Thursday, October 9, 2014

HUMOR DOWNEAST


Photo 04869 Sloop tied up at dock with hold full of herring, smaller sloop with thole pins to left, three men, Eastport, Maine.

 HUMOR DOWNEAST

There was an old farmer down here in Perry, he had been an old Californian gold digger and he was quite cantankerous at times.  Anyway he was hoeing up in his garden and there was a feller fishing in the stream which ran though his pasture. And he had a bull down there in the pasture and the bull was pawing sods and bellowing and the feller that was fishing eyed the bull for a while and then he hollered at Mr. Newcomb who was hoeing the garden. He says, “Hey, this bull safe?” Mr. Newcomb says, “Yes, he’s a damn site safer than you are. You better come out of there before he tramps the gizzard out of you.”
This story is from accession 523 in the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History.  The accession includes a series of narrations by Rob Golding and Earl Bonness from Perry, Maine, that were collected by Marshall Dodge who later used some of this material to form his “Bert and I” recordings (“Bert& I” is the name given to stories made famous and mostly written by the storytelling team of Marshall Dodge (1935-1982) and Bob Bryan in the 1950s and 1960s, and later by Allen Wicken). “Bert & I” stories spread beyond New England during the 1970s and 1980s, and introduced many parts of the country and world to the regionally distinct accent.

The stories told by Golding and Bonness generally refer to local characters and to local lifestyles in and around Perry, which is located in Washington County, Maine on the border with New Brunswick, Canada.  The very rural town currently has some 250 families (about 800 residents) mostly Caucasians, with about 10 % of the population Native American (Passamaquoddy). Established as a town about 1818, it is best known for the herring fished in weirs on the St. Croix River, the sardine canneries in Perry and Eastport earlier in the twentieth century and for farming.  Today, the canneries are closed and while there are a few small businesses and farms left in Perry, tourism is gaining as the central industry in the area.

The lifestyle in Perry is reflected in a series of humorous stories told by Golding and Bonness.  For example, the isolation of rural life and its effect on a stereotypically na├»ve woman is illustrated by this tale about ice cream.

There was an old lady that lived out here to Louis’s Cove and she said she never had tasted any ice cream. And when she was telling Ginny’s mother, and so she says “Well when I make ice cream again I’ll send you out some.”  So she sent me out with it. And the old lady was quite pleased and she got a big tablespoon full and she put the whole tablespoonful in her mouth. And then she clapped both hands on her head and run to the stove and says, “My Lord!” and she spit it, on the stove.  She traveled around quite a while hung on her head. Says, “I couldn’t eat that stuff.” And so Ginny Saw her afterwards and asked her how she liked the ice cream. She says, “I sat it on the stove and melted it and drank it and it wasn’t too bad.”
The Golding and Bonness told their stories in 1965.  These stories generally reflect activities that take place in the local community such as farming, hunting, and fishing.  The following story refers to the wit of a farmer and to the very human weakness for alcohol that clouds his judgment:

There was an old feller by the name of Briggs lived in Robinston and he told me this story, said there was old Mike McCurdy from Red Beech who went to Calais with a dump cart and a yoke of oxen.  He went up there every week and he sold out his produce off the farm and bought what he wanted and when it was time to go home when he got ready to go home why he got into the dump cart and turned the oxen around and started them for home. He usually went to sleep because he was quite a drinker. He had usually a jug with him. So this night, when he woke up, ‘twas dark and he was in the cart and he hollered, “Whoah” and they didn’t move so he climbed out the back end in the dark and he felt his way up the side and up to the end of the pole and there wasn’t any oxen there. And he said, “Well, if my name is Mike McCurdy I have lost a yoke of oxen. And he says, “If it ain’t McCurdy, I found the dump cart.”
And this story relates the parsimonious nature of small town budget deliberations:

Professor Ripley used to visit Dr. in Robinston, and he and I had breakfast every morning together, and we used to swap stories.  He told me that the road that went to his place at East Edgecombe was pretty bad and anything in those back towns you have to do, you have to raise any particular amount of money, and you have to have it in the town warrant. And he told them if he would have it put in the town warrant to build that piece of road that he’d give a substantial sum of money towards it.  So he said when the town meeting was called they notified him and he came down. And he said the road bill went through all right. But it came up in the town meeting to buy a new hearse. And it was going along in pretty good shape and last one old feller got up and he says, “I’m agin’ it.” Says, “I’m agin anything that increases the burden on the tax payer.” He says, “I’ll admit that the running gear of the old hearse is pretty well shook. But the top hamper is just as good as it ever was. And there ain’t been no complaint from any feller that ever rid in it.”
The following tale relates to a local Native American (Passamaquoddy) man who is referred to stereotypically as an “injun”.  The town’s population includes about 10 % Native Americans, and so a portion of the tales include stories about “Indians.” In this story, it is the Indian who displays the wit at the expense of a local trader.

There was an old Indian, he ran a bill down to R.B. Clark’s in Eastport.  Well they didn’t think old Clark was too straight and so the old Indian went down and paid his bill. He went out on the street and he says, “By George I just over settle up with R.B. Cark, “and his friends says, “Did you get your receipt?” He said, “No, I didn’t get no receipt.”  Well, he says, “You go right back and get a receipt. If you don’t you’ll have to pay that bill over again. Now you go right back and get a receipt.”
So he went back and he says to Clark, he says, “Clark, I got to have a receipt.” Clark says, “What do you want a receipt for?” Well, he says, “I got to have a receipt.” And Clark said, “No, you don’t want a receipt.” He says, “Yes, I want a receipt.  If I die and go up to heaven,” he says, “St. Peter say, “you good injun?” I say, “Yes.” “You pay all your bills?” I say, “Yes.” “You pay R. B. Clark?” And I say, “Yes.” He says, “Where’s your receipt?” He says, “Then I don’t have no receipt and I have to hunt all over hell for R.B., Clark to get a receipt!”
These tales contain stereotypical characters from Maine, told by Mainers to outsiders and to other Mainers.  It is a phenomenon written about by Professor Edward D. Sandy Ives.  In 1984 he wrote a paper about Downeast humor declaring that stories such as these reflect “a clear Maine stereotype—just as clear to Mainers as to non-Mainers.”  Ives believed that the stereotype grew out of the perspective of the summer visitors or tourists who came to Maine in large numbers throughout the 20th century.  They tended to be wealthy, highly educated, cultured people who had read regionalist writings that emphasized local color, regional differences and dialect.  He concluded that the stereotypes grew from stories, “but it is just as true that a stereotype breeds stories."  While Downeast stories are uniquely Maine because they refer to Maine places, people and folklife, there is nothing unique about the humor within the stories.  In that sense, Downeast humor shares traits with and is a part of the universal genre of human humor. [i]

Why do people tell these stories?  Humor is one of those essential traits of humanity.  To be human is to laugh, to tell funny stories, to amuse, and to be creative in our amusements.  Funny stories serve several purposes: to connect us to one another, to point out human weakness and frailty, to teach, and to entertain.  Humor is a significant form of human expression.  Humor can offer insights into the concepts, concerns and values of individuals and groups.  Humans laugh at each other and at themselves.  For these reasons, according to folklorist Bert Wilson, humor should be taken seriously.[ii]







[i] Edward D. Ives, “Maine Folklore and the Folklore of Maine: Some Reflections on the Maine Character and Down-East Humor,” Maine Historical Society Quarterly 23 (1984): 111-32.
[ii] William A. Wilson, The Marrow of Human Experience. Utah State University, 2006, 221.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Courting of Wilbur Day


(Originally published Wednesday, March 14, 2012.) 

I don’t know if it was due to my own recent misadventures in dating, but I recently was thinking about the whole notion of courting—the ways a man tries to win a woman’s heart—and thought I’d take a look in the collections to see what strategies for courting that men have found to be successful.  I found quite a few stories, including one about a man who brought a woman to a dance and bought a box of chocolates which he proceeded to eat saying to her, “ these chocolates are very good, you should buy yourself a box” (NA 159).  But my favorite piece was a poem I found about the courting of Wilbur Day—one of Maine’s early twentieth century hunters.

Wilbur Day came to the attention of folklorist Sandy Ives around 1960 when he began gathering information about a notorious poacher from the 1880s from Washington County known as George Magoon for a book he published  in 1988: George Magoon and the Downeast Game War.  In the course of his investigations he discovered that another man from Washington County, Wilbur Day along with Calvin Graves had been involved with Magoon in illegal hunting.  Graves had killed two game wardens and Day had burned down the warden’s house and barn consequently serving a three-year jail sentence.  One day a student by the name of  Jane Kazutow brought Sandy a copy of a manuscript autobiography of Wilbur Day which he later published as the twenty-fifth volume of Northeast Folklore in 1985.  Wilbur was single-minded and once he made up his mind to do something, he acted upon his plans without further thought.  In June, 1963 Ralph Hayward of Machias Maine sent this poem in to Sandy which tells the delightful story of how Wilbur courted his wife Susie:


On the old Air-Line in Wesley
On a balmy night in June,
Wilbur Day sat at his table
Listening to his favorite tune.
“When It’s Springtime in the Rockies”
His old Phonograph ground out---
He had heard that tune repeated
A hundred times without a doubt.

But tonight it stirred emotions
That seldom bothered him,
As he gazed upon the rising moon
Above the forest rim.
Though his hounds lay all about him
And they often glanced his way;
There was something that seemed to be lacking
To the mind of Wilbur Day.

“Wouldn’t it be fine,” mused Wilbur,
“If I had a better half,
Someone to do the dishes
And wind the phonograph;
Someone who loved me dearly,
A girl with a pretty face,
Some one with a charming figure
Who would share my fond embrace.”

Then he spoke aloud: “By Judas!
There’s a woman on the hill---
Though she isn’t very girlish
She is quite attractive still.
Guess I’ll take a hunk of deermeat
Up to Susie Trafton’s now---
Though I never did much courting,
Kinder reckon I know how.”

In five minutes he was walking
Up the road at an eager pace;
In his eyes there was a twinkle
And with a smile upon his face.
When his eye caught sight of Susie,
 In her arms there was a cat,
And the pace of Wilbur slackened
And his heart went pit-a-pat.

And he thought, “She’s got affection
For that cat—why not me?
And though that cat is in her arms
That’s where I hope to be.”
Then he called “Hello there, Susie!
I’ve some deermeat and it is good.
Do you s’pose that you could use some?
”And she said “You bet I could!”

Then she smiled upon him sweetly
And she said, “Won’t you come in?”
“Oh, I guess I’ll stop a minute,”
Answered Wilbur with a grin.
Then he cleared his throat and blurted:
“Gosh, Susie, I can’t see
Why we couldn’t both be happy
 If you’d come and live with me.

There’s a preacher at the corner---
He could marry us alright—
What do you say I hitch the horse up
And we’ll get hitched tonight?”

“It’s so sudden,” answered Susie,
“I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll be back in twenty mintues,”
Answered Wilbur, “after you.”

Then he put his arms around her
And she let him hold her tight
And he said, Your name, Miss Trafton,
Will change to Day tonight.”

Now you’ve heard about the courting
Of the poacher, Wilbur Day---
“Guess I was a little hasty,”
His old pals have heard him say. (NA1534)

Cold Remedies


(Originally posted Monday, March 5, 2012)

I came down with a head cold or possibly a sinus infection a couple weeks ago, and have been “under the weather” for a few days.  The sneezing and coughing and sniffling got me thinking about how people use traditional medicines to ward off or cure the common cold.  My grandmother used to chop onions and put them in a bag around my mother’s neck (my mother didn’t care for it much).  That was before you could go to the local store and find several shelves of bottles for coughs and colds, coughs and colds with fever, coughs only, sinus, etc.  They come in blue, red and yellow liquids or if you prefer you can purchase tablets or capsules.  I thought when I got back to work I would take a look through the Maine Folklife Center archives and see what other cold remedies might be available.  I wasn’t disappointed.

In 1983 Roberta Chester interviewed Doris B. Johnson in North Orland, Maine:

Well, they used to steep thoroughwart and strain it, put molasses with it or honey, for cough medicine.
Mrs. Johnson also editorialized about the doctor:

And now, something that irks me greatly. An old person is sick, this lady upstairs had quite a cold and she had pains here and there, her granddaughter had to come and get her—had to come from Penobscot and get her, and take her down to the doctor.  I say that doctor should have come to her. Oh, no, they are  so busy they can’t.  I’ve got a doctor that will come to me. Doctor Devolin. She’s a very find doctor. She comes to me. (NA 1699)

Now, I have to agree with Mrs. Johnson when you are sick enough to go to the doctor it is a pretty rough thing to have to drive to the doctor’s office, but that is the way of things today.  But I digress--back to the thoroughwort.  I thought it would be a good idea to consult the experts, so I went to the USDA web site to find out what they said about thoroughwart.  It is likely Eupatorium perfoliatum, also known as common boneset.  A native perennial wildflower with pretty white flowers that grows in damp places.  The leaves have been used in Germany to treat dengue fever and also as a general immune system stimulant.  However they caution that it is also emetic and laxative in large doses and potentially harmful to the liver.

I consulted another interview—Harriet Tilley interviewed Alice Coffin in 1974 in Bangor, Maine. Mrs. Coffin also mentioned thoroughwort mixed in molasses as a cough syrup and also in the making of candy, likening it to hoarhound. (Hoarhound drops are a candy/cough medicine made from a different plant Marrubium vulgare.)(NA 880).

So there you have it.  I know there are many other traditional remedies for colds.  I like chicken soup and hot tea myself. And lots of naps.  I’m not having much luck with the blue, red and yellow stuff so far.  

How to Make a Snow Roller


 (Originally published Tuesday, February 21, 2012.)

The winter of 2011-12 has been pretty snowless so far.  We usually get annual total snowfalls ranging from about 60 inches to over 100 in the greater Bangor area, but this year we are falling far short of that.  We had just a trace of snow here in the Bangor area in February so far, but of course we can still get significant snowfall in March and April, so, no counting chickens.

Thinking about the lack of snow this year (which is cause for celebration among some and cause for mourning among other Mainers), I got to thinking about how people got around in the snow in the past, before the plow and sand trucks were invented.  I noticed in our collection several mentions of a “snow roller,” so I thought I would look into it.  Here is what I found.

In 1976 Linda Madden interviewed Geraldine Hale in Lisbon Falls Maine. Mrs. Hale described snow rollers:

They were still using the snow rollers when I came to town. Most people put their cars up for the winter, because the roads weren’t cleared so they could run cars. They used to have these big rollers drawn by several horses, two to four horses, and they would roll the snow down; pack the snow down hard on the road so that sleighs could be driven and the horses wouldn’t sink in.  The first year I was here in town it was quite an open winter (1921).  But the next winter we had a lot of snow and they used the snow rollers and packed it down.  We had so much snow and it got packed down so hard that I can remember downtown in front of some of the stores they had cut steps in the packed snow and ice so that you could to go from the sidewalk up onto the top of the roadway and go across and then down the other side and we wondered how on earth they were going to get rid of all that ice when spring came. (Accession 1068 page 6).

Linda Madden also interviewed Leon Bard in Lisbon Falls, Maine.  Mr. Bard talks about driving the snow roller:

I’d take a set of double horse sleds. Put two to four to six horses on it according to how much snow you had to plow through. Put a pole across under the sled, generally a small log, probably six inches to eight inches through, about ten feet long. The sled was about five feet long. It would stick out on both sides. Take a small fir tree, about six feet high. Had one on each side, chained it right to the end of the pole so the snow went over the pole. It’d load up in the branches. Then go along and pack the sides down. These big lumps of snow would come over and we’d break them up. We’d hook a chain in back to drag it out. (Accession 1067 pages 115-16).

 In 1996 UM history graduate student Mary Ellen Barnes interviewed Herb Eastman in his home in Chatham, New Hampshire.  Their interview covered several topics relating to Mr. Eastman’s grandfather’s career as a carpenter, farmer and logger.  Mr. Eastman described several processes, one of them how to build a snow roller.

{My Grandfather] made snow rollers. He made two for the town of Chatham, one for the town of Stow.  He got a hundred dollars each for them. There were many hours of hand sawing.  He made them out of oak. I’ve kicked myself time and again that I didn’t get hold of one and preserve it…His was made of wood. Some of them they just took a good sized metal wheel and bolted planks to it. Then put weights on. His was made out of oak and he made the spokes out of 6x6 oak. He cut the pieces to make the rim. There was three pieces bolted together to make the rim and to make it into a circle, so that there was three pieces wide so that the rim came out six inches wide across the face of it. Then the planking was put on with lag screws --that was 3 inch oak. It was put on with lag screws, so the roller was heavy enough so it didn’t have to have a counter weight on it or anything. (Accession 2493).

Not sure I could make one from that description, but I did get an idea of how they work.

Maine Folk Music

(Originally published Thursday, February 16, 2012.)


After watching the Grammy’s the other night and seeing Adele sweep away the competition with her beautiful voice and choice of songs and production, I got to thinking about how the quality of musical performance-whatever the genre of music is so important to its enjoyment. Whether it is popular music, a classical orchestra or an outstanding bluegrass band, what causes one group to rise above another is the excellence of their performance skills coupled with an ability to engage the listener in the process of enjoying the music.

That same quality could be found in the acapella singing of some of our Maine lumberman as folklorist Sandy Ives found as he travelled around the region with his recorder collecting Maine folk songs.  We have a rich collection of this type of singing at the Maine Folklife Center.  Now this is not the type of singing that people usually think of when they hear the term “folk song” or “folk music.”  Very often these phrases bring to mind singer-songwriters like Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary.  That is why those of us who produce the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront are often asked, “Why don’t you have any Maine musicians and bands play at the festival?”  The short answer is, “Actually, we do.”  However, they are not artists who play the type of music popularly referred to as folk music and they have to meet high quality standards of excellence in performance.

While the folk festival features traditional music from around the world, Maine has some excellent traditional musicians and some of them have played at the festival.  What is a traditional musician?  This is someone who learned their music within a family or community group that shares cultural traits. For example, Maine’s own Don Roy, who has performed at the festival in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2008 represents the best of traditional Acadian-style fiddling.

Don Roy has been playing since age 6 when he learned how to play guitar from his uncle Norman Mathieu. He learned to play fiddle from his other uncle, Lucien Mathieu, at the age of 15. While growing up in Rockland, Maine he was influenced by other Franco fiddlers such as Ben Guillemette, Joe and Gerry Robichaud, and Graham Townsend. The sounds of Quebec, Ireland, Ontario and the Maritime Provinces blend in his style of playing.  In 2003 the Maine Arts Commission awarded Don a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant and he has received two traditional arts fellowships for excellence in traditional music. As a member of a French musical family and a Franco-American community, Don was immersed in this tradition, and this is how he learned the music.

Don is only one of several Maine traditional musicians who have played at the festival over the last ten years.  Maine also has other excellent musicians in various genres, including country music.  Perhaps we will see some of them perform at the folk festival in the future.

Maine Black Bear 1923


(Originally published Wednesday, February 8, 2012.)

As I mentioned in my last blog I am frequently delighted and even astounded at the material we have in the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History.  As promised, I am going to tell you about one item I discovered recently that relates to the history of student experience at the University of Maine.
In an undated letter, Mrs. Charles Berdau from Colorado wrote:

Dear Sirs,
I am sending this old story of my father’s feeling that it would be of interest to those of you at the University keeping records of the schools history and past.  Dad did not finish his studies there—as the summer of his freshman year he contacted polio.  Please see that this story gets into the “right hands” up there.

This is a summary of the story she sent.  In the fall of 1923 when Leon P. Brooks of Brownfield, Maine attended the University, the Maine athletic mascot was a real black bear.  Leon was also a member of the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity and although the care of the bear was handled by a senior, Leon volunteered to look after the bear because he would receive free tickets and free train rides to all the Maine football games in the state.  Leon and the three hundred pound bear would lead a parade down through the Main streets of the town where the game was held with the band following.  They would ride on the train so Leon had to take the bear to one end of the baggage car.  The bear was controlled by a twelve foot,  large cable chain.  Leon would put the chain through a rubber hose and wrap that around the bear’s neck and then wrap it around himself, so they were locked together.  Once on board the train, Leon would unlock himself from the chain and hook it around one of the steam pipes so he could go and join the other students.

Leon and the bear rode the train to Lewiston, changing in Waterville. Once in Lewiston, the band with Leon and the bear paraded through the streets. As Leon says, “This bear loved music and the minute the band started playing, he would start prancing.  The people went crazy watching him dance and strut.”
 After the game some University of Maine students  let Leon and the bear ride in their Model T to the train station.  They next rode the train from Lewiston to Brunswick where, at one o’clock in the morning Leon was told by the conductor that a bear could not ride on the train.  Eventually they worked out a deal that allowed the bear to ride with the students in their car. After arriving in Bangor at 3 a.m. Leon found a cab that would bring him and the bear to Orono.  They went back to their fraternity house.

I knew that there had been a real bear mascot in the past, but I had never thought about how the bear might be cared for—certainly not that a student was put in charge of him!  Leon, in spite of his bout with polio lived to be 80 years old. He died in 1982.

L.L. Bean and Maine Traditions

(Originally published Tuesday, January 31, 2012.)


I have been thinking for sometime about creating a blog devoted to Maine traditions.  As the director of the Maine Folklife Center I get a lot of inquiries from students and the general public about folklore. What is it? What do we do here?  Well, in simple terms folklore tends to be about the knowledge that is passed down from one generation to another--generally through word of mouth or demonstration, rather than through formal schooling.  In more practical terms, here at the folklife center we have quite a collection of interviews with tradition bearers about Maine's traditional, resource-based occupations such as lumbering, fishing, farming, boat building and pulp and paper mill work.  We also have a very strong collection of folk song and stories and other narrative types such as proverbs, traditional medicine and so on.  The collection is very large and very deep and I am constantly finding new things there that surprise me.   More on that later.

One of the tasks that I have been responsible for for the last 11 years has been the folk and traditional arts at the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront.  Usually we pick a theme such as boat building or woods traditions and bring in folk artists (such as boat builders and wood carvers) to demonstrate their arts and also have discussion on the narrative stage about these traditions.

Recently another folkore friend of mine, Millie Rahn,  suggested that we conduct programming at the folk festival that reflect's this year's 100th anniversary of L.L.Bean.  I thought that was a fine idea and so we have begun thinking about the kinds of folk arts that are reflected in the L.L.Bean brand: decoys, duck calls, fly tying, snowshoe making, pack basket making and so on.  So I was very pleasantly surprised to receive an email from a colleague in the Parks, Recreation and Tourism department asking if I had any projects that her students could work on.  Yes, I said, and I told her I was looking for some help with this year's program at the folk festival.  A few days later she sent me Sarah Murray.  Sarah and I met this afternoon.

Sarah is not only a student at the University of Maine, she is also the daughter of two parents who work for L.L.Bean and the granddaughter of a grandfather who worked at L.L.Bean.  Sarah's grandfather was a friend of L.L. and used to hunt with him. The company CEO is a family member.  In our discussion, she told me that her father is a product developer and is creating a special edition gun, duck call and pocket knife for the anniversary.  She said her house if full of L.L.Bean products including old duck decoys and other items.  No better example of tradition could I provide than both the ownership of the company (passed down through family) and the family tradition of the Murrays who have worked for L.L. Bean for several generations. I am really looking forward to working with Sarah and her family on this project.