Campfire: Pine Island’s Musical Tradition Highlighted on Hit Album

The following article is featured in the current edition of The Pine Needle. Please visit our website to download your copy of CAMPFIRE: The Album. Your purchase supports the Lovett Scholarship Fund. Thanks!

As long as campers and counselors have been sitting around the campfire down in the cove they have been singing songs. It would be fascinating to be able to hear a recording of the songs they were singing around 1910 and to trace the evolution of campfire songs at Pine Island over the years. No doubt some of the songs sung years ago would sound dated, some in pretty uncomfortable ways, but the mere fact that boys, men, and women have been singing songs together virtually every night of every one of Pine Island’s 118 summers is remarkable. 

During the past 30 years or so, in addition to the traditional campfire songs such as “The Titanic,” “Mountain Dew,” and “Charlie and the MTA,” a new tradition has taken root in which campers and staff rewrite the lyrics to popular songs to make them specific to Pine Island. This hybrid form of songwriting fits well into the PIC schedule, in which creative energy tends to suddenly erupt without a great deal of time to produce or practice. Since the late 1980s, in addition to singing traditional and currently popular songs, Pine Islanders have written Pine Island-related lyrics to well over 30 songs. Ten of them, plus two traditional songs, make up an album now for sale with all proceeds going to the Sidney Lovett Memorial Scholarship Fund. 

Making CAMPFIRE: The Album happened as the result of a number of stars aligning plus a lot of hard work. Toby Bregar, from Bainbridge Island near Seattle, was a new camper during the summer of 2017. His tent counselor, Noah Brodsky, discovered that Toby played guitar and eventually convinced him to perform at campfire. Toby was great! For the rest of the summer Toby frequently borrowed director Ben Swan’s old Gibson acoustic and played a number of times, including at the Final Campfire on the last day of camp. Turns out this was the first time Toby’s parents had ever seen him perform. They were delighted and moved, and this led to a conversation in which Ben learned that Johnny Bregar is a record producer and professional musician who runs Brick- yard Studio on Bainbridge Island. Not long after Toby and his family returned home from Pine Island, they recorded “My Sweet Pine Island,” a Matt Clarke/ Ben Swan rewrite of the Ryan Adams song “Sweet Carolina” that has been featured as the last song of the summer for about 15 years. 

The Henchmen recording backing vocals at PIC parent Johnny Bregar’s studio on Bainbridge Island, WA

Hearing this professionally recorded and mixed version of a song Ben had only heard in various forms on the sandy stage in Pine Island’s campfire circle prompted him to ask Johnny if it might be possible to record more campfire songs and make an album. Johnny’s response was quick and simple: “Come on out. We’ll do it. It will be fun.” Ben began what turned out to be a two-year effort to pull some PIC musicians together for a weekend all the way out in Washington state. At a couple of points it seemed too ambitious to attempt, but with Johnny’s encouragement and some financial help for air fare for some of the younger musicians, it all came together on a weekend in October when five Pine Islanders flew to Seattle and took the short ferry ride to Bainbridge Island where they were welcomed and fed by the Bregar/Ahearne family. Ben arrived Thursday afternoon to help arrange the weekend, Pope Ward arrived Friday afternoon along with Mark Pierce, Robert Brent arrived Friday night, and poor Sam Chester ran into a few delays on his journey all the way from Middlebury College and finally caught the last ferry in the wee hours of Saturday morning. 

Sam Chester, banjo player extraordinaire, in the studio

Both Ben and Pope recorded songs Friday, but it was after the “varsity” musicians Mark and Sam arrived that production both sped up and became more complex. Over the course of the weekend, thanks to Johnny’s incredible experience, technical ability, and musical talent, the group recorded a dozen songs, ate a lot of good food, and had a ton of fun. Pine Islanders Nicky Isles, Ted and Will Siebert, and Charlie Krause visited the studio, and Nicky laid down a verse of “Mountain Dew” and was a member of the Henchmen, who performed the backing vocals on several songs. Two songs were recorded elsewhere. Edwin McCain, former counselor, current camp parent, and successful singer- songwriter, generously agreed to record “I’m a Camper at PIC” at his studio in Greenville, SC, and Corinne Alsop, Natalie Burr and Mark Pierce recorded “We’re Women at PIC” at Columbia University in New York. 

Thanks to Johnny’s generous donation of hundreds of hours of work, Tom Yoder’s assistance with air fare, and John Alsop’s gift of the cover art, all proceeds from the sale of the album will go directly to the Lovett Fund. Our hope is that CAMPFIRE: The Album will both raise significant funds for scholarships and inspire the next generation of writers and rewriters to keep the musical tradition at Pine Island strong and growing. You can order an album download or a CD at the PIC website: www.pineisland.org, where you’ll also find all the lyrics and detailed background about the production and songs. 

Mark Pierce’s smiling face – On the Cover of the Pine Needle.