Long before Spotify, television, or even the radio, before electronic devices enhanced the power and scope of the human voice, there was a man whose songs spanned thousands of miles and multiple generations. Larry Gorman — “The Man Who Made Songs,” as he came to be called throughout the woodlands of Maine, New Brunswick and the Maritime Provinces of Canada — was born on July 10, 1846. He began to spin songs during his early twenties, diverging from the general folksong tradition that forged community and stirred from a desire to be accepted and liked by one’s neighbors. From the very beginning, Gorman focused on topics like wealth and politics, but he was best known for his insult-driven lyrics directed at those who slighted him. He was a feared satirist with songs so effective that on many occasions he was driven from towns for his derisive music making.
Gorman spent his life traveling through the Northeastern lumber channels until he finally settled in Maine in the late 1880s, dying in Bangor — once the world’s capital of the logging industry, where, in the 1830s, more timber was shipped than anywhere else on earth. From his start in the Canadian province Prince Edward Island, his reputation as a song spinner grew. Each town he lived in or passed through served as a feeding ground for his music. The songs then spread through the local lumber communities, so that before Gorman would arrive in a town, his name had already been established. It was said that he could craft entire songs on the spot, when in actuality most of his songs were premeditated. Many thought he was halfway to crazy, mumbling to himself everywhere he went, but he was simply composing.
Gorman was also affixed with larger-than-life characteristics, and his name evoked a palpable sense of trepidation. According to Dr. Edward D. Ives, author of the biography, “Larry Gorman: The Man Who Made Songs“, Gorman was a “blue-eyed calamity waiting to strike, and he seems to have struck whenever he could find the occasion.” This viperous reputation didn’t serve him well in the social realm. He was a loner, and when he did interact with people it was rarely a friendly or warm encounter. He would attend parties and observe the goings on from a solitary space against the wall, seeking desirable fodder for the song he would put forth the following day.
Everyone knew what he was up to and maintained their best behavior for fear of engendering lyrical ridicule. And if one tried to avoid this by simply not inviting him to the party, he would write a song about them anyway.
He once wrote:
Now come sing this ditty, it won’t take you long,
If ever you make a spree and don’t invite me
As sure as the devil, I will make a song!
Being “songed” by Gorman was not an ordeal to be taken lightly. He was a musical hitman, stealthily playing on the personal weaknesses of those who crossed him, and even those who didn’t. The ripple effect of one Gorman song could last a lifetime or more. Most folksongs die out after one generation, but Gorman’s have endured through many, with Maine residents and Northeastern woodsmen into their nineties still recalling verse after verse of Gorman’s répertoire.
The songs’ longevity is particularly owed to their comical nature. He always gave people a laugh, unless, of course, the song was about them. In one example, Gorman was paying his respects to a departed friend. His shins were extended behind him as he knelt to pray over the coffin and someone tripped on them in passing. This faux pas elicited a giggle from one woman in the room and Gorman turned sharply to identify the culprit. The next day a song had been created in her honor. It began:
I’m poor old Fran, I need a man,
Oh yes, I need him badly;
Oft times I’ve tried to be a bride
But always missed it sadly.
Gorman’s words were his ammunition, but one didn’t simply have to wrong Gorman to be songed by him. They could also get lucky and live out a humiliating life moment in front of him, or just be heavily intoxicated, as was often the case.
The following song composed in Osborn, Maine in the 1890s is typical of Gorman’s satirical style: a first-person narrative from the perspective of the offender with lines that highlight the most embarrassing and ridiculous moments of the event. In this case, Emery “Muck” Mace, a notorious drunk who liked to stir things up, was attending a party at the foot of Moose Hill. He was denied a dance by the woman of his choosing, and when she took to the floor with another man, Muck grabbed him and declared that if he couldn’t dance, no one could. At that moment, the woman’s daughter began beating Muck over the head with a stick, and thus a Larry Gorman song was born.
No one was spared from Gorman’s wit, not even his own family. “The Horse’s Confession,” one of his most popular songs and Gorman’s personal favorite, is sung from the perspective of a horse that Gorman believed his brother abused. Gorman lost two horses when he was a child and for the remainder of his life always had a soft spot for the creatures, quick to judge and retaliate against anyone who mistreated them — relation or not. Through his use of first-person narrative voice, Gorman establishes an empathy with his listeners, which makes for a particularly effective lyrical attack on his brother:
As Gorman aged, he began to compose songs with a more mature activism bent. Although the coal mining industry had already established a strong tradition of protest songs, this was new territory for the lumber industry in the Northeast. Song traditions in the Maine woods were considered leisure activities and the lumber camps had yet to adopt any sort of cohesive attitude towards injustices on the job; that is, until Gorman began to make note of them in his songs.
One of his most circulated songs “The Good Old State of Maine” was composed in Lily Bay, Maine. It employs minimal satire and tactfully embellished lyrics. Before moving to Maine, Gorman had worked for James E. Henry, a “tightfisted, hard-driving lumberman,” in New Hampshire. Gorman eventually songed him, representing his lumberyard as the epitome of New Hampshire’s dismal working conditions, incomparable in every way to “that good old State of Maine.”
The story goes that Henry paid Gorman to sing this song to him and found it an amusing and entirely truthful representation of his work practices. In unexpected ways as this, Gorman’s songs were widely revered, no matter who or what his target was.
When Gorman finally retired in Brewer, Maine, his words were seen in print rather than heard in song, and very little of his work survived. His legendary skill for weaving a narrative and spinning satire took the form of printed broadsides that he would sell out of his home, yet only fragments of those exist today — his legend largely living on through oral traditions. People from all over town would come to buy poems from him. Gorman began to capitalize on his song-making skill and realized that — in Brewer, at least — printed material was a hot commodity. This reason, along with the fissured nature of an urban, transient environment such as Brewer during the early twentieth century, impeded the fostering of community and local traditions, leaving Gorman’s folk song traditions behind in the demand for tangibility.
In many ways, Gorman was a tragic hero of his time and industry. He was a cantankerous loner who put his passion for song making above all else, burning bridges in his wake. Yet his name was spoken with trepidation and awe. It held a magic that can only come from significant influence in a genre and of a people. In a day and age where the power of words lies in a quest for brevity, one can’t help but admire the legend Gorman left behind — a legend built upon lengthy ballads that hinged on memorization. His words were his weapons and every line lived out its purpose from one lumber camp to the next.
He remains obscure, an esoteric Paul Bunyan, but those who know his name will continue to sing his songs. For though Gorman was a satirist at his core, he waxed those universal truths that bridge generational divides.
Life at its best is but a jest
Like a dreary winter’s day
And while we’re here with our friends so dear
We’ll drive dull care away.
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