BRISTOL, Maine – Julia Lane and Fred Gosbee started singing folk songs together 35 years ago. Since then, the music and life partners raised three children, released dozens of albums and played thousands of concerts from Maine to Florida, California to Kosovo.
Now, at ages when most people are settling into a well-deserved retirement, the duo have just put the finishing touches on their biggest project yet: A book of folk songs, 10 years in the making.
For material, Lane and Gosbee scoured academic and public archives all over the northeast, hunting down thousands of previously unpublished ballads collected straight from Mainers’ mouths during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The primitive audio recordings and dusty manuscripts they found were languishing, unheard or ignored, for a century or more.
This month, after the gargantuan task of cross referencing, editing lyrics and notating melodies, the pair are publishing their first compilation of 163 folk songs, all about ships, sailors and the sea. With the volume, Lane and Gosbee are resurrecting the voices and stories of long-dead and forgotten Mainers, connecting them with the present generation and beyond.
“This is more of a workbook than an archive,” Lane said. “I want people to sing these songs again.”
The book, “Bygone Ballads of Maine, Volume 1: Songs of Ships & Sailors,” published by Loomis House Press, can now be ordered online and will be available in bookstores later this year.
When Lane and Gosbee met in 1986, both were already musicians, steeped in the folk tradition.
Lane has deep family roots in Maine and grew up mostly in New Hampshire. When her mother was pregnant with her little brother, she gave Lane a guitar she could no longer play around her large belly.
“I loved folk music as a child,” Lane, 65, said. “I loved the stories the songs told. They were part of the flow of my life.”
Gosbee, 72, grew up in a large family based in Harmony. He started making his own instruments in high school and really got into folk songs in college at the University of Maine in the 1970s.
“You really couldn’t go to college without a guitar back then,” Gosbee said.
When they joined forces, Lane and Gosbee named their band – originally a quartet – Castlebay. That’s the name they’ve recorded and performed under, ever since.
Castlebay is a village on the Scottish island Barra, in the Hebrides, between Scotland and Ireland.
The name reflects the pair’s ongoing exploration of Maine’s folk music roots in the Old World, especially Ireland, England and Scotland. While much scholarly work has been done over the decades about how immigrants from these countries affected southern Appalachian traditional music, relatively little has been done concerning its influence here, at the northern end of the mountain range.
With their new book, Lane and Gosbee hope to start remedying that oversight.
Even as a child, Lane remembers wondering about the origins of the folk songs she was singing, going to the library, trying to find out more information. That habit grew into a deep commitment to explaining songs on stage, making sure audiences understood the sometimes obscure references embedded in the lyrics.
Eventually, Castlebay started publishing 40-page, context-laden pamphlets with some of their albums.
About 10 years ago, Lane and Gosbee started looking for fresh content for a book-length project.
At the tail end of the 19th century American literature scholars all over the country began writing down and studying songs from the oral tradition. Later, when the technology became available at the dawn of the 20th century, they also started recording the singers. Most scholars were interested in how American folk songs were related to their European ancestors.
Maine was no exception.
Famous “song hunters,” such as Marguerite Olney, Fanny Hardy Eckstorm, Robert Winslow Gordon and Helen Hartness Flanders roamed the countryside, looking for Mainers with songs they could sing from memory.
Much of what Lane and Gosbee found was documented, analyzed and published long ago – but not everything.
“We found plenty of songs that had yet to see the light of day,” Lane said.
Lane and Gosbee actually found over 1,000 of them.
In some cases, the words had been published but without a melody, even when the source was an audio recording. Most of the collectors were not musicians, but English majors interested in the language only.
For the book, Gosbee and Lane spent months listening to scratchy, garbled audio recordings hidden deep in the bowels of forsaken library archives, trying to match written lyrics with recorded tunes, as well as document fresh finds.
Often, the old-time Maine singers sang in deep accents, using obscure language idioms, their unaccompanied melodies warbling.
“Especially when you factor in most people’s age, emphysema and the terrible recording technology back then,” Gosbee said. “This is all before tape machines, before WWII.”
Once matched, Land and Gosbee wrote the melodies out in musical notation. It was exhausting work.
“We still haven’t figured out some of them,” Gosbee said.
Some of the far-flung archives where they located Maine folk songs away include Middlebury College, the University of Maine, the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library.
In one archive, they stumbled on a self-published genealogy book from a Searsport family which included dozens of remembered folk songs from the 19th century.
“There were only 25 copies, printed for family members,” Lane said.
After finding many more songs than they could possibly publish in one book, Lane and Gosbee decided to pick a theme, to help them narrow it down.
“It was a difficult process to decide,” Lane said.
In the end, they chose a little over 150 songs about ships and sailors.
They’re already planning a second volume, though they have not settled on a theme yet.
“It could be farming, disasters or even murders,” Lane said. “It could be a whole book of tragedies but who wants to read that?”
“Some people would,” Gosbee said.
One sea song included in their current book comes from the 1842 journal of Portland sailor David N. Poor. The ditty, called “Jack Tar’s Frolic,” tells the familiar story of a sailor who hits town with plenty of money after a voyage. He then proceeds to spend it all on ladies and booze until he’s broke and bound for sea once more.
In part, it goes: “Now Jack he understands/There’s a ship for to be manned/And to the East or West Indies she is bound/With a sweet and pleasant gale/Oh, she spreads a lofty sail/And bids adieu to the girls of this town.”
Putting the collection together, Lane and Gosbee said they feel like they’re giving voice to long-gone singers like Poor.
“I feel like they’re sitting right on my shoulder, clearing their throats and asking me to listen to them again,” Lane said.
The pair also hopes the book helps fill the gaps missing from Maine’s musical heritage, making residents understand they have traditions here every bit as valid as better-known ones down south. Lane and Gosbee also hope the book is a living thing, encouraging people to sing.
“We’re trying to get people access to this stuff,” Lane said. “It’s important. This is for you to sing. Do what you want with it – that’s the folk tradition.”