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In memory of
Shane Marston
Steve Alarik
Sean Blackburn
Bill Hinkley
Dean Carr
Gail Heil
Dave Ray
Tony Glover
Willie Murphy
Mike Gottschall
Bob & Gid Hunt
Lawrence Lewis
Kathleen Maus

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Sean Blackburn is dead

But his music lives on

By: Warren Smith
The Columbia World.

Cimarron, N.M.

The name Sean Blackburn probably doesn’t mean anything to the vast majority of people who worked at Philmont because, so far as I know, Sean Blackburn never set foot on the Ranch. He may never have even heard of it. But for me – well, I can’t go far in talking about my Philmont experience without thinking of Sean Blackburn. I realize, though, that this might take a bit of explaining.

Most people who know Philmont at all know it as a huge camp with nearly 1000 people on seasonal staff. But those of us who have spent much time there know that Philmont is actually made up of lots of smaller camps. There are more than 25 backcountry camps, and each of these camps has its own small staff -- usually four to eight staffers at each camp. And at almost every backcountry camp, every night of the summer, the staff presents a campfire program. And most of the staffs take these programs very seriously. Indeed, more than a few people who now make their living in the performing arts got their start at a Philmont campfire.

Coming up with a campfire that is unique, that has a special stamp on it, is the goal of every camp staff. So while it may look like barely controlled chaos when it’s going on, you can bet that every song, every story, and every joke has been carefully thought about and argued over by the staff.

So it was in 1979 when I was the camp director at Crater Lake. Crater Lake is what is known as an "interpretive" or "living history" camp. Crater Lake was supposed to be a backcountry outpost of the Continental Tie and Lumber Company, circa 1890. But the truth is that we and all other interpretive camps regularly pierced the veil of historical verisimilitude. The only question was by how much. Some camps stayed in character almost 24-7. But at Crater we kept up no such illusions. For one thing, we thought the Crater Lake Lodge, which was Waite Phillips “way station” on his horseback trips to Fish Camp, was worth telling campers about, and that story alone “blew our cover,” historically speaking, since it was built in the 1920s.

So we felt no need to be historically “pure” with our campfire songs either, and we spent the week between “scatter” (when the backcountry staffs left base camp to set up for the summer) and our first crew night practicing songs we all knew. Rick Jolkovsky, Dave Thornburg, and Bob Pillsbury were on staff with me, and it became obvious pretty quickly that Bob, whom we called “Weeds,” was pretty good on the guitar and had eclectic tastes. He was constantly suggesting songs. One day Weeds, who was from Duluth, Minnesota, asked us if we had ever heard of a radio program called “A Prairie Home Companion.” Of course, today the program and its host, Garrison Keillor, are considered icons of modern radio, and important early supporters of what came to be called Americana music. But in 1979, the program was just getting started, and few people outside of Minnesota had ever heard of it.

But Weeds had a scratchy cassette tape of the show, which we listened to, paying particular attention to a song called “Drought Years,” which Keillor said was written by Dave Hull and Sean Blackburn. It was a relatively simple song about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Simple, but the opening lines were haunting:

The topsoil is like gunpowder, the fields are set to blow.
The air’s as hot as the desert out West, and the sun’s just beating down the rows.

It had nothing to do with Philmont, or logging in the 1890s, but we loved that song, and it had a simple chorus that – by the third verse – the campers could sing along with:

I wish it would rain before we all fall to the flame,
Dry up and blow away.
Not a cent to our name, only hell to pay, I wish it would rain.
Oh, I wish it would rain.

Weeds had already written down the words and worked out the chords. I figured out a little instrumental break that sort of matched the recording. The other camps would be playing “Night Rider’s Lament,” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Paradise.” And we would play those songs, too. They were great songs. But we knew that “Drought Years” would be ours alone. So we really worked on it, and that summer it became the highlight of our campfire.

Over the years, I half expected to hear the song turn up on someone’s album. With the resurgence of Roots and Americana music, surely someone would re-discover this song. But it didn’t happen. I had taught the song to my brother, and then to my oldest son, when he got old enough to play the guitar, and we would play it when we got together for family events. But I had never heard it -- or anything about its writers Sean Blackburn and Dave Hull -- anywhere else.


One of those who "graduated" from Philmont to a career in music was James Talley, who served on Philmont's staff in the late 60s and early 70s. In the mid to late 70s, Talley put out a couple of critically acclaimed albums, played for President Carter at the White House, and earned more than one entry in various encyclopedias of country and roots music. Despite the quality of Talley’s music, it didn’t sell that well. There were problems at his record label, Capitol Records. And Talley’s own strong, authentic musical vision didn’t fit the prevailing commercial sound taking over Nashville. So he got a "day job" in commercial real estate, and did pretty well at it, though he never gave up his songwriting, or his passion for authentic American music. He would occasionally record, and perform, and one day Talley came to Charlotte, N.C., where I was living, for a concert.

My wife Missy and I were at that concert. Talley stood alone on the stage with his guitar and played beautiful music. There was a small but appreciative crowd for the show at The Neighborhood Theatre, one of Charlotte’s best live music venues, and the next day, before he headed off to his next show, he came to our home for a meal, and a visit. James graciously played us a few songs in our living room, and as he was getting ready to leave, I played him a verse of "Drought Years," asked him if he had ever heard of it, or if he had ever heard of Sean Blackburn or Dave Hull?”

"Dakota Dave?" Talley said. "Sure, I know him." In fact, Talley even had Dakota Dave’s e-mail address, which he gave to me.

That night, I e-mailed Dakota Dave Hull. He seemed genuinely glad to hear from me, and to hear that his song had been used at Philmont and had been kept alive in my household for these past 25 years. He told me that Sean Blackburn lived in Colorado, and made a living performing cowboy songs and rope tricks, and telling cowboy stories at Western festivals and state fairs and schools, mixing in a good measure of authentic, well-researched western and cowboy history.

Unknown to me, Dakota Dave was also copying Robin and Linda Williams on our correspondence. This husband-and-wife musical team was by this time a regular feataure of "A Prairie Home Companion" and had made their own contributions to the Roots music resurgence. Linda Williams e-mailed me with an enthusiastic thank-you for playing "Drought Years" all those years, and for finally letting Dakota Dave know about it. "That’s what real folk music is all about," she said. It's not just about the music, but learning songs from one another, and playing those songs together.

Neither Sean Blackburn nor Dakota Dave had never released the song on a record of his own, but Dakota Dave had recorded it in his home studio, and he burned the song to a CD and sent it to me, along with a couple more of his CDs. Those CDs and that e-mail exchange have remained treasures to me. Especially the one containing “Drought Years.”


All of this happened about five years ago, and the memory of it had faded. Though I continued to play "Drought Years," I hadn’t listened to the CD in a while. And I rarely listened to “A Prairie Home Companion” any more. My wife Missy doesn’t like Garrison Keillor’s voice. (“It’s so whiny,” she says.) After nearly 25 years of marriage, I have learned to pick my battles, so I listen to it only rarely, when I happen to be in the car alone on Saturday evenings, which is not that often.

But one Saturday night in October of last year I was. And I heard Keillor say that Sean Blackburn was dead. Keillor said a few words about Blackburn and then played Tom Paxton’s classic "Ramblin’ Man" in a moving tribute.

I had never met Blackburn. But the news of his death affected me deeply. I didn't realize it then, but I guess I was harboring the hope that someday I would meet him, and we would -- perhaps -- play "Drought Years" together, or at least I would listen appreciatively as he played it. Now, none of that would ever happen.

For, indeed, Sean Blackburn was dead, struck down by a heart attack at the age of 56, never really getting the credit he deserved for his music, or for his role in the resurgence of roots music, and Americana music.

But the song he wrote with Dakota Dave lives on. I still play it with my brother and my son. And I expect – I hope -- that some day my son will play it for others.

For that, as Linda Williams wrote to me those years ago, is what folk music is all about.

Warren Smith is the publisher and editor of "The Charlotte World." He also served for seven summers on the seasonal staff at Philmont. He is a past-president of the Philmont Staff Association, an alumni organization made up of more than 2200 former Philmont staff members. (3/1/2006)



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