In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Community Music

Music makers in Maine make instruments, create music in their communities, and honor heritage.

Mémère’s Notebook
Mémère’s NotebookClick to hear Robert Sylvain's story

Mémère's Notebook
By Robert Sylvain

My paternal grandmother, Elisa Thibodeau—known to all as Mémère (pronounced meh-MAYh in French)—grew up on the St. John River in Maine’s Acadian heartland. When she passed away in 1998, I inherited her cherished notebook of old Acadian folksongs, making me the keeper of songs for my generation.

Representing a mélange of poignant laments and serenades along with uproarious broadsides and epics, Mémère’s Notebook includes ballads from the expansive Acadian repertoire, drawing from old-world medieval troubadours as well as new-world stories born from 400 years of hard winters on the North Atlantic coast. All are written in the French patois (dialect) of my ancestors; each song holding a key to our cultural heritage.

Over the following two decades, I toured internationally with renowned Acadian fiddler Steve Muise, presenting Mémère’s songs to French-speaking audiences in the context of entertainment and academia. Meanwhile back home I was facing audiences full of Mainers with French heritage like myself unable to comprehend the meaning of these songs—stories essentially meant for them. Because of the language barrier, many descendants lost their connection to Acadian identity over generations of assimilation.

That’s when I decided to translate the songs for new audiences of traditional music lovers, Francophiles, and English-speaking Acadians all over the globe, as proof that Acadian culture still lives in Maine.

Keeping Dance and Music Alive
Keeping Dance and Music AliveClick to read Cindy Larock's story

Keeping Dance and Music Alive
By Cindy Larock

A “Franco-Yankee” native of Lewiston, I've been happily involved in the traditional music and dance scene in Maine for over 40 years. My immersion in the late 1970s New England contra dance revival movement led to an opportunity to study the traditional dances of French Canada with Quebecois master stepdancer, caller, and musician Benoit Bourque through the Maine Arts Commission’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. In 2004 the Commission designated me a Master Artist in traditional French Canadian dance, providing the chance to pass the French dance traditions down to numerous younger Franco-American apprentices.

After founding two Maine-based dance troupes – La Plume de Ma Tante and Les Pieds Rigolants – which entertained audiences throughout the state from the 1980s through the early 2000s, I've continued to regularly lead dance workshops at Maine’s annual DownEast Country Dance Festival and the New England Folk Festival as well as schools statewide for students from kindergarten through college age.

In 2014 – due to my innate passion for the music which “fuels the feet” for these exploits – I established a small youth folk orchestra. This ever-evolving cadre of gifted young fiddlers (backed up on guitar, spoons, feet and more by me and my multi-instrumentalist husband Don Cunningham) have shared their talents at community settings in Maine and beyond, contributing greatly towards my ongoing mission to “honor Maine's cultural heritage by bringing the generations together through traditional music and dance.”

Songs of Labor

From agriculture to industry, work and occupational songs help laborers move together, relieve boredom of repetitive movements, learn about job safety, and protest working conditions.

Work songs feature “call and response” formats based on African songs developed by enslaved peoples in the American South. In Maine, Sea shanties sung by sailors develop slow and fast structures depending on the task, from a few pulls on a rope to more detailed rigging of the ship’s sails. Typically, a lead singer, or shantyman, sang most of the song, while sailors sang refrains and choruses. Work songs sometimes feature protests about poor working conditions.

Occupational songs relate to work individual work like lumberjacks and loggers, and sometimes warn against job dangers or teach about techniques required to be a successful worker.

Edward “Sandy” Ives (1925-2009) started the Northeast Folklore Society in 1959 at the University of Maine in Orono. Ives searched out songs in logging camps, especially those by woodsman Joe Scott (1867-1918) from New Brunswick, Canada. Scott worked in Maine logging camps where he sold his professionally printed songs, lessening the need to learn the songs by ear. According to Ives, poets and singers from the Maritimes, often considered the best lumber camp singers, heavily influenced logging musical traditions.

While there are fewer sailing or logging jobs in Maine, labor songs continue to be a popular musical genre today.

Kemp Family Singers

George Washington "Wash" Kemp, came to Maine in 1865 after serving with General Oliver Otis Howard in the Union Army during the Civil War. Kemp, a former enslaved person, escaped to Union lines early in the War.

A year after Kemp's arrival, the Howards located Kemp's wife and two young children and brought them to Leeds, Maine.

In addition to farming, the Kemp family entertained audiences throughout Maine and New England as Jubilee singers.

George Washington Kemp, his wife, Maria Barbour Kemp, and three of their daughters toured New England for about 25 years, performing as the "Colored Kemp Family" with banjos, tambourines, and broom dancing.

While the language of this poster is concerning to 21st century audiences, in contrast to—and perhaps competing with blackface groups—the Kemps embraced their songs and tunes as being “genuine” and “acted as though they were in the Old Sunny South.”

The poster details the history of General Oliver Otis Howard, who assisted the Kemps escaping enslavement in Virginia and moving to Maine.

North Atlantic Blues Festival
North Atlantic Blues FestivalClick to read about the North Atlantic Blues Festival

The Roots of the North Atlantic Blues Festival
By Paul Benjamin

My parents brought me up on Jazz and Blues. They were always playing music in the house. I liked the Blues music more than the Jazz. In my youth I became a Rolling Stones fan. Things changed for me when I was working at a club where I met tenor saxophonist Mr. Eddie Shaw in 1978—he is the reason that I have been bringing Blues to Maine since then. Through him, I got to meet, work with, and join the Blues Family.

The festival started in the parking lot of Rockland’s Trade Winds in 1990. It was called the Trade Winds Blues Bash. In 1994 Gil Merriam, Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce approached me to move the small festival that I ran to the Public Landing. It started out as a one-day event with the name changed to the North Atlantic Blues Festival. I had been working with Randy Labbe who introduced me to Jamie Isaacson and we put on the first festival. All three of us had a love of the Blues and brought a lot to the festival. Randy moved on after a couple of years, so Jamie and I continued to put on the festival.

We grew into a two-day festival and added a club crawl, closing down Rockland’s Main Street, putting bands on the street and into local clubs featuring Maine blues bands. It was important for us to showcase the local bands and a way for us to give back to the City of Rockland for their support. The club crawl is free for everyone, letting locals who could not afford a ticket to the festival to be part of it.

2023 was the thirtieth year and it has grown into one of the best-known festivals in the country. It is an honor to be part of the Blues Family around the world.

Grange Music

Historically, Grange Halls were a meeting place for farmers and a place to advocate for agricultural laborers. Community and social groups like the Grange craft cultures, rituals, and music. Granges throughout the United States used the same song books during meetings, creating a solidarity between farmers across the nation.

Rural communities in Maine used Grange buildings as community centers, hosting dances and concerts. Sometimes Grange halls served as town library and offered adult education.

Leeds Grange Hall stage, 1975
Leeds Grange Hall stage, 1975
Leeds Historical Society

The Grange movement came to Maine in 1873, welcoming everyone to join. They offered women equal voting rights long before the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. At its height in 1907, Maine had 417 Granges with 55,212 members , the largest per capita membership in any state. While membership declined throughout the 20th century, the Grange in Maine is seeing a revival with a new generation of farmers participating in 126 Granges.

The Maine State Grange adopted State of Maine, My State of Maine as their anthem, sung at meetings and events.

George Thornton Edwards was an organist and pianist for the Arden Coombs Orchestra and choral conductor of the State Liberty Chorus. He also wrote books, including Music and Musicians of Maine: being a history of the progress of music in the territory which has come to be known as the State of Maine, from 1604 to 1928.