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