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

Eric Weissberg and Mickey Vandow

Two of the many great legends that captured Shandaken in the last century were about American Nazi Bund meetings during the late 1930s and early 1940s, and a utopian leftist camp that helped spawn the American folk music movement and engendered the interest of the same rabid anti-Communists responsible for the Red Scare and blacklisting of much of our nation’s creative community.

Talk about an historical dialectic that’s perfect for today’s political fears.

Saturday June 24, and Sunday June 25, Washington D.C.-based civil rights attorney Bill Horne will be reading from and talking about his great local history, The Improbable Community: Camp Woodland and The American Democratic Ideal, at 1:45 p.m. Saturday, June 24 at the Catskill Interpretive Center’s Book Fair (5096 Rte 28


Mt Tremper) and at 3 p.m. Sunday, June 25 at the Golden Notebook (28 Tinker Street, Woodstock).

Horne’s book describes how Midwesterner Norman Studer found it in himself to take a shared dream of an idyllically-diverse summer camp for city kids in the mountains to a reality based on Catskills culture and the same sort of fun-filled can-do activism that allowed Hervey White to build up his Maverick Colony in nearby Woodstock a few decades earlier.

On site, Studer, in the late 1930s, 40s and 50s took to driving out with piles of kids in his truck to find old mountain residents, usually living without plumbing or electricity, who could recall days from the since-departed “Homespun Era” via tall tales, song, and often dance as well. He found fellows in the soon-to-be-flooded old hamlets of the Delaware River’s East Branch valley, now under Pepacton Reservoirs, as well as in similar stretches of Sullivan County and the deep recesses of Ulster County’s central Catskills.

“Norman discussed the trips in advance and prepared campers and counselors for what might happen, stressing that they were going to learn from the people they met. He said, ‘We are city people’ who will be judged by our behavior and emphasized the importance of impressing the country folk,” Horne writes. “The campers mirrored the respectful way that Norman treated the folks they visited; his way of honoring them and recognizing their dignity was second nature, and they picked up on it without needing to be told how. Campers approached their friends and neighbors with a sense of awe; these bearers of tradition were both incarnations of a mythic past as well as approachable human beings. The experience was like none they had known before.”

And, one realizes by this deeply humanistic history’s end, something that has been hardly known so well since, especially now that the campers’ deep involvements in the days of our civil rights legacy from the 1960s and 1970s has started to fade and get buried.

Junior Camp Dancing with Liz Fink

Camp Woodland ran from 1939 to 1962 (Horne attended from 1950 to 1960) in Woodland Valley in Shandaken. During that time, musicians started to descend on the camp to teach and, just as often, just listen as old Catskill residents of many generations told old stories, sang old songs, and taught old forms of local shuffling dances. Pete Seeger became a regular, along with noted musicologists and composers Herbert Haufrecht and Norman Cadzen. Camp counselor Joe Hickerson added a couple verses to Pete Seeger’s “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” and Seeger gave him credit. Campers John Herald, Janis Ian and Eric Weissberg all went on to music careers, and always looked back on their time on the sides of a mountain near the junction of the Esopus and Woodland camps as integral to who they’d become.

“The overarching philosophy of Camp Woodland was that a democratic person should be compassionate and understanding of other ethnic groups, races and religions and should value the contributions of this diversity to American life while cherishing those of his or her own group,” Horne explains alongside accounts of the rustic camp buildings, long active days, and boisterous fun kids from 5 to 17 enjoyed for months each summer. “America’s pluralistic culture required that the democratic person live in several cultures at the same time while preserving roots in family, neighborhood and region. This spirit of community and democracy was captured in 1944 when Camp Woodland adopted the slogan, ‘The world is a neighborhood, one family with one future.’”

Over time, the camp’s annual folk festivals — held at different times in Phoenicia, Chichester, and at the property Town Tinker’s been using as a camping area at the old Simpson Ski Slope — drew hundreds, and then thousands each summer. Camp parents quietly boycotted local establishments that refused to serve campers’ families of color. The music and folklore of the Catskills were celebrated, internationally, alongside those of the Appalachians, Arcadia and the Deep South. Major operas and oratorios were written and performed almost every summer.

Eventually, others started to complain that it was all about a Communist-tainted leftist indoctrination. Editorials got written, some of the local population shunned campers and their counselors. Yet Studer, a founder and supporter of similarly democratic educational institutions in New York City from the 1950s into the 1970s, and everyone associated with Camp Woodland persevered. Eventually they began to focus on the building of a museum of Catskills folklore and tools.

And then came everything’s unraveling as original founders returned with complaints, the costs of running a facility in need of repairs ran into the needs of new programs (like a museum), and personalities clashed. And a fire occurred.

The Improbable Community: Camp Woodland and The American Democratic Ideal doesn’t stop with a story arc, however. Horne recognizes why his long-pending story is important now, and fills out this inspiring book’s final chapters with stories about reunions, the many inspiring things camp alumni went on to do, and it’s greater importance as an example of what Americans can do when the circumstances are right. And even when they’re not.

“Camp Woodland was not always the promised land. Along with laughter, song and good times, Woodlanders shared sad experiences and had serious conversations about life outside of camp. Campers knew about racism in the larger world. They discussed loves lost and romances that were discouraged because parents felt the ones they loved weren’t good enough,” Horne writes after discussing one returning camper’s revelations at a recent reunion at the State Museum in Albany. “But Woodland was ‘such an inclusive and affirming community that even the hard times could be discussed,’ [the camper] says. ‘There was an attempt to work through things because we saw people at Woodland who were willing to work through much more difficult issues, like blacklisting.’”

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, as well as a welcome addition to our region’s library of local history and lore.

Bill Horne will read at the Catskill Interpretive Center’s (5096 Rte 28, Mt. Tremper) Book Fair, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, June 24 and at Woodstock’s Golden Notebook (28 Tinker Street) on Sunday, June 25 at 3 p.m. Call 679-8000 for further information.