The Campfire Method: How I Learned the Guitar
By the time I was twelve, I had spent a lot of time camping with the Girl Scouts. Two weeks every summer and a few weekends each school year with my troop in the lodge were so packed with memories that they seem in retrospect to be a big chunk of my childhood.
There was always singing. Singing while we washed dishes, while we hiked, before and after meals in the lodge, and most of all around the campfire every single night. Friendships, dramas, adventures, and accidents all happened to a multiple soundtrack that I helped to make.
And by the time I was twelve, there were always several older girls who played the guitar. Oh my gosh. The epitome of confidence, usefulness, expression, cool.
Can I learn?
And one day at a troop campout, I asked one of them to teach me. As I remember it, it was totally spontaneous. I didn’t build up to it, I didn’t rehearse. I just suddenly said, “Hey, can I learn how to do that?”
She sat me down, plunked her guitar in my lap, and showed me two chords. They were D and A. She made chord diagrams for them (chord diagrams!) so I would remember them. She taught me, very patiently, how to strum a simple pattern: Down, down-up down, down-up down, down-up down. And she taught me one song. Yes, there are songs that only use two chords. Here’s how it goes:
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and (long pause for chord change) cry,
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Poor boy, you’re bound to (another long pause for chord change) die.
I could play an actual song!!! I went home, borrowed my mom’s guitar (and kept it for ten years, bless her) and played that song continuously for…I don’t know, a long time. My mom remembers. Apparently, I barely stopped to eat, and she got heartily sick of Tom Dooley.
Over and over and over
By playing that song over and over and over and over and over I learned a bunch of things. I learned my two chords, how to find them with my fingers faster and faster. I learned to strum my down-up down pattern. I learned to change chords in rhythm with the strum. (It was a great day when I didn’t have to have those two big pauses in the middle of Tom Dooley!) I learned to open my mouth and have words and tune come out while I was strumming and changing chords.
I learned a lot.
And then I started to gather. First I gathered more chords. “Will you show me another chord?” I learned G next, the easy version that just uses one finger. And suddenly there were a lot of songs to play.
Where do you get songs? I knew a lot of them to sing. But…I needed the chords. And where do you get chords? From other people’s songbooks!
Every Girl Scout guitarist I knew had a hand-printed songbook, a precious collection of all the songs she could play. So you borrow someone’s songbook (eventually, when yours has anything in it, you trade) and stay up all night copying. That’s what I did.
And then I’d play and play and play my new songs.
At the campfire
And then…I felt confident enough to play with other people. At the campfire. Here’s what you did.
You positioned yourself carefully so you could see the person with the clearest hands.
You learned really quickly how to read chords backwards—because you were almost always across the campfire from your model.
And when everybody started singing “They Call the Wind Maria,” you focused like a laser on that girl’s hands, following the chords as much as you could. You fumbled, you skipped those three chords that change really fast and landed triumphantly on the C you knew. The A minor appeared—you’d never seen it before, but you got your fingers in the right place. And you marvelled at the sound coming out of your guitar.
You felt the strumming in your belly, as if you were playing all of the five guitars around the fire.
And the next morning, you accosted the girl and borrowed her songbook. And copied down “They Call the Wind Maria.”
I recopied my songbooks in high school, so I don’t have that twelve-year-old printing. But here are some of the first songs I learned on the guitar:
The Banks of the Ohio
They Call the Wind Maria
Blowing in the Wind
If I Had a Hammer
The Flicker of the Campfire
Reading those titles takes me right back—to the glowing coals, the glossy wood of the guitars, the hands picking and strumming and fretting, the faces singing with me.
And here is the poem I wrote for a class assignment in high school, based on William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”:
so much depends
a clean brown