These long-hidden Maine folk songs are being heard for the first time in a century

BRISTOL, Maine – Julia Lane and Fred Gosbee started singing folk songs together 35 years ago. Since then, the music and life partners have raised three children, released dozens of albums and performed thousands of concerts from Maine to Florida, California to Kosovo.

Now, at an age when most people are settling into a well-deserved retirement, the duo have just put the finishing touches on their biggest project yet: a folk song book, 10 years of work.

For material, Lane and Gosbee scoured university and public archives throughout the Northeast, tracking down thousands of unpublished ballads collected directly from Mainers’ mouths in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The primitive audio recordings and dusty manuscripts they found languished, unheard or ignored, for a century or more.

This month, after the gargantuan task of cross-referencing, lyric editing and melodic notation, the duo releases their first compilation of 163 folk songs, all about ships, sailors and the sea. With the volume, Lane and Gosbee resurrect the voices and stories of long-dead and forgotten Mainers, connecting them to the current generation and beyond.

“It’s more of a filing cabinet than an archive,” Lane said. “I want people to sing those 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.

“Bygone Ballads of Maine, Volume 1: Songs of Ships & Sailors”, a collection of previously unreleased folksongs collected in Maine before 1950, represents ten years of work by longtime folksinging duo Julia Lane and Fred Gosbee of Bristol. Credit: Courtesy of Julia Land and Fred Gosbee

When Lane and Gosbee met in 1986, both were already musicians, steeped in folk tradition.

Lane has deep family roots in Maine and grew up primarily in New Hampshire. When her mother was pregnant with her little brother, she gave Lane a guitar that she could no longer play around her big belly.

“I loved folk music as a kid,” said Lane, 65. “I loved the stories told by the songs. 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 got really into folksongs 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. This is the name they have recorded and performed under ever since.

Castlebay is a village on the Scottish island of Barra, in the Hebrides, between Scotland and Ireland.

The name reflects the couple’s continued exploration of Maine’s folk music roots in the Old World, particularly Ireland, England and Scotland. Although much scholarly work has been done over the decades on how immigrants from these countries affected the traditional music of the southern Appalachians, relatively little has been done regarding its influence here at the northern end of the range. of mountains.

With their new book, Lane and Gosbee hope to begin to address that oversight.

Even as a child, Lane remembers wondering about the origins of the folk songs she sang, going to the library, trying to find more information. This habit turned into a deep commitment to explaining the songs on stage, making sure the audience understood the sometimes obscure references embedded in the lyrics.

Eventually, Castlebay began releasing context-laden 40-page brochures with some of their albums.

About 10 years ago, Lane and Gosbee started looking for new content for a book-length project.

At the end of the 19th century, scholars of American literature across the country began to write and study 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 have been interested in the relationship between American folk songs and their European ancestors.

Maine was no exception.

Famous “song hunters”, such as Marguerite Olney, Fanny Hardy Eckstorm, Robert Winslow Gordon and Helen Hartness Flanders scoured the countryside, looking for Mainers with songs they could sing from memory.

Much of what Lane and Gosbee uncovered was documented, analyzed and published long ago – but not all.

“We found a lot of songs that hadn’t seen the light of day yet,” Lane said.

Lane and Gosbee actually found over 1,000.

In some cases, the lyrics had been published but without a melody, even when the source was an audio recording. Most of the collectors weren’t musicians, but English majors interested only in the language.

For the book, Gosbee and Lane spent months listening to messy and drafty audio recordings hidden deep in the bowels of abandoned library archives, trying to match written lyrics with recorded tunes, as well as documenting new discoveries.

Often the ancient Maine singers sang in deep accents, using obscure idioms, their unaccompanied melodies chirping.

“Especially when you take into account most people’s age and emphysema and the terrible recording technology of the time,” Gosbee said. “It’s before tape recorders, before World War II.”

Once paired, Land and Gosbee wrote the melodies in musical notation. It was exhausting work.

“We still haven’t figured out some of them,” Gosbee said.

Julia Lane and Fred Gosbee from Bristol have been musical and life partners for 35 years, recording dozens of albums and singing folk songs around the world. Today they publish their first book. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

Some of the most remote archives where they located Maine folk songs include Middlebury College, the University of Maine, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library.

In one archive, they came across a Searsport family’s self-published genealogy book that included dozens of 19th century folk songs.

“There were only 25 copies, printed for family members,” Lane said.

After finding many more songs than they could fit into a single book, Lane and Gosbee decided to pick a theme, to help them narrow it down.

“It was a tough process to decide,” Lane said.

In the end, they chose just over 150 songs about ships and sailors.

They are already planning a second volume, although they haven’t decided 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.

A sea song included in their current book comes from the 1842 journal of Portland sailor David N. Poor. The ditty, titled “Jack Tar’s Frolic”, tells the familiar story of a sailor who arrives in town with a lot of money after a voyage. He then continues to spend it all on ladies and booze until he is broke and goes to sea once more.

In part, it says, “Now, Jack, he understands/There’s a ship to pilot/And to the West Indies or to the West Indies she’s bound/With a sweet and pleasant gust of wind/Oh, she spreads a high sail/And bid farewell to the girls of this town.

Putting together the collection, Lane and Gosbee said they felt like they were giving voice to long-dead singers like Poor.

“I feel like they’re sitting on my shoulder, clearing their throats and asking me to listen to them again,” Lane said.

The couple also hope the book will help fill in the missing gaps in Maine’s musical heritage, making residents realize that they have traditions here that are just as valid as the more well-known ones down south. Lane and Gosbee also hope the book is a living thing, encouraging people to sing along.

“We’re trying to give people access to this stuff,” Lane said. “It’s important. It’s up to you to sing. Do what you want with it, it’s popular tradition.

“Bygone Ballads of Maine, Volume 1: Songs of Ships & Sailors” is available at Loomis House Press and Castle Bay.

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