Every summer from age 10 to 17, I spent a month at a girls’ camp in the Tennessee mountains. After every meal, we’d sing in the dining hall to pass the time while stragglers finished eating and the tables were cleared. We occasionally sang a few modern pop songs, but most of them were either older folk or novelty songs that no one heard outside of camp (like “Today” by The New Christy Minstrels or “Sweet Violets” by Dinah Shore) or, more often, selections from that mysterious Camp Song Repertoire. These are songs of which no one has ever claimed authorship and which no one has recorded popularly, yet are known almost universally by campers around the country. This repertoire includes songs like “Miss Suzie Had a Baby,” “Way Up Yonder in the Frozen North” and, I assumed, “Running Bear.” Even now that I’ve listened to Johnny Preston’s recording and know that J.P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper) wrote it, the song’s simplicity and faux-Native American imagery feel better suited to summer camp than the top of the pop charts. A rock and roll version of it sounds as contrived to me as if it were a cover of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” (Curiously, Preston’s follow-up hit “Cradle of Love,” which actually is a rock take on various nursery rhymes, is a much stronger song than “Running Bear.”)
Really, only the chorus of the song even approaches rock and roll, with Preston’s syncopated vocals and a wailing saxophone. In the verses, Preston sings the vocals over a bed of tom toms and “ooga booga” backing vocals to evoke a cartoonish version of American Indian music. It’s not exactly racist, but it’s so alien from anything that could make it on the charts today. There’s a scene in the 2007 movie The Savages where two siblings select The Jazz Singer for movie night at their father’s nursing home. As they watch the scene where Al Jolson daubs on blackface, the siblings become uncomfortably and keenly aware of the disapproving glares from the African-American orderlies. “It was a different era,” the brother mumbles afterward. “You’ve got to consider it in the in the context of the times.” Even so, “Running Bear” is still a slight tune that, while no means terrible, doesn’t stand up after a clear classic like “El Paso.” 5
- In addition to writing “Running Bear,” The Big Bopper also sings backing vocals on the song. The single was recorded shortly before Richardson’s death on February 3, 1959 – famously, in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and pilot Roger Peterson.
Hit #1 on January 18, 1960; total of 3 weeks at #1
25 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 2.60% through the Hot 100