You cahn’t get theah from heah.
Being from away.
They’re 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 have never 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 schoolteacher from Rome. Keach’s accent is only faintly present during 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’ â€˜wicked good!’ just like any Yankee would, and showin’ off those boots from L.L. Bean.”
Keach has been singing for years, but he just recently started working with musical arranger Larry Morissette, also a recently retired schoolteacher, of Hallowell, to sell the music to schoolteachers 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 trendsetter,” 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 â€˜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 never to have heard the Maine accent before.
“It didn’t come naturally to them, you know,” he said. “High school kids in Maine right now are not as good at Maine dialect as their grandfathers.”
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 demonstration 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 Downeast drawl.
“Trying out the real Maine accent in this song, it was really difficult,” he said.
Morris hears the Maine accent spoken only in overheard snatches of conversation when he is walking in downtown Gardiner, or from a particular substitute teacher.
“I haven’t really heard it lately,” he said. “I feel like it’s going away slowly.”
“It’s something that’s being lost,” he said. “Maybe it has to be lost, but we should have some familiarity with it. It’s who we are.”
Maine’s accent seems to be fading more quickly than memories of the ice storm of ’98.
Morris’ classmate Eva Shepherd, who also sang in the recording session, said the only time she’s heard a really strong Maine accent has been when it’s been parodied.
“People are always impersonating it,” she said, “like the lady in the Marden’s commercial.”
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, â€˜one, two, three, fo-ah,’” Shepherd said. “That’s when I notice it the most.”
Shepherd herself, like the majority of her peers, speaks without any perceptible trace of a Maine accent.
Generational language gaps are nothing new. The Yankee accent that is now being lost is itself different from what came before it, according to Alan Perlman, who earned a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Chicago and is a linguistics consultant in New Hampshire.
“If you were to listen to a recording from the 1800s, you would hear definite differences,” he said.
But there is also something new happening to Maine’s accent. This time, it’s not just changing. It’s disappearing altogether, as are other regional accents across the globe.
The threat of a mass extinction of regional accents reverses a trend that is as old as human speech itself.
Until recently, global conditions favored the development of more languages.
“It’s all about being isolated,” Perlman said.
Like all regional dialects, Maine’s accent emerged because a relatively stable population lived here for centuries, without much interaction with the rest of the world.
Over time and generations, if the isolation continues, the difference between an accent and its parent language becomes more pronounced. Eventually, the speakers living in different areas can no longer understand each other. That’s how new languages are formed, and it explains how English, Russian and German, among others, came from the same root language.
In modern times, however, for the first time in history, the trend is toward fewer languages and fewer dialects, not more.
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 national television shows.
“It’s sometimes called Broadcast English,” Perlman said. “It does not drop the R’s and sounds like it’s from every place or no place.”
And until network broadcasters start saying “ayuh” to indicate agreement, Maine’s will remain one of many regional accents that are giving way to that more universal way of speaking.
Loss of relevance
Should people be concerned that Yankee turns of phrase are going out of style?
Not necessarily, Perlman said.
Old words die, but they are supplanted by new ones that are more relevant to daily life.
“A language is a vehicle of a people, a culture, a society,” Perlman said.
The loss of a language doesn’t cause the loss of a culture. By the time a language disappears, the culture that supported it is already gone.
As certain ways of speaking in Maine become antiquated, and lose their usefulness, the washing away of local color is inevitable.
“If there are people, and their way of life and their vocabulary is no longer relevant to the world, then it will disappear, despite all efforts to preserve it,” he said.
There’s also an upside.
Ultimately, Perlman said, the homogenization of language results in people being able to understand each other better, not worse.
What’s lost is not functionality — instead, the threat is to a cultural artifact, such as a Native American tepee that must be preserved through museum displays rather than through continued use.
That’s where Keach and Morissette come in.
Their songs function like a kind of museum display case, preserving the culture of Maine’s bygone way of speaking for generations to come.
Buying local food has become the norm in schools in recent years, but Keach doubts buying local music will catch on in the same way.
“It’s shoveling sand against the tide, to a certain extent,” he said.
While his music may not reverse a national trend of lost accents, Keach said, it will help to preserve some amount of familiarity with a fading oral tradition.
If Keach and Morissette are successful, the effect on students could go well beyond merely knowing that their forebears used to talk about shopping at the “sto-ah.”
“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.”
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.”
That’s from 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.
A student who learns a song about woodworking, for example, is more likely to take up a later career in Maine’s wood industry.
For instance, 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 some day; 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.
Decisions about what parts of Maine’s history should be taught, in music class or elsewhere, are generally made on a local level, Nestor said.
Some school board members and teachers might be enthusiastic about a new way to incorporate Maine-specific songs into the curriculum, and others might pass it over in favor of something else, she said.
Stan Keach isn’t thinking much about whether his music will change arts education or reverse the ongoing fading of the Yankee accent. For now, he and Morissette still are pursuing their first sale.
Selling music to local public schools might be gratifying, but it isn’t a way to get rich quick.
Songs typically sell for about $2 or $3 per copy, with one copy purchased for each member of a class that probably has no more than 50 members.
Before the first sale, however, the songs had to be transformed from their original bluegrass versions.
“We do what we do by ear,” Keach said. “The harmonies are close. The instrumentation is bluegrassy.”
Morissette formalized the music, replacing a lead vocalist with different leading parts for altos and other vocal parts. He also introduced a piano accompaniment, a nod to the type of instrument most often used in the chorus room.
Deb Large, the music director at Hall-Dale, said she’s heard the modified songs, but hasn’t sat down to evaluate them seriously for possible inclusion in next year’s programs. In these days of tight school budgets, it can be tough to find money to buy music some years, she said.
However, she said she did see the benefits of having her students work with the musical duo.
“It helps kids see, and say â€˜I could do that,’” she said.
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.
He noted that the best way for him to support his local music efforts is to sell his songs to people from away.