The Improbable Community, a book by Bill Horne.

The Improbable Community

Camp Woodland and the American Democratic Ideal

By Bill Horne

In 1939, a group of idealists inspired by the spirit of New Deal reform put their vision of American democracy into practice by creating Camp Woodland, a racially and ethnically inclusive summer camp for city kids located in the remote and scenic mountains of upstate New York. The camp’s innovative programs profoundly influenced campers for 24 summers from 1939 through 1962.

Unlike some experimental communities that isolate themselves and withdraw into a world of their own, Camp Woodland by design sought to have its diverse population of campers and staff (most from the New York City metropolitan area) become part of the rural, traditional community in which they lived. It was able to earn the acceptance and respect of its neighbors through a program of honoring and preserving the community’s music, folklore and history. Local musicians, storytellers and artisans participated along with Woodlanders in musical and dramatic performances that celebrated the rich cultural resources of the region. Camp Woodland quickly became a center (and later, a model) for the preservation of local traditions that attracted musicologists and musicians, including Pete Seeger, who supported and participated in its programs.

Events

Upcoming events at which the author will be speaking about the book:

The Phonecia Public Library

http://phonecialibrary.org/

Bill will be speaking about his book at 10am.

The Phoenicia Library is located at:

48 Main Street

Phonecia, NY 12464

Saturday, October 21, 2017, at 1:30PM


The Historical Society of the Town of Middletown

http://mtownhistory.org/

Lunch will be served at noon. Bill will be speaking about his book at 1:30pm.

The Historical Society is located at:

HSM Hall

778 Cemetery Road

Margaretville, NY 12445

Commentery on the Improbable Community

The utopian, leftist camp that helped spawn the American folk music movement:

"Maybe, by telling these great stories of utopian dreams that survived for even 23 years now the way stories of the Holocaust and Civil Rights battles have been told by recent generations to get us all past the repetition of such horrors, we can repeat the good and not just avoid what's bad.

For just that thought, Bill Horne's The Improbable Community: Camp Woodland and The American Democratic Ideal is a great and necessary read..."

- Paul Smart, Woodstock Times, June 23, 2017

Camp Woodland was my father’s most cherished educational accomplishment. The Improbable Community paints a vivid picture of this special community. It sensitively explains how Norman Studer, a farm boy from an insular Mennonite family in Ohio growing up at the beginning of the 20th century, could become a leader of the Progressive Education movement. As an innovative teacher, he used folklore as a key to reach urban children from New York City. I am forever grateful to Bill Horne for the passion he brings to telling this story, a passion born of his experience as a camper, and grateful for the skill of his presentation. Thank you Bill!

- Joan Studer Levine

From 1939 to 1962 Camp Woodland created an educational experience that fostered a unique community, not only among campers and staff, but also between the camp and members of the mountain community. This bonding had a profound impact on campers, mostly from the New York City metropolitan area, and countless community members who found acceptance and appreciation of their arts, crafts, and life experiences. This unique rapport led to the collection of an astonishing array of folksongs, tunes, stories, crafts, and oral histories. Kudos to Bill Horne and to Camp Woodland and all its “Friends and Neighbors.”

- Joe Hickerson, Head, Emeritus, Archive of Folk Song/Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Counselor at Camp Woodland in 1959 and 1960.

Well before there was a folksong revival, Woodlanders visited neighbors to hear fiddle tunes, old ballads and songs which flourished in the surrounding mountain communities. Although the camp’s story may sound like a fairy tale, The Improbable Community documents how the visionary educator and camp director, Norman Studer, a Mennonite from rural Ohio succeeded. His intellectual and political curiosity led him to New York City where he became a teacher at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village in the 1930s. Later he became one of the founders of Camp Woodland which was the culmination of all his beliefs and struggles.

At Woodland, campers danced to the music of Catskill fiddlers, guitarists and accordion players, with the square dances called by a local resident. They collected songs, performed cantatas about local lore and put on festivals featuring traditional music performed by neighbors. In this excellent telling, author (and former camper) Bill Horne weaves a complex story that describes how John Dewey’s educational philosophy merged with democratic ideals and the political witch hunts of the 1950s to create the world of Camp Woodland set in the natural beauty of the rugged mountains.

- John Cohen (filmmaker, photographer and musician with the New Lost City Ramblers). “Camp Woodland shaped my vision, and showed me how folk music was a living thing which could be experienced in person. It gave direction to my life’s work collecting, performing and documenting traditional cultures.”

The Music

The traditional music collected by Camp Woodland over its years of operation (from 1939 through 1962) was of English, Irish and Scottish origin, much of it brought to the United States by early settlers. Many of these songs have been included in Folk Songs of the Catskills, edited and annotated by camp musicologists, Norman Cazden and Herbert Haufrecht and camp director, Norman Studer (SUNY Albany Press, 1982).

The authors of Folk Songs of the Catskills conclude that the Catskill music collected at Woodland constitutes “a cultural pocket in respect to its song lore.” The body of collected Catskill ballads and songs shows more resemblance to the repertory found in the lumber woods of Michigan, Ontario, northern New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada than to the traditional music from nearby regions.

Recordings of some of the songs performed at Camp Woodland or at its Folk Festival of the Catskills can be found at the

The traditional music collected by Camp Woodland over its years of operation (from 1939 through 1962) was of English, Irish and Scottish origin, much of it brought to the United States by early settlers. Many of these songs have been included in Folk Songs of the Catskills, edited and annotated, with a study of tune formations, by camp musicologists, Norman Cazden and Herbert Haufrecht and camp director, Norman Studer (SUNY Albany Press, 1982).

The authors of Folk Songs of the Catskills conclude that the Catskill music collected at Woodland constitutes “a cultural pocket in respect to its song lore.” The body of collected Catskill ballads and songs shows more resemblance to the repertory found in the lumber woods of Michigan, Ontario, northern New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada than to the traditional music from nearby regions.

Recordings of some of the songs performed at Camp Woodland or at its Folk Festival of the Catskills can be found at the M.E. Grenander Special Collections and Archives, SUNY Albany website. Some examples are listed below.

, SUNY Albany website. Some examples are listed below.

A late recording of George Edwards evinces the rawness and bite of his singing. Go to minute 21 in the recording.

Listen »

Campers sing Lather and Shave collected from Etson Van Wagner. Go to minute 7:50 in the recording.

Listen »

A special section of the archive has a recording of counselor Hector Angulo teaching Pete Seeger Guantanamera for the first time, and they discuss the lyrics and melody of the song.

Listen »

The Author

Bill Horne is an attorney who practiced trade regulation law in Washington, D.C., and health care, public construction and civil rights law in Boston, Massachusetts. He grew up in Queens, New York, and was a camper at Camp Woodland from 1950 through 1960.

Exceprt

Chapter 1

A Test of Community

A group of young Woodlanders bushwhacks up Mount Garfield, crosses the ridgeline and descends rapidly toward the farm in Fox Hollow, on the opposite side of the mountain from Camp Woodland. No one knows how long Herdmans have been farming there, but the paved road leading to the farm is named Herdman Road.

Amasa Herdman and his work horses are gathering hay, and its intoxicating aroma is everywhere. Mr. Herdman smiles an enthusiastic greeting while his dog Tippy prances among the visitors. The farmer invites his guests onto the hay wagon for a ride that ends at the old barn, where they jump and roll in the hayloft until hay sticks to their hair and clothes. Then they all collapse under a shade tree and open their paper bags to eat the lunches they had prepared after breakfast.

As the Woodlanders begin their return climb, Mr. Herdman remarks to a counselor that he knows the summer is coming to an end because he just received his invitation to Camp Woodland’s end-of-the-season banquet.

At Camp Woodland, the end-of-the-season banquet was a major event; the entire camp community gathered together to sing songs collected from neighbors, tell stories and say good-byes till next summer. The dining hall was expanded into the social hall, which Woodlanders decorated with wildflowers, hemlock boughs and other greenery collected from the camp grounds. Two dozen or so mountain neighbors who had been part of the summer—farmers, lumbermen, musicians, singers, a forest ranger, a fire observer, a blacksmith and others from the nearby communities—usually joined in the festivities.

Norman Studer, the camp director, always presided over the banquets. He was the indispensable bridge between the racially and ethnically diverse city kids who attended Camp Woodland and the camp’s rural, traditional neighbors. Yet Norman was noticeably absent from the August 1955 gathering. He had been subpoenaed to testify before the Larkin Committee, which was authorized by the New York state legislature to investigate “subversive training and indoctrination of children” in summer camps.

At the hearing, Norman spoke through Senator Edward Larkin’s attempts to gavel him down. He said he was happy to answer questions about the camp’s program but refused to answer questions that invaded the privacy of his personal political beliefs and associations. “I happen to come from a Mennonite background of many generations in America,” Norman said. “As a boy, I was brought up on the Martyrs Mirror, a bloody catalogue of martyrs who were tortured for their beliefs and often forced to testify against themselves in the Inquisition.” He added that later, as a student of American history, he had learned that the constitutional safeguards against self-incrimination grew out of the abuses of the Inquisition.

Norman described the camp’s programs to the committee. He recounted praise from a neighbor named Orson Slack , a shrewd, homespun New Yorker whose forebears had been among the first settlers in the area and who himself had lived at camp for part of three summers. “If someone had told me of a place where all peoples lived and worked together, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Orson had said. “It’s just wonderful.”

Hurrying back to camp after the hearing, Norman was apprehensive about reactions to the day’s events. McCarthyism recently had reached its high water mark. A few years earlier, only 70 miles away, the Peekskill riots in 1949 had demonstrated that rural and small-town New Yorkers could react with violent intolerance to outsiders with different beliefs. Paul Robeson, a Black singer who was active in left-wing politics, had planned to perform at an outdoor concert near Peekskill, New York, for the benefit of the Harlem Civil Rights Congress. A crowd of several hundred men, many wearing American Legion caps, had broken up the concert by burning crosses and screaming racial and anti-Semitic epithets. Robeson was able to sing a week later, after organizers ringed the concert with a human defensive perimeter, but buses and cars carrying concertgoers home were stoned while local law enforcement authorities looked on.

Woodlanders were singing a farewell song when Norman arrived at the banquet. After the campers went to bed, camp’s neighbors and staff usually gathered around the large stone fireplace in the social hall to reminisce, tell stories and socialize. But on this occasion, they listened intently as Norman recounted the investigation and his refusal to answer questions about his political beliefs and alerted everyone to what they would read in the newspapers. “You know who we are. You have enough to judge us.”

A period of stunned silence was followed by questions. Then, neighbors spontaneously expressed their support as they related their personal experiences with Camp Woodland and its dedication, in the words of one neighbor, to teaching the history and folklore of everyday life, to teaching real Americanism. “I’ve come here every week for 14 years during the summers,” one farmer said, “and I’ve never heard a mean word.” Some guests did not speak directly about the investigation but showed their support in hearty handshakes, pats on the shoulder and the farewell words, “I’ll see you next year.” The support of Camp Woodland’s neighbors attested to the resiliency of the friendships that had formed over the past decade and a half.

As the evening ended, they joined together in singing “Friends and Neighbors,” a lyrical song of parting that Camp Woodland had collected from the surrounding community. The song borrows its tune from the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and begins

Friends and neighbors, I’m going for to leave you.

I have no doubt that you think it strange.

But God be pleasèd, I never have robbèd,

Neither have I done any wrong.