From Ballads to Bird Song: The Life of Fannie Hardy Eckstorm


In six miles square, the most of that water, we have found so many songs that we never tried to count them.
We knew very well that we could not go into lumber camps and the forecastles of coasting schooners, nor frequent mill boarding-houses and wharves and employment offices and even jails, where the unprinted, and too often unprintable, songs of the kind we must seek originate and flourish…but no man appeared…(and) the old songs were fast vanishing.

By Brian Kluepfel

Fannie Hardy Eckstorm ventured into taverns, shipyards and logging camps to preserve the songs of the sailors and woodsmen in “Minstrelsy of Maine: Folk-Songs and Ballads of the Woods and the Coast.” (It was written with Mary Winslow Smythe in 1927.)

She knew the songs well, from early ventures into the woods with her fur-trading father.

Let the frost be ee’r so keen,
It will not keep us within,
We will make the valleys ring,
With the falling of the pine.

If ‘Minstrelsy’ had been her only endeavor, folklorists would be deeply indebted, but she hardly stopped there.

A second book, this one on British ballads, followed, as did a pair of tomes on Penobscot woodsmen and their culture. Then came two on birds, including one on woodpeckers illustrated by the legendary Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Audubon’s heir in avian illustration. She wrote on the language and legends of the Algonquin, publishing three books on Indian language (“Indian Place Names of the Penobscot Valley and the Maine Coast”), handicrafts and Old John Neptune, a medicine man also noted in Thoreau’s “Maine Woods. ”

Eckstorm’s talents as a naturalist, and keen observational skills are evident in a 1902 article “A Description of the Adult Black Merlin” for The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithological Society:

Indeed, a large female in high autumnal plumage, taken on the Cranberry Islands, off Mount Desert, Maine, is strikingly like this Black Merlin, being very nearly as dark on the back and two thirds as black below; were it a blueblack instead of a sepia-black it might very well pass for the mate to this male.

Her renaissance bag of tricks helped in other ways, too: a University of Maine archival photo shows Eckstorm proudly posing with a passel of freshly-shot grouse. She knew her habits well: “No matter how cold it is, the grouse never goes south; If you are driving along country roads in early morning or at nightfall you may expect to find him gathering one of his two daily meals. Up in a poplar, or a birch tree, he will be standing, snapping off the brittle ends of the twigs.” (“The Bird Book”)

“Every man his own poet,” wrote Eckstorm of the minstrels of the Maine woods.

And the same could be said of her. Tireless researcher and author, she was born and died in Brewer, Maine. She even founded its public library and seemed to live a dozen lifetimes – ornithologist, folklorist, mother, scholar, anthropologist – between 1865 and 1946.

My own interest in Eckstorm stemmed from her ornithological work, but as we see over and over, everything is connected in the natural world and you can’t touch one thing (birds) without stumbling on something else. (Native folklore, etc.) Eckstorm recognized these connections and tried her best to understand the world from one small corner of Maine, maximizing her time on Earth and leaving a wealth of knowledge behind.

Ossining resident Brian Kluepfel is a member of Saw Mill River Audubon and encourages you to support its activities. He also writes for the Lonely Planet travel series, Westchester Magazine and Birdwatching Daily.

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