as “The Best Camp Season Ever.”
Anticipation building, the 2007 summer opened. The season started with a new tradition - the Kawanhee Pep Rally. Even though we were still feeling fresh, only a day into camp, there was some skepticism I could feel permeate the rec hall. But then Tim Johnston and Simon Doolittle (in a DOA-esque role that summer) started to sing and self-embracing goofball hero Andrew Altmaier started to act, and the crowd was in.
“Trees, mountains, lakes, and loons...I've been waiting all ten moons,
because this is gonna be the best camp season ever, ever, ever, ever!”
And in true Kawanhee form every counselor got up and screamed back, “EVER!” What pumps up campers more than the entire staff uniting to sing emphatically about how great the camp season will be? Before you know it, the entire camp was on their feet and shouting with the song.
Tim & Simon: “Cuz this is gonna be the best camp season ever...”
Tim & Simon: “EVER...”
And like that, the entire camp (counselors included) was essentially brainwashed. It was day 2 and the spirit and energy level was huge.
For the next seven weeks, Tim & Simon created some of the funniest, cleverest, and catchiest camp songs that we had ever heard. There were the traditional Kawanhee-ified pop songs like “I just can't wait ten more moons for you” instead of “I can't wait to fall in love with you” from Justin Timberlake's “Summer Love.” There was also a series of songs that were odes to individual JCs, sung and lyricized in the genre that matched that particular JC (example: AJ Johnson, with his laid-back, friendly attitude and midwestern twang had a slow-paced country song written about him). There even inexplicably was a 7-minute song about bacon and how much we love it. ALL of the songs landed. And ALL of them were re-sung by the Kawanhee community for the duration of the summer.
Tim & Simon's opus arrived at week 6's campfire. Made up of both staff and campers, an army of singers, percussionists, guitar players, and other miscellaneous participants stood before us, tuning up for this one ultimate song. Being the 2nd to last week of the season during one of the lowest enrollment summers ever, the only thing missing from the performance was a proper audience. The excitement building as we witnessed the scope of the song, Tim jokingly said, “Now half the camp will perform to the other half of the camp.” And once JC Javier Ferrer started off the song with a rousing tune on the melodica, we knew we were in for a treat.
It was a concert-level yet old school kawanhee-style cover of Sufjan Stevens' hit “Chicago.” Even though the lyrics were left unchanged, there was still something so appealing and moving about the song. It was like a song that completely encapsulated the Kawanhee essence and experience, without speaking a word about it.
The song secured its golden status during its surprise second performance at the award ceremony. It had been such a resoundingly spirited, strong summer, and one that there had been so much concern about originally. With the help of upper camp management, the DOAs, the entire staff, and especially Tim & Simon, Kawanhee had won the uphill battle, and it was time to celebrate 2007 for the huge success it was. After all the creative thought, hard work, and risk that went into the summer, it was to be concluded with an unprecedented musical performance of the new and improved version of “Chicago.”
It was a beautiful, sunny day on the shores of Webb lake, and emotions were brewing in the air as the the final minutes of the season approached. Tim, Simon, and their musical crew got up in front of the largest audience of the summer, a mixture of glowing campers, their not-sure-what-to-expect parents, and the rest of the Kawanhee community. When the melodica started, you could already feel the chills. The kicker was that this time, all the lyrics were replaced with Kawanhee lyrics, and to perfect effect.
“I'm gonna mi - iss this place. I'm gonna mi - iss this place.
You came to take us, Ka-wan-hee, Ka-wan-hee.
To recreate us, Ka-wan-hee, Ka-wan-hee.
We had our mind set, Ka-wan-hee, Ka-wan-hee.
You to had to find it, Ka-wan-hee, Ka-wan-hee.”
A spiritual Kawanhee-themed tune blended with Kawanhee lyrics and all of it being performed by talented, passionate counselors and campers, on the last day of the camp season - it was the perfect storm. The chorus repeated one final time, and when you peeled your eyes away from the performers and looked around, there didn't appear to be a dry eye in the crowd. Every camper, counselor, and parent shared a moment because of that song. And thank Chief Kawanhee, it didn't end there.
One of the smartest, most innovative ideas came a week or so before that performance, when Tim & Simon decided to capture all the season's music onto a CD, “Kawanhee Unplugged.” Using the currently empty Coyote lodge as a recording studio, Tim & Simon grabbed all the season's musicians (and a few random spunky campers to yell back “EVER!!” for “The Best Camp Season Ever” song) to record every song from that summer.
In true Kawanhee fashion, the last song was recorded and completed on about the 2nd to last day of camp, meaning there were roughly 24 hours to create and burn 200+ CDs. With the help of what felt like every laptop in camp, there was some vast and furious CD burning that just barely made it possible for everyone to have their hands on a CD by the banquet.
Tim & Simon had left their mark on Kawanhee with their tremendous devotion and musical talents. Their performances were wonderful, sometimes even magical, but the real treat was the first-time-ever Kawanhee CD, encompassing a season and a feeling. You ask any family that drove home from the Award Ceremony, and I can almost guarantee you they listened to that album at least once on the long drive back home. Of course that wouldn't be the last time those CDs would be played either. They were played over and over again, like the way you relive your favorite memories. At any Kawanhee gathering that off-season, whether it was promotional, casual, with mostly counselors, with mostly campers, etc., you could hear that CD playing.
The spirit as high as it has ever been, and the CD hammering it in even more throughout the entire offseason, the expectations were through the roof for summer 2008. Even with another change in power and a new director coming in that summer, enrollment was still the largest it had been since 2004. Whether it was meant to be a promotional gem or not, the CD had done its job.
So, thank you to Tim Johnston & Simon Doolittle. Because of them, there was quite the marriage formed between music and Kawanhee. The magic of it all is that to this day, I can promise you that every time nearly anyone that was part of “The Best Camp Season Ever” hears any version of “Chicago,” they will associate it with Camp Kawanhee. The feeling, the rush, will come back. That fun, thrilling, righteous spirit will be experienced, no matter where you are in the world. And as someone whose days of working at Kawanhee are either limited or over, nothing could be more comforting.