Maine Folklife Center: an endangered friend

Posted July 29, 2009, at 5:53 p.m.

I first came to Orono in 1972 for what I thought would be a six-month stint volunteering in the folklore archives at the University of Maine. Back in Connecticut, my resolutely urban family was convinced I’d moved to northeast of nowhere and would be eaten by bears.

The archives’ founder — Edward D. Ives to the library catalogue, Sandy to everyone else — had made a similar journey northward from New York City nearly 20 years earlier. He had had a job, teaching English at the university, awaiting him. It didn’t pay much, though, and he soon found himself trying to earn a little extra by singing folk songs to community groups.

He knew a lot about folk songs. He’d written a master’s thesis on one. Folk songs, he had learned, were shaped by the forces of a nameless, faceless tradition. The best were medieval survivals, lingering on in out-of-the-way places. Some had even been collected, back in the 1920s and ’30s, from very old people long since dead, right here in Maine.

So Sandy was pretty surprised when his recitals elicited responses such as, “Oh, my aunt knows that song.” He was even more surprised to find that, within living memory, some indisputably folk songs had been composed by definite persons, such as Larry Gorman, who lived in Brewer, worked at the Eastern pulp mill and was definitely a personality.

This realization sent Sandy on a remarkable journey of intellectual discovery, fueled by self-discipline, superb scholarship and a belief in the power of serendipity. The output included some dozen books and many hours of tape in the folklore archives. Sightings along the way ranged from Washington County moose poachers and Scots-border warlords to Maine country musicians and the vernacular architecture of Veazie.

Generations of University of Maine students were enthralled audiences for the resulting travelogue. As time wore on, many became fellow-voyagers, their names turning up in footnotes and co-author credits to Sandy’s many publications, occasionally on title pages of publications of their own. Sandy also learned a lot from his students, many of whom (especially in the early years) were adult learners from all over Maine taking courses through Extension Education. If you wrote a term paper for one of Sandy’s folklore courses before 1993, you’ll find yourself listed as an author in URSUS, the university’s online library catalogue.

Today Sandy’s former students are librarians, educators, Master Gardeners, lawyers and community organizers. They have worked in businesses, nonprofits and government across the length and breadth of Maine. They have taken what they learned about Maine tradition and become active community builders.

Though an accidental Mainer, like them I’ve become a committed one. I have (so far) successfully avoided bears, but the very existence of the Maine Folklife Center — which now includes the archives in its program of preservation, education, and fieldwork — is threatened by the university’s latest budget crisis. Contemplating this, a fine old folkloric phrase springs to mind: penny-wise, pound-foolish.

First, the center contains essential information. If we expect traditional Maine values to carry us into an uncertain future, we need to maintain a connection with Maine traditions. Those whose voices the center preserves knew things we need to know — not least the skills of life with a low carbon footprint.

Second, a lot of this material is on tape. If not properly maintained, it will deteriorate. Without a staff, it will quickly become inaccessible. Ironically, new technologies mean that, with proper funding, we could make these taped stories, songs and oral history interviews available to lovers of Mainers worldwide over the Internet.

Third, the present has a way of turning inexorably into the past, and what we want to know about the past has a way of changing. An archive not part of an ongoing effort at outreach, study, and education is of little use.

Fourth, once mothballed, an active program like the Maine Folklife Center’s can’t be cheaply revived. You would as easily re-root a flower dried and pressed between the pages of an album.

Under Sandy’s successors, the Maine Folklife Center has continued his work of research, preservation, and public programming about Maine traditions. Perhaps you’ve seen its annual presentations at the American Folk Festival or participated in Story Bank, its latest effort.

The center’s modest staff (three people with years of experience and combined pay of just over $100,000) is an investment we can’t afford to waste. Perhaps with a little Yankee ingenuity, we can find a way to maintain this priceless resource.

Lisa Feldman of Orono works at University College of Bangor.

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