March 23, 2020
The Down East Humor of "Bert and I"
“Stories are the core of all art, and all art is basically stories. You can probably tell everything about a culture from its stories. They’re a perfect window into its soul.” – Marshall Dodge, Maine Sunday Telegram (1981)
“Bert and I come down to the dock about six o’clock in the early morning. Bert went into the boathouse to fetch the pots and the slickers and I went out to the dock to start up the Bluebird.” If you’re from Maine, there’s a good chance you’ve hear this one before. It is the beginning of one of the several Bert and I skits, a collection of stories set in the coastal communities of “Down East” Maine that evolved into a cultural phenomenon, emblematic of the subtle charms of its lifestyle.
It all started at Yale University in the late 1950s, when two students Marshall Dodge and Robert Bryan started performing these bits around campus. Encouraged by the response, the two amateur storytellers recorded a short 10-inch album of 11 stories as a Christmas present for friends and family. These albums immediately resonated with people – they had found a way to articulate the inexplicable Down East charm. As the popularity of these this first release grew, they decided in 1958 to record and release the seminal commercial album of New England humor and storytelling – Bert and I ... And Other Stories from Down East.
"Bert and I" were two fishermen aboard the ill-fated Bluebird, a small boat out of Kennebunkport, which sinks after being sliced in two in the fog by the steamer Bangor Packet. As the first cut on the first album, the tale set the tone for what would come.
Though neither was from Maine, Dodge and Bryan were familiar with the state and its people and had a keen ear for dialect, along with a knack for low-tech sound effects. Their first recording, made in their Yale dorm room, featured a wastebasket as an echo chamber.
“Spiritually, my home from as early as I can remember has been Maine,” Bryan told Yankee Magazine in 1976. “Though I loved Oyster Bay, New York, I could not wait to get away to Tunk Lake, Maine, in the summer. We’d go right to Simon Bunker’s house because he had the key to our camp. He would detain us with a story and then another. We would spend half the night listening. These storytellers were very important to me. Though I knew their stories, I wanted to hear them again and again. During the winter, I would retell the stories to friends.”
Their seminal album has now sold over one million copies and has inspired many great storytellers both in-state and beyond, including the likes of Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon fame. More than that, it has preserved this unique and charming slice of Down East lifestyle with stories that can be shared with generations to come.
Get the Down East look: