The sixteen counties of our state
Are Cumberland and Franklin
Piscataquis and Kennebec
Sagadahoc and Somerset
Lincoln, Knox and Hancock
Waldo, Washington and York
Aroostook and Penobscot.
How do you teach somebody where they come from?
“The Sixteen Counties Song” has been taught to elementary school children in Maine since at least the early 1960s. I learned it in during the 1991-1992 school year, at Mabel I. Wilson elementary school, on Tuttle Road in the center of Cumberland, Maine, near Food Stop and the Prince Memorial Library and the grounds of the Cumberland County Fair (“Always in September”), where we went every year to ride the Gravitron and watch the 4-H Club’s pig races.
I was in Mrs. Maddux’s class—dear Mrs. Maddux, with her glasses and dyed-black hair high on her head, probably five or six years out from retirement, by far my favorite elementary school teacher, she let me take home a book about the presidents at the end of the school year, and taught us to sing Bette Midler’s “From a Distance” except the chorus went “Who is watching us” instead of “God is watching us,” because of the separation of church and state—and like every other second-grade class at Mabel I. Wilson, we sang the Sixteen Counties Song during our production of Mainely Mother Moose. In Mainely Mother Moose, a second-grade girl, selected by the teacher, played a sort of Mother Goose overseeing a pageant about Maine history and geography, broken down into factoids to be memorized by the other second-graders, a couple of lines apiece, and recited in turn. The biggest mountain in Maine is Mount Katahdin and the biggest lake in Maine is Moosehead Lake; Aroostook County, to the far north of the state, is known for its potatoes.
I grew up in suburban comfort in a rural environment, in a yellow house in North Yarmouth, overlooking the Royal River and near Gillespie Farms, which finally shut down for good after the ice storm of February, 1998. I was an indoor kid, dreamy and antisocial and physically graceless; I read Time Magazine (without especially understanding much of it, though I knew I was a Democrat and that one of the film reviewers, I didn’t differentiate at the time, was right that Adam Sandler was vulgar and stupid, not that I’d ever watched an Adam Sandler movie start to finish), and my parents enrolled me in private school in Portland after my third- and fourth-grade teachers proved less stimulating than Mrs. Maddux.
Not that I’d have conceived it this way, but I frankly resented the subtext of “The Sixteen Counties Song”: that I had more in common with Aroostook County, where I’d never been, and where kids got time off school to harvest those potatoes, than with summer camp friends from outside Boston, where my grandmother took us to see the street performers in Harvard Square and productions of Cabaret; or, later, with the film critics with whom I’d have imaginary conversations in my head while working at a perennial nursery. Early in high school, when our boys’ soccer team lost a playoff game to a team from an hour’s drive north, a couple of upperclassmen said they’d yelled after the visiting team’s bus: “You’re all inbred! We’re gonna put sugar in the gas tanks of your snowmobiles!” Our school’s headmaster made them write a letter of apology but I thought it was pretty fucking funny.
The first time I sang “The Sixteen Counties Song” outside of Maine was during my freshman year at NYU. I’d met a film student, a junior, from Farmington, and we sang the song together for the benefit of my roommates, a party trick and a signal of hidden depths, of things about myself I found I could perform—like, did you know that when I was 14 I went to prom with dirty fingernails because I’d been at my part-time job that day, composting dead edging plants and maneuvering a flatbed golf cart around greenhouses I’d helped erect? That singalong of “The Sixteen Counties Song” was also a warning that simply moving to New York City on my parents’ money was not in and of itself an exceptional act, that I was not the only escapee now living the life of the mind in the Village.
“The Sixteen Counties Song,” which has its own page on Maine.gov, makes a play for solidarity. It’s possible to imagine that the claims made on you by the place where you were born are small-minded, vindictive, scything down your tall-poppy ambitions on behalf of a mediocre culture of hicks and fiscally-conservative-socially-liberal ski-condo owners. But that’s just solipsism. A number of cohorts from my high school’s Film Club went on to careers in film. I realized after watching Frances Ha that I played Little League with one of its co-producers.
I don’t live in New York City right now, and haven’t for four years. When people ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from “beautiful Portland, Maine,” which is where my parents still live and where Bank of America sends my credit-card offers. What else am I supposed to say? I’ve lately taken to telling people that where I come from, all residents are entitled to set a few lobster traps for private use. No one in my family’s ever owned a boat and I wouldn’t know how to mend a lobster trap, but these little conversational tidbits, as much as the lobster traps themselves, are part of my entitlement—even if, from several time zones away, I still keep up more closely with New York film screenings and mixed-income housing development than I do with my home state’s moose lottery, or even the exploding foodie culture and conservation causes that occupy the Facebook feeds of high school classmates who were going out to punk shows while I was home reading the New Yorker’s Goings On About Town listings for Luna and Mendoza Line shows on the Lower East Side.
All my books are still in Moishe’s Self Storage, under the BQE, but when I come back to America, my parents and I eat fried clams at old seafood shacks, and raise eyebrows at the tasting notes for the new local microbrews that’re popping up everywhere; we drive out from Portland to go hiking, go apple picking, and I fancy that I remember these places more clearly than I did four or eight or even sixteen years ago.
So many places have their secret handshake, the thing everyone who grew up there knows, the thing expats bond over. “The Sixteen Counties Song” works. Everyone who grew up in Maine can sing it to you. I’ve still never been to Aroostook County, but its name keeps ringing around in my head, an echo.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.