Storytelling and Maine Humor
Knox County — Our South End poet, Kendall Merriam pointed out to me that I must have read O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf” as inspiration for my poem in the October archives, “Falling Down and Staying There.” I declared I hadn’t but promised to read that story.
I did just that and rediscovered my love of probably the best storyteller of our time. He is known best for his short stories, and as I am presently exploring that genre for a new book, it behooved me to reacquaint myself with his work.
O. Henry was a pseudonym for William Sydney Porter. All of his work can be viewed on a wonderful site called www.online-lieterature.com/donne/1303/ .
As I reread O.Henry I was struck by his use of language and how much the language has evolved since that time. English is always changing, ever so slowly, every day. You don’t even realize how much our way of speaking and writing has changed until you reread a story like the one from O.Henry called “The Snow Man.” Who would write a sentence like this today?
“The flakes were as large as an hour’s circular tatting by Miss Wilkins’s ablest spinster betokening a heavy snowfall and less entertainment and more adventure than the completion of the tatting could promise.”
Do you even know what tatting is? When’s the last time you heard words like “spinster” and “betokening.” We’ve lost the ability to write such long unpunctuated sentences like this. Today’s reader often doesn’t have the patience to wade through stories containing such drawn out descriptions.
After reading O.Henry for a while I began to wonder about our own storytellers in Maine. I have explored this subject before in a Maine music blog.
Maine’s storytellers are mostly of the humor variety. Maine humor is a lot like British humor. Some of you will get it, others won’t. It helps your understanding of Maine humor if you are actually a native of Maine.
I’d like to mention three of our most famous Maine humorists here.
Bert And I
When the “Bert and I” album came out in 1958, my sister and my cousins Diane and Mary Sue used to go around quoting them. Like “Which way to East Millinocket? Come to think of it, you caunt get there from here.”
Mary Sue became the best mimicker, out of the four of us, of these two great humorists and to this day can probably repeat one of their stories word for word.
Bert and I were actually Robert Bryan and Marshall Dodge who recorded the album while students at Yale. They were not Maine natives but developed an uncanny ability to copy the downeast accent. It’s the best stab at it I’ve ever encountered.
In 2008 their humor was celebrated for its 50th anniversary. There’s a wonderful story about the pair at www.boston.com. Just look for Bert and I.
They have been recognized by Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon fame, who was inspired by the pair. Keillor says he played cuts from their album as a morning disc jockey. Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller, has put them on his list of the top 12 comedy albums along with those of George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and the Smothers Brothers.
Again, as you listen to an old cut from that album you will notice phrases and words we no longer hear. The well-known “downeast” fisherman’s accent is fast disappearing. The old Bert and I album continues to serve as an historical record of the times that included visits from the “Bangor packet.”
Here’s one of the most famous stories from Bert and I via Youtube: Bert & I story-Bob Bryan
Another Maine humorist, Tim Sample, was seven when the Bert and I album came out. He later worked with Dodge before his death in 1982 in a hit-and-run crash while bicycling in Hawaii.
The program “Sunday Morning” did a piece on Sample in their “Postcards from Maine” with Charles Kuralt before he left the show. Look for it on YouTube: Sunday Morning Postcards from Maine #1
I listened to some of Sample’s work the other day and couldn’t stop laughing. He has done a piece about Moody’s Diner and this YouTube performance from the Portland Performing Arts Center also found on YouTube: Mr. Coffee IV
Sample also used the old dialect in his work.
The third Maine humorist of note is Bob Marley, who is very popular right now. Marley represents how Maine humor has evolved into its modern day form. I have discussed his work before when I did the Maine music blog. Even though you can tell Marley is from Maine the minute he opens his mouth, Marley doesn’t use the old downeast phrasing like the old Bert and I work or Tim Sample’s work; but follows a popular form of today’s stand-up comics. Here’s one of his pieces from YouTube: Bob Marley on Long Wintahs in Maine A warning: it has some strong language.
There is a storytelling festival at The University of Maine at Farmington every summer. If you are interested in attending, find out more at www.wmsfestival.org.
Among participants last year were musical storytellers, David Surette, Susie Burke and Matt Shipman.
There is also a storytelling swap which could be very interesting if you are of a mind to get into storytelling yourself. I think most Maine people have an innate ability to tell a good story.
I like to call myself a storyteller myself. I hope you have enjoyed my efforts so far. Look for many more stories to come.
Thanks for listening.