Every morning after breakfast, the campers on one side of the Mess Hall would get up and join to the campers on the other side, leaving the vacated area empty, so the waiters to start cleaning up.
With our entire camp population squeezed into half the Mess Hall, we proceeded to engage in a traditional camp Ogama activity known as “sing-song”, a half-hour or so daily camp-wide sing-along.
I was grateful for “sing-song.” It wasn’t so much that I cared about the singing, but “sing-song”, at least temporarily, put off my participating in the activities of the day, none of which I was looking forward to. I could wait to be inadvertently pierced by an arrow, or get whacked on the shins with a lacrosse racket.
Every day, a different cabin was responsible for “sing-song”, meaning they got to select the eight or ten songs the campers would be singing. It wasn’t like there were a million songs to choose from, more like maybe fifty, but that was enough to give the “sing-song” some variety in its repertoire.
The songs ranged greatly in content. We’d start off with “Rise and Shine” or “O, What A Beautiful Morning.” Something peppy. To paraphrase the Lou Grant character: “I hate peppy!”
Then there’d be a “fun” song like, “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…” or “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea”, whose verses advanced incrementally from “There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea…” to “There’s a log in the hole in the bottom of the sea…” to “There’s a frog on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea…” to “There’s a bump on the frog on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea…” – you get the idea, probably three verses ago.
We also sang competition songs, like “The States Song”, where one team – half the camp – would ask the questions and the other team would respond, all the questions and responses containing the names of one of the United States.
“What did Dela-ware?”
“She wore a New Jersey.”
“What did Ida-ho?”
“She hoed a Mary-land.”
“What did Tenne-see?”
“He saw what Arkan-saw.”
“What did Missi-sip?”
“She sipped a Minn-i-soda.”
“Why did Cali-fornia?”
“He phoned to say Hawai-ya.”
And on and on, until one side ran out, the last desperate response invariably being,
“I don’t know, Al-aska.”
Then, there were songs specific people were called up to lead. These were considered “their songs”, and they’d lead them for as long as they continued coming to camp.
A counselor of mine, named Mervyn, had permanent ownership of the “Hawaiian Wedding Song”, which went, “A-ua-ua-ahuna-hana-hula-hay”, or something. The “Hawaiian Wedding Song” was tough to sing along to. Mostly, you just marveled at Mervyn’s ability to pull it off.
My brother had a song associated with him, but it wasn’t one he sang. They’d call him up to the front, hoist him off the floor so he could grab hold of an overhanging rafter with both hands, and then, he’d swing from that rafter throughout the singing of, “Swing me in the moonlight, in the moonlight tonight…”, a song that was regularly sung all the way through twice.
That was my brother’s specialty – swinging through a song. I spoke to him about it recently and he claimed that over the years, people who didn’t like him “kept adding verses”, so his swing would be painfully prolonged. I don’t remember that, but I do recall that just as the song was winding down, someone would yell, “One more time”, and he’d have to keep swinging.
I was always proud of my brother. Nobody could swing like he could.
I also had a song. Because my camp had a social work orientation, the staff was always practicing, what they called, “Group work.” Their mission was to, somehow, find something I was good at, so I could feel better about myself. Their intention was that I’d be grateful to the camp for discovering my “special ability” and keep coming back. Or maybe they were just caring people. Let’s go with that.
The song I was given to lead the camp in was called, “We’re In The Same Boat Brother.” This came from a category of “sing-song” songs I truly believe triggered the cultural upheaval that was the Sixties. These camp songs nurtured my generation’s political awareness, fueling our opposition social injustice and the highly unequal status quo.
“Lincoln set the Negro free
Why is he still in slavery
Jim Crow, Jim Crow blues.”
“Listen, Mr. Bilbo, listen to me
I’ll give you a lesson in history
Listen while I tell you that the foreigners you hate
Are the very same people made America great.”
“I’m proud to be me, but I also see
You’re just as proud to be you
We may look at things a bit differently
But lots of good people do.”
“The banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the workers sweated for.”
“It’s the hammer of justice, it’s the bell of freedom
It’s the song of love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land.”
“We’re in the same boat, Brother
We’re in the same boat, Brother
And if you shake one end,
You’re gonna rock the other
It’s the same boat, Brother.”
Are you getting the flavor of this stuff? Injustice is over. We’re going to be fairer people. And it the Sixties, with these songs pounding in their heads, we went for it. Was that Commie? I would hate to think that equal treatment isn’t democratic; that’s in the Constitution. That’s as American as it gets. And, of course, we were Canadians, so we didn’t care. It just seemed right.
I led, “We’re In The Same Boat, Brother” for thirteen years. A few years ago, when my camp had a reunion, although I was unable to attend, I sent a recorded audiotape, so I could lead my song in absentia.
Did the song have meaning for me? Yer dern tootin’. For twenty-five years, my television production company was called “SBB Productions.” SBB stood for “Same Boat Brother.” For what it's worth, I do believe we’re in the same boat, and I try to act accordingly. But maybe that’s just me, trying to make my song important.
One last “sing-song” song. This one may be the most curious of all, as it’s left me with a question that remains unanswered to this day. I am hoping maybe somebody out there can finally put it to rest.
The song was called “Everybody Loves Saturday Night.” That was pretty much its only lyric:
“Everybody loves Saturday night
Everybody loves Saturday night
Everybody, everybody, everybody, everybody
Everybody loves Saturday night.”
That’s the song. But not the whole song. We then repeated the same verse in a number of different languages.
French: “Tout le monde aime samedi soir…”
Spanish: “Todo el mundo quiere sabado…”
There were also verses in Hebrew and Yiddish. I won’t tire you with the transliterations.
“Everybody Loves Saturday Night.” The same verse, sung in many languages. Including Chinese.
“Ren ren see wahn leeb hi loo.”
The Chinese version of “Everybody loves Saturday night.” That’s what they told us.
The question is, “Is it?”
Does “Ren ren see wahn leeb hi loo” actually mean “Everybody loves Saturday night” in Chinese? Or did somebody at camp simply make it up?
“They’ll never know the difference.”
It’s true. We were kids. Kids will sing anything. But there was always that nagging question.
There was no reason to doubt them; our counselors had never lied to us before. They’d told us there was racial turmoil in Mississippi, and there was racial unrest in Mississippi. Still…
“Ren ren see wahn leeb hi loo”?
Wanting to know, but too embarrassed to ask. That’s where I was. And it was eating me up. How many times have I sat in a Chinese restaurant, wondering if I could muster the courage to interrupt my waiter as he’s refilling my tea cup for the fourteenth time, and say,
“Excuse me. Can I ask you a question?”
“You speak Chinese, right?”
“Okay. I’m going to say something in what I believe is Chinese – but it may, in fact, not be Chinese. Okay?”
“I don’t understand.”
“There's this phrase I was told was a Chinese phrase, and I want to know if it really is. Would you tell me if it is, or it isn't?”
“Okay. Sure, sure.”
“Okay. Do the words, ‘Ren ren see wahn leeb hi loo’ mean, in Chinese, “Everybody loves Saturday night”?
You can see how embarrassing it would be to ask that question. What if he laughed at me? What if, in Chinese, ‘Ren ren see wahn leeb hi loo’ actually means something, you know, dirty? What if he thought I was insulting him “Borat”-style with fabricated Chinese gibberish?
I have never been able to bring myself to ask that question out loud. Until now.
We sang it in camp. I think I know what it means. But I’d really like to know for sure.