PORTLAND, Maine — Maine humorist, Coast Guard veteran, author and Grammy-nominated musician Capt. Kendall Morse has died. He was 86.
Morse died early Wednesday morning, according to his daughter Elaine Hodnett, of Arundel, who called her father “an extraordinary man.”
Morse gained fame in the 1970s and ‘80s when homegrown Maine storytellers and musicians began to reflect Maine back at itself on records and TV. He helped define Maine’s laconic Yankee view of itself, telling stories in the classic Maine form without fanfare or cutesy smiles. He would take his time getting to droll punchlines and leave it to the listener to figure out if it was funny or not.
“He brought the lore of Maine to the forefront and made it mean something,” said Dave Rowe, a folk singer who shared the stage with Morse many times. “He knew our stories — hell, he made up most of them.”
Morse once told the story of a hunter who stumbled out of the woods one fall day, upset and dragging his hunting buddy’s dead body. Coming upon an old farmer, he said he didn’t know how it happened but he’d just shot the man.
“I could have sworn he was a deer,” the hunter told the old man. “I can’t believe he’s dead.”
The old farmer took a look at the deceased man and said, “Well, he might have lived if you hadn’t gutted him out.”
Born into a family of storytellers in Machias, Morse came by his Down East wit naturally. His uncle Curt, especially, was known far and wide for his “inability to tell the truth,” Morse often said.
Before ending up on stage, Morse first spent time in the U.S. Coast Guard. He had a brush with Cold War history in 1970 while serving aboard the cutter Vigilant off Martha’s Vineyard. In the event known as the “Kudirka Incident,” a Lithuanian sailor from a Soviet fishing vessel tried to defect by jumping aboard. The Coast Guard commander in Boston allowed KGB agents on the Vigilant to retrieve the wayward sailor and was roundly criticized.
“Our captain was furious, as was our whole crew,” Morse said decades after the incident. “Some time later, the Russians allowed him to come to America. Apparently, his mother was an American citizen, so all’s well that ends well, except for that gutless admiral.”
After his Coast Guard service, Morse worked as a coastal warden for what is now the Maine Department of Marine Resources, enforcing fishing regulations on Penobscot Bay. The job had him living aboard a boat in the bay with two other men, year round. The winters were brutal and it kept him away from his wife and children for long stretches of time.
“When I’d come home they were shy about coming near me and two days later, when I left, they were upset,” Morse told the Bangor Daily News In 2015. “So, I finally decided that it was not a job for a married man.”
He eventually became a fisheries enforcement agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When Morse retired from that job he became a full-time musician, storyteller and author.
It was a long and fruitful second act.
Morse performed regularly with other Maine humorists and musicians such as Marshall Dodge, Tim Sample and Gordon Bok. Unlike many performers in the genre who played the part of the “Old Salt,” Morse was the genuine article.
In the 1970’s, he hosted a Maine Public television show featuring Maine storytellers called “In the Kitchen” where he swapped tall tales with the likes of Joe Perham and Bill Gagnon.
In addition to an endless trove of dry stories, Morse also had a fine, clear folk-singing voice and could play both guitar and banjo. He made records for the Folk-Legacy label out of Connecticut. His disc “Seagulls and Summer People,” was recorded live, capturing one of his best known tunes, “Moose Turd Pie.”
His 1981 humor book “Stories Told in the Kitchen” is a benchmark of the genre and features illustrations by Tim Sample. Morse performed a series of shows all over Scotland in 1990 and was invited to perform at the Cecil Sharp Folk Club in London.
Along with his then-wife Jacqui, he was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2009 for the track they contributed to a Utah Phillips tribute album. Phillips once called Morse his favorite folk singer in all of North America.
In recent years, Morse’s singing and storytelling voice was reduced to just a whisper after a battle with cancer wrecked his voice box. But he didn’t let it stop him.
Morse continued to perform and published another book of funny tales and anecdotes in 2015. Most of “Father Fell Down the Well” was dictated straight from his memory.
“To be able to make people laugh is worth quite a lot,” Morse told the BDN. “I try to make somebody laugh every day. And I’ve never failed.”