Coastal History: Dodge, Bryan made Maine humor mainstream

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I have often heard debate over the authenticity of Tim Sample’s Maine accent, and rumors that he isn’t even from Maine (he is). This may be malicious gossip, or people might be confusing Sample with his predecessor, Marshall Dodge.

When Dodge made the groundbreaking Maine humor album, “Bert and I,” he was a philosophy major at Yale University who had never even been to Maine. According to an Associated Press article celebrating the 50th anniversary of the record, Dodge and his partner Robert Bryan made the recording in their dorm room in 1958.

To accompany the tales, which were told in a slow, affected Maine drawl, Dodge and Bryan made startlingly realistic sound effects using a trash can for an echo chamber. A sputtering engine, an air horn, a speeding car, and other noises added to the dry delivery. Some of the stories were short, such as the one about a man who shoots his dog:

“Why are you so het up?” “I had to shoot my dog.” “Was he mad?” “Guess he weren’t so darned pleased.”

Other stories are drawn out and wind their way slowly toward a mildly amusing punch line. It can be excruciating to the modern ear, raised on fast-talking TV hosts and microwave ovens, but I imagine that this is the way stories were told for hundreds of years in Maine by people fishing, working in fields, or standing around woodstoves in country stores.

Once “Bert and I” was recorded, Dodge and Bryan paid for 50 copies on 10-inch records to give to friends and family. When it was well received, they sprung for a second set of 50. Finally they expanded it to a 12-inch record, which would eventually sell a million copies, make Maine humor famous around the nation, and inspire a generation of humorists.

Dodge grew up in Manhattan, and was introduced to Yankee humor during time spent in New Hampshire. Bryan summered at a family cabin in Maine, and heard many a tall tale from locals. They met in college, swapped tales of Maine humor with each other, and performed for family at the dinner table.

Listening to “Bert and I,” it’s hard to believe that the simple Maine fishermen and other characters are being performed by Yale preppies with little Maine background. And yet their record was the basis for many well-known lines of Maine humor, such as; “Come to think of it, you can’t get there from here,” and “Have you lived here all your life?’ ‘Not yet.”

Magician Penn Jillette listed “Bert and I” among the 12 greatest comedy albums of all time. The record was an inspiration for Garrison Keillor, and Marshall Dodge appeared on some early episodes of his show, “A Prairie Home Companion.” The success of “Bert and I” led to other records and books, and helped launch the careers of Sample, Kendall Morse, and other Maine humorists.

Dodge eventually moved to Maine and started the Maine Festival for the Arts at Bowdoin College. He was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Hawaii in 1982. Bryan became an Episcopal clergyman and died last year.

Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at zacmcdorr@gmail.com.

The success of “Bert and I” helped launch the careers of several Maine humorists.

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