Musician Profile: Folk Singer Hamilton Camp

This interview-based profile was published in Zoo World in 1974 when Camp was going by the name Hamid Hamilton Camp. He died in 2005, at age 70.

Skymonters with Hamid Hamilton Camp LP

On an April night in 1961, Hamid Hamilton Camp was playing Chicago’s Gate of Horn, recording a live album with the near-legendary folk singer Bob Gibson. The dark, tight-fitting suits and striped ties they wore onstage were fully conventional for folk artists of the time. But their music, which might be termed “very early protest,” was starting to rock the boat that Bob Dylan would soon capsize.

Camp’s first solo album, released in 1963, showed that the singer was keeping pace with the changes he’d helped to introduce. Featuring versions of seven Dylan tunes, most of which had not previously been recorded, the album also included Camp’s own “Pride of Man,” later popularized by Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Quicksilver’s rock interpretation of this song widened the audience for Camp’s own recordings but, by then, his primary interest had shifted to acting. Performing in skits and improvisations with the Committee, Story Theatre, and Second City during the mid-60s, he became involved with the concept of theater as politics.

Then, a few years ago, Camp left the stage and settled with his wife and six kids at Skymont, a planned community of about 100 artists, musicians, lovers, and pizza-makers in Bentonville, Virginia. And, though he had accepted occasional singing gigs during the theater period, it wasn’t until last summer at Skymont that he decided to return to full-time musicianship.

Rounding up four neighbors, all old friends, he formed a band called Skymonters. Jacob Ander (bass guitar) is a veteran of the Chad Mitchell Trio; Lewis Ross (keyboards) has backed up Hedge and Donna and met Camp when both were with Story Theatre; Rusdi Lane (drums), and Lewis Arquette (congas) both were members of the Committee and have long histories in music.

“Now our five careers are melted into one,” says Camp. “Later on, if we go into television, we’ll do it together. Or if we want to do a theatrical experience, we’ll do that together. In other words, I’m not alone anymore.”

Skymonters with Hamid Hamilton Camp, the group’s first album, is an indication of this shared spirit. Produced by Steve Chapin (Harry’s brother), it is consistently smooth-flowing and pleasant to hear; and often it is much more than that. Many of the tunes show the Skymonters to be as skilled at assimilating old styles as they are at inventing new ones. Selecting parts of their material from little-known musical traditions, they combine these elements with popular forms to create something entirely original.

“The Dalang,” the album’s final cut, is a case in point. The song was written, Camp explains, to describe Javanese shadow plays to an American audience. It incorporates a Western rock chorus but has its basis in the Javanese five-tone scale, whcih helps convey the feeling of the shadow plays.

“We saw the plays when we were in Indonesia,” says Camp. “Just amazing. They’re an ancient art form, a part of their [Javanese] religion. The stories are told with puppets that throw shadows on a large white screen. And the dialogue is in high Javanese, a sophisticated language that not even many Indonesians understand. The dalang is the person who manipulates the puppets, does all the voices, and sings. He improvises and weaves everything into the story, which lasts nine hours.

“The dalang you hear on the album cut, Samarsam, is a real dalang from Java who’s now with an orchestra at Wesleyan University. It was done the first time he’d ever done a record, man. And when we went into Western chords, he just followed right along. Fabulous musician.”

How are audiences reacting to the song? “We thought it was an esoteric number,” Camp says, “but it’s our most-requested tune. One night we had dinner at an Italian restaurant and we invited the old man who runs the place down to where we were playing. We did ‘The Dalang’ and afterward, he came up to us and said, ‘I felt like I was a-dere!’ So we seem to be getting it across.”

Considering the political content of many of Camp’s old songs and skits, it was a bit of a surprise to find no political material on the album. When the Skymonters are before an audience, they do a comedy skit on Watergate (in a manner that recalls the Committee), but, says Camp, “We do that just because, well, it’s fun to do. The heavy political stuff, though, I don’t think I’ll ever get into that again. I’ve kind of lost faith in the political answers to any of my problems. Because I think most of the problems we have can only be solved through a spiritual awakening.”

Asked to elaborate, Camp speaks not about any complex dogma or the rewards of some future life but about the potential for good in this one. On a typical day in his community, he says, various residents may be working out plans for a youth center, cooking up a group meal, building homes, and making music. When Camp talks about Skymont, he describes a place of happy energy, from which has evolved a similarly joyous and productive band.

And when he talks about his desire to get out on the road, his love for Allman Brothers music, and excitement over his three-year-old daughter, one tends to forget that he was onstage in 1961. Rather, from the enthusiasm he projects, one might see Camp as a young artist, eager to explore a brand new world.

Questioning the singer about his age, therefore, one may be surprised by the answer, but not by the attitude that goes with it. “I’m 39,” he says, “but I can’t relate to it in any way.”

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