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leslie's guiding traditions

Campfire dates back to the earliest days of Scouting, and thus Guiding - but it has changed significantly over the years. At the first experimental camp on Brownsea Island, there was a campfire for an hour every night. But other than the Eengonyama chant, no group singing is recorded as having been done - instead there would be discussion of the next day's activity programme, illustrated by some adventure 'yarns' from B-P to illustrate the points to be covered.  

Linked to this, the first Scout and Guide handbooks both took the structure of a series of campfire yarns. After all, from ancient times, extended families have gathered round the fire of an evening, to tell stories and share lore and learning from the elders to the younger members of the group. And at the best campfires nowadays, tradition and learning is still passed on from the elders, to the younger members of the group. 

So in the early days of Guiding, too, whenever there were camps, on the programme each evening was a campfire. They had an additional reason for having limited amounts of singing at campfire in the early years - at that time the 'popular songs' of the day were those sung in music hall. And the problem Guiding had was that they all had suggestive lyrics, deemed quite inappropriate for innocent young girls. Guiding tried publishing some songs in the Guiding magazine, and some were taught at trainings initially in the Officer's Training School, and later in Foxlease or Waddow. Many of these were new lyrics set to well known tunes, but at times these were of a type Leaders dismissed as 'jingles' - and those which were set to tunes used for hymns raised extra objections. Guiding started to published song leaflets of folk songs which were considered more suitable, but many of these songs were quite wordy, with multiple verses, so not ideal for impromptu use at campfires.  

At this stage, opening ceremonial for campfires was often quite formal, and ceremonial, with processions to the site, and scripted lighting ceremonies, 'dedicating' the fire. Programmes for campfires would usually include games, 'party piece' performances, and a yarn. Songs would often be regional folk songs as well as more general traditional songs.

By the 1950s campfires were becoming quite structured. There might be an opening recitation such as "As the flame points upwards, so be our aims; As the red logs glow, so be our sympathies; As the grey ash fades, so be our errors; As the camp-fire warms the circle, so may the Guide ideal warm the world." or "Here is an emblem: sparks that upward fly - so may our hearts be young and spirits high." There would then be an opening song such as 'the more we camp together' or 'campfire's burning'. Then a couple of well-known local folk songs, or songs to well-known tunes. Next up, a simple round or part song. After that, Patrol turns interspersed with well-known songs, followed by a yell, and then a campfire game. Then a quieter song, followed by a yarn, a final closing song, and then Taps. The Patrol turns were usually acting out scenes from history or literature, or funny incidents at camp, or 'party pieces' which the Patrol performed according to their talents.

This era, too, saw the first publication of headquarters songbooks aimed at campfire use. These eliminated the piano score parts found on the earlier Guiding sheet music, and in some cases even started to include chords which could be used on stringed instruments. Songs were now shorter, and more repetitive, with fewer wordy verses to memorise - and included more songs drawn from around the world rather than just from the UK. Mary Chater, the music adviser, was influential in her drive to 'raise the standard' of music in Guiding, with her aim of having fewer 'jingles' and more 'quality' music in Guiding.

In the late 1960s through to the mid 1970s, there was a general revival in folk music in wider society, and as a result of this, more young people started learning to play instruments such as mandolins, banjos, and especially acoustic guitars - guitars, especially, started to appear at campfires, and music was printed with guitar chords. From the 1970s the previous trickle of Guiding songbooks turned into a flood, and singing came to dominate campfires. Sue Stevens, based at Foxlease, was a leading influence on this. Where Patrol turns survived, they tended to be in the form of 'campfire skits' - performances of comedy scripts, with the same limited number of themes tending to be repeated in skits like "Dorothy Perkins", "Antique Shop", or "Enlarging Machine". Yarns all but disappeared, as did games, and party pieces. The quieter section at the end of the campfire tended to be dominated by religious songs and hymns, again reflecting the 'folk revival' which brought forth new religious songs as well as secular ones.

In recent decades, campfires have been 90% singing - opening ceremonies are rare, as are skits or Patrol performances. Most songs are led by the campfire leader, unless members of the group offer to lead songs or parts. The one thing which has increased is cooking on the campfire, usually marshmallows - something which used to be considered completely inappropriate, even close to sacrilege.