It is true that there are several songs that seem to be campfire standards. Here are some camp fire song book gems that you may or may not be familiar with. They are excellent songs to include in your campfire singalong.
• Home on the Range: Home on the Range is often considered the anthem of the Old West. I picture a group of cowboys or pioneers sitting around a campfire singing this song. It would have had to happen after the 1870s, because that is when it was written. A doctor, Brewster M. Higley, wrote the words. It was originally a poem called "My Western Home." It was first published in December of 1873 in Kansas under the title "Oh, Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam." Higley later had a friend named Dan Kelley write music to go with the words. The song became popular and was sung by cowboys, pioneers and just about everybody knew the song. In 1947 it became the official state song of Kansas. When you sing this song, it brings into your mind a vision of what it must have been like in the old west; prairies of tall grass; deer, antelope, buffalo and other animals wandering; starry nights; clear blue skies during the day. Can you think of a more peaceful scene? When life gets hectic from work, family and other activities, this is a good simple song to sing to get away from it all, even if just for 30 seconds.
• O Susannah: I would consider this another traditional camp fire song. It was originally written by Stephen Foster. He wrote both the lyrics and the music in 1847. It became popular very fast. Just a couple of years later, when the Forty-Niners thronged to San Francisco, they picked it up and it became a kind of official song of the California gold rush. They sang the original lyrics, but they made up other verses of their own. One of the most popular alternate verses goes as follows: I soon shall be in Frisco and there I'll look around. And when I see the gold lumps there, I'll pick them off the ground. I'll scrape the mountains clean, my boys, I'll drain the rivers dry. A pocketful of rocks bring home, So, brothers don't you cry. This is a fun song to sing uptempo. It's an easy song for guitar as well as banjo. I personally like the banjo on this song. Maybe it's because it talks about the banjo in the song.
• Old Dan Tucker: This is an old minstrel song from the mid 1840s. Like most minstrel songs, it was originally supposed to be a boasting song about a rough and ready black man. It eventually was meant to portray a mythical wild frontiersman that tall tales could be told about. There are hundreds of verses about Old Dan Tucker; I have included just a couple in The Great American Camp Fire Song Book.
• Let the Sun Shine Forever: This song is not American at all, but Russian. It is very simple, with only 4 lines repeated over and over. When I have done it with children, I like to teach the Russian lyrics. The first 5 syllables of each line are exactly the same: Pust seg da bud yet, pronounced Poost seg dah bood yet. The last word of each line is as follows: 1)Son se, 2)Nye be, 3)Ma ma, 4) bood oh yah. On the fourth line replace bood yet with bood oh. I hope this makes sense to you. I have heard this song done both fast and slow. I have also heard the melody used in a beautiful choral piece by Z. Randall Stroope. The piece is called Inscription of Hope. It's about the hope that helped many survive during the holocaust. Around a campfire, I would do the upbeat, fast version.
• Shenandoah: This probably originated as a river shanty in the original 1800s. It was popular first among sailors, and then spread from there, up and down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. We don't know for sure what it's original meaning was. Some say it was about a traveling man in love with an Indian chiefs daughter, telling the chief he intends to take her with him to the west. Others interpret it as a pioneer's longing for his home in the Shenandoah River Valley of Virginia. Whatever it's original intent, it has a beautiful melody. Around a camp fire, it can be an effective song, if you want a subdued, soft mood. Otherwise, you probably should sing something else.
• Sippin' Cider Through a Straw: I could not find any background information about this song. We don't really know who wrote it or when. I have heard that the sipping straw was invented in 1813, so it was probably written after that. My guess is that it was written in 20th century. Two things make this a fun and easy song. First, it's fun to sing with a lisp. Second, it's an echo song, so whoever is leading the song needs to know the words pretty good. That makes it easy for everyone else; all they have to do is echo.
I hope you have fun with these six camp fire songs. You can find them all in The Great American Camp Fire Song Book.