January 8, 2012

Bob Keyes: He knows the score on lumberjack culture

Sumner McKane's new music and movie experience "In the Blood" aims to teach people about Maine's lumberjacks.

Sumner McKane remembers second grade in Damariscotta when a teacher wheeled in a film projector and showed a grainy black-and-white movie about Maine lumberjacks.

click image to enlarge

Sumner McKane spent three years researching the lumberjack culture in Maine to assemble a montage of films, as well as still photographs, then composed a score to accompany the visuals.

Courtesy of the artist


"IN THE BLOOD" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Space Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland; admission is $10. It also will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 3 in the Olin Arts Center at Bates College, 75 Russell St., Lewiston; admission is $6.

INFO: sumnermckane.com

The film was called from "Stump to Ship," and it chronicled a Machias River log drive in the 1920s. McKane can't recall another instance during his education when he learned about the woodsmen of Maine who helped give the state its character.

McKane, a singer-songwriter who specializes in folk-rock and Americana music, wants to change that with a new music and movie experience he has created, "In the Blood." He and bandmate Joshua Robbins will present "In the Blood" on Saturday at Space Gallery in Portland and on Feb. 3 at Bates College in Lewiston.

McKane spent three years researching the lumberjack culture in Maine around the turn of the 20th century. He assembled a montage of films from those days, as well as still photographs, then composed a score to accompany the visuals.

"In the Blood" is presented in two acts, with an intermission. He and Robbins perform music live as the visuals project on two screens.

McKane's goal is to create an entertainment and educational experience that honors the Maine woodsman.

"Many Maine towns owe a lot of their existence to these guys," says McKane, 34, who now lives in Wiscasset. "Their character, their skills and their integrity made the whole system work. Their way of life has gone by the wayside, but that character also seems to be dwindling, where work came first along with a sense of self-responsibility."

McKane describes the lumberjacks as the backbone of Maine's old society. Their work drove the economy, and helped build the state from the dirt up. They had character, strength and resilience, and worked dangerous jobs under horrid conditions. They lived difficult, crude lives, and survived among themselves deep in the woods on a steady diet of beans. In winter.

They were resilient and gritty, and now mostly overlooked.

The movies McKane has compiled demonstrate their existence. Viewers see the camps, the roads, landing yards, rivers and lakes, and in some instances can hear the voices of the men. To add texture to the visual experience, McKane composed a score with music that matches the action on screen.

"I tend to write music that is pretty ambient and sparse. The cold, frigid Maine woods connotes a melancholic mood, so I wrote music to match it," he said.

McKane plays electric guitar; Robbins plays bass. McKane also has sequenced percussive elements, which include samples of woods sounds -- leaves crunching, axes cracking, trees falling.

Most of the movies, which he mined from the files of Northeast Historic Film, are from 1905 to about 1920. The stills go back a little earlier, to the late 19th century. He found many of the photos from the archives of the Maine Folklife Center.

McKane debuted "In the Blood" with a live concert experience at the Opera House in Boothbay Harbor, and now is attempting to tour it around the state. He wants to get into schools so he can help today's students understand the role of the lumberjack in Maine.

Other than that single 36-minute film that he saw in second grade, McKane said his education lacked any context about the men who worked in the Maine woods.

He has a few school showings lined up, in Lewiston and at Deer Isle. But he has found that most schools lack money to support this project. To address that issue, McKane is seeking donations that will be matched dollar for dollar by the Maine Arts Commission.

"I am trying to put a tour together, but it's not easy to do," he said. "I must say, I have newfound respect for booking agents. It's very hard, and is proving difficult. I really want to get it into the schools. Kids should be introduced to this stuff, and I am surprised that they aren't."

Maine Public Broadcasting will air the DVD version of the show -- the documentary aspect of the film and stills -- at 10 p.m. Feb. 16 and 11 a.m. Feb. 18. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:


Twitter: pphbkeyes


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