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Laughs last Down East

Humor album retains relevance after 50 years

Robert Bryan (left) and Marshall Dodge (in 1981) recorded their ''Bert and I'' album in 1958 while students at Yale. They used a dorm wastebasket as an echo chamber. Robert Bryan (left) and Marshall Dodge (in 1981) recorded their ''Bert and I'' album in 1958 while students at Yale. They used a dorm wastebasket as an echo chamber. (courtesy Robert Bryan via associated press/file 1981)
By Jerry Harkavy
Associated Press / November 23, 2008
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PORTLAND, Maine - Some of the classic lines that define Maine humor emerged 50 years ago on a record made by two Yale University students in a dormitory room.

Uttered in exaggerated Down East accents, the exchanges between Marshall Dodge and Robert Bryan on the "Bert and I" album inspired generations of storytellers both in-state and beyond, including the likes of Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon fame.

Some of Dodge and Bryan's bone-dry punch lines remain familiar even today.

Summer tourist to Mainer: "Which way to Millinocket?" After considering and then rejecting a few possible routes, the native concludes, "Come to think of it, you can't get there from here."

Maine's Islandport Press has marked the 50th anniversary of "Bert and I" by distributing a CD that features 34 stories compiled from Dodge and Bryan's four albums, a concert appearance by Dodge, and a public television special. They include a mix of one-liners and drawn-out stories in which the buildup can be as memorable as the punch line.

Islandport owner Dean Lunt said the humorists represent an important piece of Maine's cultural history.

"Their genius was in taking existing stories, some of which were often off-color, and popularizing them and bringing them before a mass audience," Lunt said.

"Bert and I" were two fishermen aboard the ill-fated Bluebird, 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.

They made 50 copies for friends and family members, then pressed 50 more. Later in 1958 they made an expanded version that grew in popularity across New England and eventually nationwide. Over the past half-century, according to Bryan, it sold about one million copies.

The album, with a minimalist white-and-black cover, remains available to this day.

As one tale goes, Camden Pierce, who had never traveled outside Maine, wins a radio contest that earns him a two-week trip to New York. When he returns home amid much hoopla and is asked about his visit, he says, "There was so much going on at the depot, I never got to see the village."

Magician Penn Jillette of the comedy duo Penn and Teller recently included "Bert and I" on his list of the top 12 comedy albums of all time, placing it with the likes of those by George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and the Smothers Brothers.

Keillor, the host of "A Prairie Home Companion," remembered playing cuts from the "Bert and I" albums decades ago during his stints as a morning disc jockey.

"Marshall Dodge came and performed on 'A Prairie Home Companion' back in its early days, wearing a slicker and rain hat, and he was the sweetest man and also a big hit," Keillor said.

The "Bert and I" stories, which often juxtapose the glib city slicker and the laconic Mainer, help to puncture pomposity, albeit in a gentle manner, said Tim Sample, a Maine humorist who was 7 when the album came out. He later worked with Dodge before his death in 1982 in a hit-and-run crash while bicycling in Hawaii.

"The enduring message is, 'Don't come into this rural state with an attitude, thinking you can push the local people around.' You have to show a little bit of respect," Sample said.

Bryan, a divinity student who went on to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, remains active at age 77 with the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, a nonprofit he founded nearly 50 years ago. A bush pilot, he still flies into fishing villages as part of his work.

Album royalties enabled him to send his three children to school and buy his first plane, which made his far-flung ministry possible.

Several Maine humorists will join Bryan and Dodge's brother Fred on Dec. 13 at a free concert at the L.L. Bean retail store in Freeport that will include classic "Bert and I" stories and a discussion about the album's influence.

"It's difficult for me to believe it has carried on 50 years," Bryan said. "On the other hand I realize that the stories that are on the record are timeless and many of them have been told for ages. We picked up on that, and added, and just went with it."

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