April 07, 2020
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The history of Maine in 11 popular songs, singers and composers

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
It's Maine's bicentennial year. Here's a completely subjective list of songs illustrating both the state's timeline and the best qualities of Mainers throughout history.

PORTLAND, Maine — This is the year of the state’s bicentennial. Journalists and storytellers everywhere are looking for interesting ways to tell the tale of Maine’s first 200 years. Here’s a completely subjective list of songs illustrating both the state’s timeline and the best qualities of Mainers throughout history.

Supply Belcher

“An Anthem of Praise”

Published 1794

Belcher (yes, that’s his real name) is Maine’s original, scrappy DIY musician. The self-taught composer of both sacred and secular choral pieces worked a day job his whole life and self-published his own music.

Born in Stoughton, Massachusetts, in 1751, Belcher served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and eventually reached the rank of captain. He moved to Hallowell and then Farmington around 1791. Belcher lived in that western Maine town the rest of his life, working as a tax assessor, teacher, town clerk and justice of the peace. The whole time, he was hustling music on the side.

In 1794, Belcher self-published a book of original music called “The Harmony of Maine.” The tome made him regionally famous. One newspaper dubbed Belcher “The Handel of Maine” — but he never gave up his day jobs. Belcher based “An Anthem of Praise” on the Bible’s 100th Psalm. Listening to it today, it evokes Sunday morning service-goers singing in an austere white-clapboard church, somewhere on the state’s early frontier.

Belcher lived long enough to see Maine become a state. He died in 1836 and is buried in Farmington.

Larry Gorman

“The Boys of the Island”

Written circa 1885

Gorman’s comical and scathing songs about working in the Maine woods are still remembered today because they paint such vivid pictures of life in the old lumber camps: the rancid food, oddball characters, tightfisted bosses and relentless Maine weather. He made up songs full time in his head but never wrote most of them down. Still, many made their way into the oral tradition. 

Gorman was born on Prince Edward Island in 1846 and came to Maine as a lumberman when the shipbuilding industry failed there. Back then, making up songs to pass the time in camp was common but Gorman was a master of the craft because he never really stopped working on them in his head.

“There are stories of Larry at work, suddenly stopping, staring off into space and even walking away from the job, hands behind his back, head down, steps measured,” wrote folk song historian Sandy Ives in 1960.

Gorman’s “Boys of the Island” paints a picture of Bangor’s glory days as a lumber capital — and ground zero for inebriated woodsmen with pockets full of money in the spring. In the tune, Gorman warns young men from PEI not to come and get drunk or they’ll be hauled off to jail.

“In Bangor they’ll poison the youth with bad whiskey, to the devil they banish all brandy and ale,” Gorman wrote. “And when on the corner they find the boy tipsy, they’ll send for Tim Leary and march him to jail.”

Gorman died in Bangor in 1917 and is buried in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery but his songs live on.

Noel Joseph

Passamaquoddy “Song of the Snake Dance”

Recorded 1890

Anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes arrived in Calais 130 years ago with an Edison wax cylinder recording machine. Working with Joseph and others, Fewkes preserved a handful of tribal songs and stories. The seminal field recordings were largely forgotten until they were digitized and enhanced last year.

The scratchy recordings stayed in Fewkes’ family at first but they eventually ended up at Boston’s Peabody Museum. Passamaquoddy tribal members didn’t hear them again until the 1970s and 1980s, when the Library of Congress dubbed them onto cassette tapes. By then, with tons of background noise, the recordings were hard to make out.

More recently, the tribe has worked on digital restoration and enhancement of the priceless recordings with the library. 

The youngest fluent Passamaquoddy speaker, Dwayne Tomah, transcribed and interpreted every cylinder recording. Then, his work was reviewed by a panel of other fluent Passamaquoddy speakers. Some of the recordings can be heard on a website.

The songs — many of which are sacred — can’t be thought of as popular music. But they are too important to not be included here. 

“I really wept,” Tomah told Maine Public in 2019. “Hearing their voices. Knowing that I’m probably one of the last fluent speakers on the reservation. And that we’re still continuing this process to be able to revitalize our language and bring it back to life again, so to speak. And give it some attention that it really deserves.”

Rudy Vallee

“Maine Stein Song”

Released 1930

It’s the only college fight song ever to reach the top of the charts. An unabashed drinking anthem, Vallee’s version stayed at number one for eight straight weeks in 1930 — while prohibition was still in effect. It can still be heard before most athletic games on campus in Orono.

Vallee grew up in Westbrook and attended the University of Maine in 1921. By the time he recorded the song, he was already a star and the nation’s first sex-symbol crooner. A forerunner to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra Vallee took advantage of the new format of radio to sing softly, as if he was in the room with you, rather than shouting from a stage. Listeners of the day found it quite seductive and downright intimate. 

Vallee had a long career in showbiz and performed the tune at the school’s’ 100th homecoming in 1975 at age 74.

The song’s lyrics were penned in a half-hour in 1902 by student Lincoln Colcord. He went on to have a storied career in political journalism, writing for The New York Post, The Nation and The Washington Post, among others.

Betty Cody

“I Found Out More Than You Ever Knew”

Released 1952

Cody had a major label recording contract and business offers from Elvis Presley’s manager, but she gave them up to raise her sons in Maine. It’s an equation many musicians have had to work out: to leave home for opportunity or stay here for the quality of life.

She was born Rita Francis Cote in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in 1921 and moved to Maine with her large family as a child. Cody took the anglicized stage name when she married country singer Hal Lone Pine in 1940.

Cody was signed to MCA Records in 1952 when she sang the top ten hit “I Found Out More Than You Ever Knew.” It was a sassy retort to another hit called  “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.” They’re essentially two songs, arguing over the same, imaginary man.

Eventually, Cody gave up both her husband and big time country music. She divorced Lone Pine, worked in an L/A shoe shop and raised her sons in Maine — even though she had a job offer from The King’s business guru.

“Colonel Parker, Elvis’ manager, was trying to get her to sign on and was going to make her a star,” son Denny Breau told Maine Public in 2014. “And it involved leaving the kids behind for six months, and she said, ‘Nah. I’m done.’ And we went back to Maine and she took care of us. And she was a wonderful, wonderful mom.”

Breau, and his brother Lenny, both grew up to be guitarists of renown. Cody kept singing locally until her death in 2014 at age 92.

Dick Curless

“Tombstone Every Mile”

Released 1965

This Maine trucking anthem paid homage to the “big and burly men who roll the trucks along” the dangerous winter side roads, hauling potatoes to Boston.

As the story goes, songwriter Dan Fulkerson lived in Bangor but his kids lived in Houlton with his ex-wife. Fulkerson didn’t have a car and had to snag rides with potato-hauling truckers to see them on the weekends. At the time (this was the early 1960s) Interstate 95 didn’t go all the way to Houlton. To fetch the spuds up in The County, truckers had to make the white-knuckle run up Route 2 from Macwahoc to Linneus via the Haynesville Woods.

“It’s a stretch of road up north in Maine, that’s never, ever, ever, seen a smile,” Fulkerson later wrote. “If they buried all the truckers lost in them woods, there’d be a tombstone every mile.”

Fort Fairfield-born, eyepatch-wearing, country singer Dick Curless recorded the song in 1965 and it spent two weeks at number five on the charts. Curless later went on to record several more of Fulkerson’s songs, including “Six Times a Day” which peaked at number 12. Curless enjoyed a long career in music and had 22 top-40 hits in all. 

Curless died in 1995 and Fulkerson in 2019.

David Mallet 

“The Garden Song”

Released 1979

Mallett’s song about planting a garden “inch by inch, row by row” became an anthem for the back-to-the-land movement in his home state of Maine when he released it in 1979. Written earlier, in 1975, it’s now an international folk standard. Noel Paul Stooky, Pete Seeger, John Lithgow, Arlo Guthrie and the Muppets have all recorded the song. John Denver’s version even made the charts.

Mallett grew up singing in a duo with his older sibling, Neil. They made records and even had their own local television show in Bangor. Mallett didn’t find his own songwriting voice until after going solo in college. For a few years in the ’80s, he made records in Nashville and had other songs recorded by country stars of the day.

These days, Mallett lives in Sebec but still plays shows all over the county. His sons, Luke and Will, have their own band called The Mallett Brothers.

Wicked Good Band

“State O’ Maine”

Released 1988

It’s not Maine’s official anthem but maybe it should be. It’s a tribute to a state that knows not to take itself too seriously.

This zany band started as a group of friends at Deering High School in the late 1960s. Their commercial heyday lasted most of the 1980s. It included several albums, a book, a VHS tape and gigs from “Waterboro to Dry Mills, from Eastport to West Buxton,” as they liked to say. That’s when their comedic anthem, penned by washtub bassist Bill Schulz, became a local hit. 

“China, Paris, Norway, just outside my doorway, in State O’ Maine,” it goes, “In the summer come the tourists and they nauseate the purists but their money is still green. We’ll sell ’em junk that’s from Korea, authentic souvenir — State O’ Maine.”

They still play a few gigs every year though they like to fly under the radar. The band doesn’t have a website. Their first three records are out of print and unavailable online. The above “State O’ Maine” video is the only one in cyberspace. It features Schulz singing with the author of this article.

Schooner Fare 

“Portland Town”

Released 1983

The song was penned by the powerful folk trio’s main songwriter, Steve Romanoff. It was closely associated with Portland’s 350 birthday in 1983. It symbolized the city’s emergence from the economic and cultural doldrums — and dripped with its new sense of pride and hope for the future.

The band was touring a lot in those days and, on the surface, the lyrics are about catching sight of Portland Head Light upon returning home.

“I see the light, across the bay. I see the light, not far away,” the song goes. “And I hear music all around. I’m getting close to Portland town.”

But the song’s feeling ran deeper among locals. The city had fallen apart after the WWII shipbuilding boom. By the late ’60s, downtown was downtrodden and the waterfront was derelict. The song appeared at just the right time. After a decade of private and government investments in the 1970s, Portland was turning a corner. There was a new library, art museum, and civic center. The Old Port was alive again.

“Here comes that beacon ‘cross the sky and when I hold my head up high, I see the light,” the lyrics rang.

In 1985, the band Barleycorn covered the song and it topped the charts in Ireland for several weeks. Today, with the death of bass player Tom Rowe in 2004, Schooner Fare performs as a duo with Romanoff and his brother, Chuck Romanoff.

Spose

“I’m Awesome”

Released 2010

Ryan Peters’ paean to his own inadequacies had too many f-bombs to get much mainstream radio play when it came out in 2010. It still managed to squeak into the top 40, sell a half-million copies and ignite a hip-hop renaissance in the Pine Tree State. The uncensored version currently has 15 million views on Youtube.

In 2009, Peters — better known as Spose — had a record deal and a television pilot for MTV, but none of it quite worked out. When it fizzled, he came home to concentrate on making an unlikely rap career in Maine. Since his breakout tune, Peters’ has made more successful music, toured regularly, written a book for kids and released a Maine-themed phone app. He caused controversy in 2014, relating U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to oral sex in the lyrics of a song.

Last year, he told Maine the Magazine: “There’s really no reason to leave, at least for my occupation, because electricity, Spotify and YouTube are just as close to Maine as they are to New York or Los Angeles.”

Ghost of Paul Revere

“Ballad of the 20th Maine”

Released 2015

Last year, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill proclaiming this song the official state ballad. Written by the holler-folk trio’s Griffin Sherry, it tells the first-person story of Andrew Tozier, a real-life native of Litchfield. At age 23, Tozier joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War and eventually transferred to the storied 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

The regiment, led by Bowdoin College professor Joshua Chamberlain, saved the day with a famous bayonet charge on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Tozier was the regimental color-bearer and was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery during the battle.

The ballad is rich with layered harmonies and lopes along in fast waltz time. It ties Maine’s past to its present by evoking one of its proudest historical moments while also sounding totally contemporary. 

Sherry’s bandmates, Max Davis and Sean McCarthy, first met in preschool but didn’t become a band until after college. They’ve made appearances on national television, toured the country and sold out Portland’s State Theater more than once. The band is currently playing a string of shows in Europe.


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