Sean Blackburn is deadBut his music lives on
By: Warren Smith
The Columbia World.
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
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
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
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 --
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
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
For that, as Linda Williams wrote to me those years ago, is what folk music is
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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