Camps and Bee Gardens by Dar Williams
Camp Ramapo

Camp Ramapo

Camp Ramapo is up around my old house in Red Hook, New York (and it’s run by Adam Weiss, from Wesleyan!). It’s a gorgeous camp on many hilly acres.  I went there on Monday.

Don’t let that quiet sitting look fool you. 

I felt pretty outgunned when I saw the campers grouped into circles before the show, dancing, singing and rapping.  The counselors tried to put Yellow Submarine on the sound system as the kids were entering the amphitheater, but something happened and they ended up playing Galileo, which basically made the whole place explode. 

I was up next with my acoustic ”ax” acting like there was no difference between a hit that had spent 48 weeks on the charts and a solo folksinger. The counselors were very supportive. And the kids were awesome!  Great dancers and singers, as it turned out, great planters, too.  

Planting Purple Haze Agastashe. Perfect for these rockers. 

Isaac (aged 9) and I planted an aster together, after which, despite the beauty of the flowers, he quietly admitted that he was really in it for the worms. He and a counselor got to work on another plant and found an earthworm.  Phew.

Planting with Isaac

 You can’t see the bees in this, but they’re waving, and they say thanks. 

New England Music Camp

New England Music Camp

The next day we all got a little closer to one another when we were stuck in three hours of traffic on the way up to Maine.  In desperation I pulled up Dan Brown’s latest book The Inferno on Audible. My other plan had been to count kayaks on car roofs, but my son was rapt and my daughter fell right asleep.

We opened our car doors at New England Music Camp to balsam needles, friendly faces, potato chips and counselors’ kids hiding behind trees.  In other words, a very soft landing.  After sound check I heard a bugle call and said, “That kid’s a really good…oh yeah, music camp.”  The bugle is always played by a first-year trumpet student, and apparently theirs is a very old, cantankerous instrument, but this kid had it going on.  Gorgeous flag lowering, young man.

The whole camp fits on stage!

Dinner was great and very civilized. My kids faked it beautifully. 

We were told that they’re doing a big landscaping project at the end of the summer, and a bee-friendly garden would just be ripped up, so we decided I’d just do a longer Q&A with the kids after I played. The whole performance became pretty interactive and definitely unforgettable for me.

Pop-up chorus.

I heard a descant part on the song Iowa and asked the campers who were singing it to join me on stage. It was like being in a chorus for the first time in over twenty years, so cool!  I kept them up with me (actually, their numbers increased) and we sang Somewhere Over The Rainbow and If I Had A Hammer.  These kids would have raised the rafters if there were any, and the counselors were beaming from the audience as if to say, “Yes, they are pretty amazing. We agree.”

Many extra thanks to Martha and Kim.   

Camp Kinderland

After one of the camps cancelled, I said to my management folks, “Call Kinderland. Talk to Ira.” I’d played at Camp Kinderland in 2011 and I loved them.  Within the hour I got a phone call: Camp Kinderland said they’d receive me, even on late notice.  So after Na’aleh, we headed for Kinderland.

I showed up SO late, it was embarrassing. A plant nursery had closed. I’d mis-punched the address into the GPS. My horrible rented SUV for porting all the plants around (carbon offset check is in the mail, was almost out of gas and we had to stop. Ira greeted my freaked out, contrite face saying, “Don’t even think of apologizing.  Your timing is perfect.” That’s my Kinderland.

I performed, again, in the Paul Robeson theater, talking about what I’ve learned from teaching a course about music movements: it’s important it is to sing together and to find songs to bring into the streets together and music helps us sustain our commitments to our communities. I told them about women who were jailed in the civil rights struggle in the South, wondering how they’d tell their parents they’d been arrested, afraid of what was coming next, only to hear other freedom workers singing from a distant cell. 

(Photos by David Rendell)

I said that in keeping with the many people who have linked Trayvon Martin’s case with other murders of young African-American boys like Emmett Till, perhaps we should sing We Shall Overcome, which the kids then performed, arms linked and in four or five part harmony, as usual.   


Then we planted a garden next to the one we’d planted two years before.  We filled in some of the spaces in the original garden that looked like they needed some extra color.

Then my own kids (who were traveling with me) went nuts.  My son made a friend (Hi, Ben) and disappeared with a bunch of boys and a soccer ball, and my four year old daughter decided, after watching everyone dance in the basketball court …to dance her little butt off. People explained that this kind of thing happens all the time at Kinderland.

Camp Na’aleh

Camp Na’aleh 

Camp Na’Aleh, I have to admit, was on my list of summer camps for 2013 as soon as I found out that one of the students in the class I taught at Wesleyan, Paul Silverman, was named as its director.  It’s part of the progressive Jewish Habonim Dror camps.

The day started auspiciously at Country Grown Perennials in Walton, New York. I really love all the plant nurseries I’ve gone to, but this one gets a special mention. The plants are unbelievably healthy and beautiful, and the owners let my kids steal a couple of blueberries from their bushes. “Couple” is a relative term, in truth.

We talked about bees, and they said there was a man keeping a couple of hives nearby, which has helped the bee population, but there’s still been a sharp decline. One of the owners says that out by the blueberries, there used to be so many bees buzzing around “it sounded like an airport.”

Onto Na’aleh.  It was pretty clear I’d come to the right address, because I was welcomed by a HUGE sign and soon after by a chorus of If I Had a Hammer.

As we start to plant, it’s clear that the kids are hilarious. They make flower crowns for themselves.  One camper who “doesn’t do dirt” is digging away, just to be the mensch that he is. A mensch for bees.

There were bees everywhere. One thing I’ve learned from the Xerces Society is that there are all kinds of bees (4,000 kinds), many of them small and non-stinging, and we see a whole fleet of strange wild bees all over the flowers.

After the kids have performed (wonderful) and I have performed, Paul announces that he remembers my story that after Pete Seeger was blacklisted as a Communist in the ‘50s, he basically played “for chili” at summer camps over the next decade.  Dinner tonight is chili (I guess I’m the honorary itinerant Communist).  Then there’s a bonfire with songs, in-jokes, and an occasional hit of lighter fluid to help the anemic fire grow. Silly Na’aleh, no worry about the sticks and logs; the fire is in the campers. They are full of passion, and can I say, thank you for introducing me to the song I Love You and Buddha Too by Mason Jennings? 

Na’aleh is a mighty camp. Kudos to Paul (my student, everyone, mine) and the wonderful spirit he has fostered in the heart of the Catskills.

Camp Usdan

At Usdan Center, a performing arts camp on Long Island, music floats up into the trees from tiny violins and cellos in orchestra practice and down a little wooded path you can find a chorus of teenagers whose voices probably make even the forest creatures weep.  It’s a very enchanting place. And everywhere I go, I’m thinking the word generosity.  The founders (Samuel Lemberg’s name comes up often) created a beautiful camp whose social contract is only that kids believe in themselves and trust that they will learn from their excellent teachers, the teachers are all professional musicians themselves, and, of course, the art these kids make is a gift to all of us. Also, there is a fancy dressing room.

I did two short presentations, and both audiences, pre-teen and teen, were completely on board: they sang along, they danced along, they did the wave, and they nodded empathetically when I said sometimes it’s hard to write a song.  Dale Lewis and Andrew Copper the Executive and Assistant Executive director, explained that they want to create educated musicians who are also educated audiences, which explains why these kids seem to be listening with special ears: they’re both listeners and participants.

We got to work planting a flower garden next to their vegetable garden (thanks for the cucumbers and basil, kids). At Usdan Center, there are fields of untreated flowers all around the campus, but we established that our dense garden would be like a dessert bar for bees. 

My favorite moment was when I apologized to one boy about what I assumed was my terrible coffee breath and another boy said, “I love coffee breath. My dad has coffee breath.” Thank you, adorable Usdan camper.

And thank you Usdan Center! Thank you Dale (and family), Andrew, and all the people who took care of me and thank you to all the campers. It’s fun to meet them in the dirt when I know someday I’ll see their name in lights.  

Check out the writeup of Dar’s recent visit to Camp Onas!

Camp Onas
Camp Onas gets the award for the nicest reception of tired and somewhat unpresentable people.  My son lost his one pair of shoes (I think it’s a summer camp thing) and was wearing my Tevas (huge), which meant I was left with metallic platform sandals. Also, on arrival the kids’ shyness looked remarkably like hostility. And STILL we were sat right down for dinner, every camper and counselor friendlier than the last.  No comment on the shoes. After dinner, campers opened the show with a daunting band: three vocalists, two guitars, three ukeleles, keyboard, drums, cello and violin. I loved it.  Those friendly campers can PLAY.

The next day we arrived late (and embarrassed), but Sue, the camp director said, “You’re just in time!” Lee, the gardener, had prepared four spots in the vegetable garden for us.  After a very successful planting morning, thunder sent us to the barn for a Q&A session. Every question and comment showed how tuned in these kids were. They were already hatching plots to bring the bees to their homes and towns.

Here are some of the photos from Dar’s visit and performance at Camp Onas  on July 31st & August 1st.





Many thanks to Camp Onas for hosting us this summer!

French Woods Camp
It’s exciting to head into the Catskill forests of Rip Van Winkle, past the cities and any hint of reliable cell signal, to find a land of singing children, acrobats, rock bands that go to eleven (who are eleven), and roaming film crews. Carolyn gave us a great tour of French Woods, and later that night I performed.  After I played, the campers took over. Beautiful, talented performers!  Apparently their show was going into the wee hours, but my kids were exhausted from all the excitement, and so…
The next morning we returned with plants and got to work in the Delaware River clay.  The clay was hard, but I think it was the rocks that broke two shovels (sorry).  Spirits not broken. Those thespians really put their backs into it, and they didn’t give up until every Bee Balm had a home.

Here are some photos from Dar’s recent trip to French Woods Camp on July 31st.




Many thanks to French Woods for hosting us this summer!

Lovely video montage put together by the folks at Camp Kadimah! 

"Give Bees A Chance" by Dar Williams on Huffington Post Green

"Give Bees A Chance"
by Dar Williams

Children and bees are a winning combination. They really are. I learned this last summer when I planted bee-friendly gardens with kids at five summer camps. I knew it would work, even though women at three different nurseries muttered, “Telling kids to attract bees. Good luck with that…”

I had very good luck with that. In fact, of all the things I’d done with kids that involved the environment, whether it was applauding a town mayor on a solar-electric bike, singing for the Hudson River, or making garbage into art, planting bee gardens felt like the most successful project I’d ever undertaken with kids…