In Maine, Lobster Rolls, VWs, and Bert and I

Bert and I records are an acquired taste, but nothing could better epitomize Maine. It’s comedy, but with a unique regional twist that makes the spoken word almost like music. The Maine accent is so thick that anthropologists are undoubtedly baffled by it.

bert and i

Bob Bryan (left) and Marshall Dodge were Bert and I, seen here in 1981.

Island Port Press, the publisher, calls the first album, Bert and I … And Other Stories from Down East, “perhaps the most important comedy album in New England history.”

Bert and I were the late Marshall Dodge and Robert Bryan. The characters are fishermen out of Kennebunkport whose boat is the Bluebird (and later Bluebird II). The routines, adapted from classic Maine jokes, were recorded in the 1950s and ‘60s and released on locally available LPs. In the next two decades, they spread far and wide, making Dodge and Bryan into minor celebrities.

cadillac mountain

The view from Cadillac Mountain. (Jim Motavalli photo0

To give you the flavor, 85-year-old Arnold Bunker “from Bailey Island way” goes to court, and is asked if  he’s lived up there his whole life. “Not yet,” he replies. Deadpan, of course.

VW Atlas

The made-in-USA VW Atlas is competing in the highly competitive large SUV class. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I picked up a Bert and I record in downtown Portland yesterday. It was a Maine thing to do. I needed a shot of that extra dry Maine humor. I was in the lobster state for a drive in the smooth running Volkswagen Atlas and Tiguan SUVs. The auto company eschewed the customary press conference about the wheelbase and engine options—that had already happened—and instead just gave us the keys and a map of Maine, from Portland to Bangor.

Here’s a classic “you can’t get there from here” Bert and I routine, “Which Way to Millinocket?”

I actually know the way to Millinocket, because I was there a month ago, and wrote this story about the town’s devolution since its mill closed. This trip, along coastal Maine in the VWs, highlighted how the state is somewhat schizophrenic these days.

VW lobster car

The VW lobster car was encountered at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The prosperity of Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor (ice cream shops, fine lobster dining, yoga studios) are sharply contrasted with the hardscrabble economy of the state’s interior. The literature here is Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine, which captured the mobile homes and the cars rusting in the yard. Living in places like that is made much harder when the few good jobs—at places like the Northern Paper mill in Millinocket—disappear.

Here’s another classic Bert and I story, from the first album:

Even along the coast, Maine today is oases of prosperity joining vast stretches of making do, of antique malls and lobster pounds. Even downtown Portland looked a little seedy to me, full of hard-eyed men smoking cigarettes. But I stopped for a bite at the welcoming Local Sprouts Café, whose window informed me that Black Lives Matter and that immigrants were, most emphatically, welcome. I appreciated the “Take Back the Tap” message, which was enforced with a big jug of tap water and plentiful cups. The food was great wherever we ate in Maine.

red's eats

Everybody wants the lobster rolls at Red’s Eats in Wiscasset. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Maine has its own indigenous music, of course, and slotting in neatly next to Bert and I is the folk of Gordon Bok and Cindy Kallet, who have played together. Bok, born in 1939 out Camden way, has a lovely baritone and on 34 albums sings mostly about Maine and the traditional approach to fishing. Kallet is a great singer and songwriter, and I once told her she could have been another Joni Mitchell. She laughed it off.

VW Atlas

The Atlas can swallow a lot of luggage.

Another Maine folk great is Anne Dodson. I once told her she could sing disco. She laughed it off. All these folks are on the herb-tea-and-brownie coffeehouse circuit. I recommend Dodson’s Tranquility Grange album.

Did you ever notice that Maine bookstores sell a lot of Stephen King? I appreciate the state’s antique/book malls. The Big Chicken barn is worth visiting.

Big Chicken

Maine’s Big Chicken antique barn has something for everybody, including lots of auto shop manuals.

The Tiguan and Atlas are worth considering if you’re looking at big and medium-sized SUVs. They’re comfortable, reasonably responsive, and surprisingly affordable. I wrote about them in more detail here.

Maine’s an intriguing state. It’s being convulsed by change, but also benefiting from it. Tech firms and four-star restaurants are coming in with new jobs, but maybe not enough to make up for those lost in logging and paper making. The accents that made Bert and I so special aren’t heard all that often anymore—the state is full of those immigrants welcomed at Local Sprouts, some of them from neighboring states—but it still has a wicked sense of humor.