You cahn’t get theah from heah.
Being from away.
These are some of Maine’s most distinctive sounds and cultural catchphrases, but experts say fewer and fewer young people are using them. Some have never even heard them.
Those who are bothered by the idea that young Mainers may never have been exposed to a regional Maine accent might be cheered to hear that a pair of central Maine songwriters hope to buck the trend by injecting a strong dose of Maine-isms into the chorus rooms of schools across the state.
“So far we’re on a fool’s errand, you know,” said Stan Keach, a songwriter and recently retired teacher from Rome. Keach’s accent is only faintly present in his everyday speech, but it takes center stage when the folk and bluegrass musician performs his song, “Boots from L.L. Bean,” which plays with the idea that Maine’s natives belong to an exclusive idiomatic club.
The song is about someone from away – a term applied to anyone born out of state – attempting to blend with the locals by buying “rubbah-bottom boots” from Maine’s most famous retailer.
In the end, the singer tells the out-of-stater, “You’ll be sayin’ ‘Wicked good!’ just like any Yankee would, and showin’ off those boots from L.L. Bean.”
Keach has been singing for years, but he recently started working with musical arranger Larry Morissette of Hallowell, also a recently retired teacher, to sell the music to teachers around the state.
Keach said his music is an improvement over the “music from away” that’s taught in almost all of Maine’s music classrooms.
“They do stuff that’s not about Maine,” Keach said. “This would be something that adds some interest. You’re not doing it for some faceless people in Ohio or California.”
Some music teachers are excited by the idea.
“I think Stan Keach is a trend setter,” said Drew Albert, the music director at Maranacook Community High School in Readfield, where both Keach and Morissette used to teach.
Albert said Keach’s songs engage Maine students.
“It’s funny when you walk into a class and you actually see all the L.L. Bean boots,” he said. “I think people take a lot of pride in stuff from Maine.”
But Keach and Albert both said young people aren’t as well versed in local color as their elders.
“I don’t know that they’re familiar with those Maine colloquialisms, like ‘You can’t get there from here,’ ” Albert said.
Keach said that while recording some of the music with a group of students from Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale, some students seemed to have never heard the Maine accent before.
David Morris, a junior at Hall-Dale from Gardiner, was among the group of eight students who sang in the two-hour recording session with Keach to make a demo recording for the project.
Morris said he’s been living in the state since he was 4, but neither he nor any of his classmates speak with that distinctive Down East drawl.
“Trying out the real Maine accent in this song, it was really difficult,” he said.
Morris said he hears the Maine accent spoken only in overheard snatches of conversation when he is walking in downtown Gardiner, or from a particular substitute teacher.
“It’s something that’s being lost,” Keach said. “Maybe it has to be lost, but we should have some familiarity with it. It’s who we are.”
Morris’ classmate Eva Shepherd, who also sang in the recording session, said the only time she’s heard a really strong Maine accent is when it’s been parodied.
“People are always impersonating it,” she said, “like the lady in the Marden’s commercial.”
IS ACCENT LOSING ITS GRIP?
A team of researchers from Dartmouth College and the University of Texas at Austin set out to determine whether the distinctive Yankee accent was disappearing from New England. In a study published last year, they found that islands of Yankee speech are getting smaller and are becoming concentrated in eastern areas, a change that began sometime after the 1960s.
Shepherd’s family is a good example of how Maine’s accent is losing its grip on the tongues of younger generations. No one in her family has “an overwhelming accent,” she said, but she does hear it in the speech of her grandparents’ generation.
Shepherd said her mother’s accent is weaker than that of the earlier generation. It comes out only on certain words, when she is talking to older family members, or when she is angry.
“When she counts, she’s like, ‘one, two, three, fo-ah,’ ” Shepherd said. “That’s when I notice it the most.”
In a world of global broadcasts and easy international travel, people and the words they say are increasingly similar. For English speakers, the end result is the flat, unaffected language that often can be heard on television shows.
Keach and Morissette say their songs function like a kind of museum display case, preserving the culture of Maine’s bygone way of speaking for generations to come.
“They’re real stories about Maine people written by Maine artists,” Morissette said. “There’s a real value to that.”
He said teaching local music can bolster the connection between students and their community, particularly the artistic community.
“They get to interact with the musicians that are making that whole thing work. They can ask questions. They can interact, learn how it was conceived and how it developed,” he said.
He also said there is a value in using local music to teach students about history, something he learned to do as a teacher.
“I taught all the subjects through the arts, in effect,” Morissette said. “Any connection I could make to any other subject, I would do that, because that’s what the arts do.”
LEARNING THROUGH THE ARTS
Making connections between music and other academic subjects isn’t just a nice idea – it’s the law.
“The arts is not the frosting on the cake,” said Argy Nestor, director of arts education at the Maine Arts Commission. Nestor worked as a specialist for visual and performing arts at the Maine Department of Education for seven years, and was an art teacher for 30 years.
Nestor said the state’s 1,250 arts teachers, most of whom are visual arts or music teachers, are expected to teach more than the arts in their classes.
State education standards, which Nestor helped write, require arts students to make connections to other disciplines, including history and world culture.
Nestor said music education can introduce a student to a professional skill that otherwise might seem intimidating or boring.
“I think perhaps the songs that are being written that connect directly with Maine culture and Maine history touch on that component,” she said.
One of Keach’s songs, “Logger’s Son,” provides an introduction to logging terms.
“I can sharpen a saw on a truck tailgate; I’m a wizard with a file, I get it done first rate; When the saw breaks down, I can get it to run – use a peavey, drive a skidder – I’m a logger’s son.”
The song ends with a blueprint to a business.
“I’ll save up my money when I get my pay – borrow some more for a skidder someday; Then I’ll be the boss, and I’ll hire me a crew – haulin’ out pulpwood, and hardwood too.”
Nestor pointed to research that found children with a strong arts education were more likely to become inventors, scientists and researchers.
For now, Keach and Morissette still are pursuing their first sale. Before that could happen, the songs had to be transformed from their original bluegrass versions.
Deb Large, music director at Hall-Dale, said in these days of tight school budgets, it can be tough to find money to buy music.
In order to produce an income from his songwriting, Keach also has written songs that will have an appeal beyond the state. He hopes to market the songs, based on universal student experiences such as homework and detention, to national music publishers.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at: