Will Mallett was sitting around his parents’ house in Sebec two years ago when he pulled a tattered book from his mom’s bookshelf. It may have been the faded forest-green color of the spine that caught his eye, or perhaps the catchy title: “Minstrelsy of Maine: Folk-Songs and Ballads of the Woods and Coast.”

He flipped through a few pages and found the beginnings of the Mallett Brothers Band‘s latest CD, “The Falling of the Pine: Songs from the Maine Woods.” The band set the words of old Maine folks songs from the book to original arrangements and melodies, overlaying modern music on ballads from a century ago that tell sordid tales and sad stories of tragedy and turmoil in the Maine woods. The record comes out the first week of February, and the band – Will and his brother Luke, Wally Wenzel, Nick Leen, Andrew Martelle and Chuck Gagne – is playing across Maine to promote the CD and share songs that reveal the poetic character of the North Woods lumberjack and the Downeast fisherman.

“These are amazing songs, and they shouldn’t be forgotten,” Will Mallett said.

The Mallett brothers’ interest in old-time music is inherent in their upbringing. While their father, the folk singer David Mallett, who has written dozens of songs recorded by Pete Seeger, Alison Krauss, Liam Clancy and others, is an obvious musical influence, their mother, Jayne Lello, left her imprint on “The Falling of the Pine.”

An anthropologist and librarian, Lello worked alongside University of Maine folklorist Edward “Sandy” Ives, who founded the Maine Folklore Center. Together, they collected and archived hundreds of folks songs when Lello studied with Ives as a student in the early 1970s.

“Her shelves at home are filled with books about music,” Will Mallett said. “Our parents have a great record collection, but they also have a great book collection and a lot of books about Maine.”

 

Published in 1927, “Minstrelsy of Maine” was written by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm and Mary Winslow Smyth, adventurous women who traveled to remote territories where men made their living as loggers, river-drivers, fur traders, sailors and hand-line fishermen.

Smyth scoured the coast to capture songs from the fishermen, and Eckstorm ventured to the woods up north. They knew these places were unfit for women but went because they feared the songs and the cultures they represented would vanish if they didn’t. They came back with dozens of songs and hundreds of pages of lyrics, and they preserved them in “Minstrelsy of Maine.”

“The editors of this volume fully realized that collecting these songs was a man’s job,” the women wrote in the book’s preface. “We knew very well that we could not go into lumber camps and the forecastles of coasting schooners, nor frequent mill boarding-houses and wharves and employment offices and even jails, where the unprinted, and too often unprintable, songs of the kind we must seek originate and flourish. Had a man competent to perform the task expressed an intention of preserving these songs, we should not have undertaken the work. But no man appeared steeped in balladry and versed in folk-music, understanding the hearts of the people and wise to interpret what he found in them.”

The Mallett Brothers' new album draws material from the book "Minstrelsy of Maine," published in 1927.

The Mallett Brothers’ new album draws material from the book “Minstrelsy of Maine,” published in 1927. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The work of Eckstorm and Smyth predated the efforts of noted musicologist Alan Lomax, who began making field recordings of folks songs across the American South in the 1930s.

Ives made vinyl recordings of some of these Maine songs with traditional folk arrangements as part of his research at UMaine in the 1960s. With this record, the Malletts re-imagine them, matching the lyrics with instruments and musical sensibilities of today. Will Mallett briefly considered making a solo folk record and dismissed the idea. He wanted to make a band record, with acoustic and electric guitars, fiddles, accordions, dobro, drums and other instruments that suggest the drama of roaring rapids, the danger of 1,000 floating logs and the sorrow of an old man dying alone in a cabin.

“This record represents the idea of how music can evolve but still get the essence of the story behind the song,” he said.

Back in the day, the woodsmen set their lyrics to traditional songs, Lello said. “For these lumbermen, it was never about the tune. It was about the story,” she said. “The fact the band put new tunes to these is really kind of cool.”

Lello worked with Ives as an undergraduate student at UMaine and remained friends with him until his death in 2009.

“I wish Sandy were alive to see this,” Lello said. “I know other people who sing, but I think the boys did a wonderful job with this project. They are inspired by the songs and stories, and I think they interpreted them beautifully. At first, I thought they should do an acoustic record, but I think they did it just right. It’s a blend of their own musical style with these very traditional stories and ballads.”

The Mallett brothers made the record over two years between tours, recording it live at their Portland studio. They worked out arrangements on the road, during sound checks and rehearsals. A few songs have made their way into the band’s live set.

From left, Andrew Martelle, Will Mallett and Luke Mallett of The Mallett Brothers Band rehearse songs from their new album "The Falling of the Pine: Songs from the Maine Woods" at a Portland rehearsal studio on Jan. 9.

From left, Andrew Martelle, Will Mallett and Luke Mallett of The Mallett Brothers Band rehearse songs from their new album “The Falling of the Pine: Songs from the Maine Woods” at a Portland rehearsal studio on Jan. 9. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

It’s the band’s fifth record and its first concept album. The Malletts tour regularly and have built a fan base by playing across the Northeast and returning regularly to cities in Texas, Colorado, Virginia and elsewhere. “We’re at a point now where there is less pressure that each new album has to be the definitive Mallett Brothers Band album,” Will Mallett said. “We can do a quirky concept album like this without screwing up our following.”

That probably won’t be an issue. “The Falling of the Pine” sounds like a Mallett Brothers Band album, with moody vocals and flowing guitars, and it is grounded in folk and roots traditions.

The title track, which Eckstorm described as “Homeric in nature” in her notes, is an ode to the red-shirted lumbermen who felled the tall, dark pines. It was written by an unknown author with a poetic tongue in the mid- to late-1800s.

As the winter grows colder,

Like wolves we do grow bolder,

Our axes we will shoulder

All pleasures to resign.

To the woods we will advance,

Where our axes clear do glance,

And like brothers we’ll commence

To fall the stately pine.

The song begins with a country fiddle and acoustic guitar and builds momentum verse by verse, cascading into a rousing Cajun-Irish rock-out. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to the Dropkick Murphys.

With this record, the Malletts do for Maine woods songs what Boston’s Dropkicks do for Celtic punk: They punch it into high gear. Will Mallett sings the lyrics as they appear on the page, with one exception. He subs “Sebec,” his parents’ Piscataquis County town, for “Quebec”:

When we get into Sebec

We’re the boys that don’t forget

Our whistles for to wet

With whiskey or good wine.

With some pretty girl we’ll boast

Till our money is all used,

We’re the boys that don’t refuse

To return and fall the Pine.

The euphoric whoops and hollers that follow the song’s conclusion attest to its raucous spirit and the satisfaction of the performance. “A lot of the songs, we started simple and took our time to try out different approaches to them,” Luke Mallett said. “I was just looking for lines and hooks that grabbed me. A lot of the lyrics were lending to a vibe. We just ran with it and followed what felt right.”

Of particular interest was “Ye Roaring Falls of Kinsey,” which tells of the death of two river-drivers and the guilt of a survivor, a man named Towne. The song got Will Mallett’s attention because Towne is a family name.

For everybody in the band, this record feels personal. Martelle’s grandmother cooked in fishing camps – in Newfoundland, not Maine – and experienced many of the scenes described in the songs. Gagne grew up in northern Maine “and these songs are part of my heritage.” Everyone in the band has lived in Maine a long time, and Maine is a big part of the band’s persona nationally.

“Everybody from Maine is very proud of Maine,” Luke Mallett said. “We channel it all the time.”

Making a record about Maine feels satisfying, Leen said. He hopes the songs circulate among older Mainers, who might appreciate the heritage of these songs, as well as the band’s younger audience so they can learn Maine history through music.

“My original idea when I pulled the book off the shelf was that someone should record new versions of these songs and get them in front of Maine kids, get them in the schools,” Will Mallett said. “They are such an important part of our state’s heritage.”

The next few weeks will be busy for the band. The mini-home state tour begins Jan. 27 in Waterville, with stops Feb. 10 in Gardiner, Feb. 11 in Carrabassett Valley and Feb. 18-19 in Rangeley. Other dates will be added up north, where these songs originated.

“They have a right to be proud of their history up there,” Will Mallett said. “It should not be forgotten.”