After taking a break last summer, Earthbeat Choir Music Camp will return to Carbondale for its infamous week-long camp beginning July 22, with a scheduled performance at the 48th Annual Mountain Fair on Sunday, July 28, at 10 a.m.
KC Johnson, who directed Earthbeat for 21 years before retiring in 2016, will return as director for this year’s camp. Joining him is Paonia guitarist and violinist Ellen Stapenhorst, art director and Earthbeat alum Charlotte Schweis and several other staff who performed in Earthbeat when they were young. Johnson took over Earthbeat from founder Karen D’Attlio after she asked him to play guitar for a class of special needs kids one afternoon in the early ’90s.
“All it took was me playing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ and feeling those kids’ absolute love and excitement about singing and I was hooked,” Johnson said. “I told Karen ‘Call me anytime. I want to do this for the rest of my life.’ I’m serious … it changed everything.”
When D’Attlio founded Earthbeat, most of its repertoire involved songs by John Denver, with whom the choir sang many times before Johnson’s time with the choir began. Videos of the choir singing Christmas carols with Denver as part of the Windstar Foundation’s Symposium in 1993 can be found on YouTube.
In the late ’90s, D’Attlio announced she had plans to move out of the Valley and Johnson was the obvious candidate to whom to pass the torch. Earthbeat eventually grew from one camp to two, then three and eventually had four camps per summer at one point in Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood and Aspen.
Now, after a year’s hiatus, the Carbondale camp will be resurrected this summer. Although it may not be what those involved in Earthbeat are used to — like having a 20-kid camp rather than its usual 60 — the one consistent facet of Earthbeat over these many years has been its staff.
“Our staff is made up entirely of former campers,” Johnson said. “There are multiple generations of kids that have gone from Munchkins, little 3- and 4-year-olds, to Big Kids, to junior staff when they’re 12, and even on to senior staff. Multiple generations of Earthbeat kids teach and sing the same songs they learned when they were young to kids who will eventually take over for them.
“Not to mention, our staff is made up of 90-percent teenagers, and they’re doing a phenomenal job,” she continued. “It’s just amazing to see kids of all ages come back to Earthbeat, whether they’re only out of high school, college or moved off and on to bigger things.”
Charlotte Schweis, art director of this year’s camp, started at Earthbeat when she was just 3. Eighteen now and preparing to attend Oakland University in Michigan next fall, Schweis is one of Earthbeat’s multigenerational staff members.
“Being a part of Earthbeat for my whole life is one of my greatest accomplishments,” Schweis says. “I have gotten to see it flourish and have also seen it fall, which only makes me want to be involved even more. With the camp making a comeback this year, the biggest task has been getting the word out. How do we make this camp as big and as beautiful as it used to be? And the answer that we have stumbled upon is ‘time.’ After our break, the camp needs to gain momentum on its own as we show our face as a camp again.”
Earthbeat performs songs in any genre from rock to what is known as ‘power folk.’ The choir has composed original songs, which campers learn, including “Every Reason to Live,” which is about a parent’s battle with cancer, and “In Spite of It All, I Still Love You,” which Johnson has taught campers with parents who are separated, divorcing or divorced.
His favorite, “Don’t Look the Other Way,” was written in response to the 1999 Columbine shooting in Denver.
“Every year, we teach ‘Don’t Look the Other Way,’ and every year it still has as much power as the last,” Johnson said.
One of his favorite memories with Earthbeat, in fact, was when the choir performed “Don’t Look the Other Way” at the Million Mom March, a rally held on Mother’s Day in major cities, including Denver, to promote gun safety in the early 2000s.
“It was unlike anything those kids had experienced,” Johnson said. “The kids were used to a few hundred people, not thousands. On the edge of the March, protestors were holding signs saying things like ‘You can’t take our guns!’ when it wasn’t about that, it was about protecting our kids.
“All of the parents who had come out that day had agreed to help ease some nerves by just wearing T-shirts and standing with the choir,” she continued. “I taught them the lyrics just like we do at camp, ‘I sing a line you sing it back.’ Then I yelled ‘Is everyone ready out there?’ And they roared, and I turned my back and all of a sudden my hands were shaking. Then we started to sing, and the energy in the crowd shifted. It was intense. These big words being sung by such young voices was so powerful, and is still so powerful. When Brianna and Annie stood up to the mic holding hands and ripped the bridge, ʻSet aside your politics or get out of our way!’ Everyone went dead silent, then roared again. It was like in a commercial when the guy’s hair gets blown backwards, stumbling. We went off stage and the next performer was there to high-five us all, which was Sheryl Crow.”
Every year, the choir learns, practices and ultimately performs a selected medley. This year, kids in Carbondale will learn songs by Queen, in recognition of the Academy Award winning film “Bohemian Rhapsody,” released in November 2018, but for reasons special to Earthbeat as well. Replacing the iconic band’s logo of a swan for a phoenix, it symbolizes the camp’s rebirth from the ashes.
“We’re here, we want to sing, and we hope everyone interested will come join us,” Johnson said.
One thing about Earthbeat that will always stay the same are the kids who make the camp. Campers or staff, their voices are what make Earthbeat unique.
KC is back and spots are still available for the Carbondale Earthbeat Camp. Scholarships are available and the camp takes place from July 22 to 26. For more information, please visitearthbeatchoir.com.
An Earthbeat camper remembers
I became an Earthbeat kid when I was 8 years old. My family had just moved back to the Valley after three and a half years in Seattle, and we were still figuring out what there was to do in Colorado. My parents have known KC since before I was born and I imagine that had something to do with signing my younger sister and me up for the Basalt camp.
The medley that year was Motown, where we sang “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” by Stevie Wonder and “Heat Wave.” Parent bait to be sure, but I was in love right away. I had too much fun working my way up to the front of the mic and auditioning for solos.
We came back every summer without fail. Later medleys would come to shape my music taste by introducing me to Queen, Elton John and Diana Ross, and Earthbeat developed into more than just a confidence booster. It was my first job when I was 12, paid $50 for the week, which I was bold enough to think was a lot of money at the time.
I met my best friend in this universe, Malia, during Big Kid Art Time, and, when I was 13, I found myself sitting with my sister and two other girls listening to KC sing “In Spite of It All, I Still Love You” to us. A few years later, those two girls would actually become my step-sisters.
It’s a little wild looking back at old pictures of me and my sister standing right next to my two now-sisters, not knowing how fate was going to play out the way it did. I owe a lot to Earthbeat and, in its own way, Earthbeat is a family. Some of the most valuable relationships, as well as fun and thoughtful memories I have come from my days of being a camper and a staff member. Even at 23, I still go back to visit when I can and hope anyone thinking of a good summer plan for their kids considers signing up. It’s a life-changer for sure.
— Katie Hankinson