Cowboy boots worn by country star Hal Lone Pine on display at the new exhibit “Music in Maine” at the Maine Historical Society. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A grand piano made in Portland in 1860. The signature cowboy boots worn by country radio star Hal Lone Pine. Opera coats from 1895 and 1920 – and 2023, when Penobscot musician and fashion designer Jason Brown, aka Firefly, performed the first-ever collaboration between a Wabanaki person and the Bangor Symphony Orchestra.

These items and others are on display at the Maine Historical Society in Portland as part of the exhibit “Music in Maine,” which will run through the end of the year. Visitors will be able to see – and, in some cases, hear – the cultures, people and events that have shaped the state’s soundscape over time.

“We tried to show the diversity and the breadth of Maine music,” curator Tilly Laskey said.

“Music in Maine” spans the music of Wabanaki tribes and Acadian folk songs, work songs and sea shanties, the rise of radio and modern Record Store Day. To cover so much historical ground, Laskey turned to 18 collaborators across the state for stories, songs and objects. Among them was Ken Brooks, a musician himself and the chairman of the board of directors at the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Mechanic Falls.

Brooks said the exhibit elevated lesser-known stories from Maine’s history and recognized the state’s broader contributions to music.

“We have produced some musicians from this state that have measured up to musicians from anywhere and have had major impacts on the music culture in America and the world,” Brooks said.


Visitors look over the exhibits at “Music in Maine” at the Maine Historical Society. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Laskey said the exhibit grew out of a desire to explore music as a unifier.

“Music is something that brings us together,” she said. “It brought people together 40,000 years ago, in the 1700s and today.”

It also gives the historical society an opportunity to display rarely seen items from its collection: the upright grand piano, drums from the Civil War, the flute Henry Wadsworth Longfellow played during his travels in Europe to draw out the townspeople in rural areas. Those original instruments in particular harken to a time when many people who wanted to listen to music at home had to play it themselves.

Rattle, 2018 by Pete Moore, Passamaquoddy (1954-2019). Collections of Maine Historical Society/MaineMemory.Net #148418

The exhibition is organized in three sections.

“Make” focuses on musicians, artists and craftspeople who make instruments, write songs and make music at home and in their communities. Objects on display include Wabanaki instruments and 20th-century records made by the cantor at a local synagogue. Among the people highlighted in this section is fiddle master and snowshoe maker Mellie Dunham. Automobile tycoon Henry Ford heard Dunham play in Maine and brought him to Michigan to perform there. He later published fiddle music and played with his family across the Northeast.


“Hear” tells the story of how the invention of recording machines and then the radio allowed people to listen to music in new ways. For example, visitors can learn in this section about country and bluegrass traditions that thrived in the 1930s, when Bangor was called “Nashville of the North.” In 1938, Hal Lone Pine’s show on WABI in Bangor was the first ever country music coast-to-coast broadcast in the United States, one year before WSM Radio’s 1939 Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

The Lone Pine Mountaineers with Betty Cody and Hal Lone Pine, circa 1940. Collections of the Maine Historical Society, MaineMemory.Net item 148461

And “Play” is about the communal experience of performing or listening to music in public. Here, visitors can learn about Maine’s history of marching bands and the heyday of opera houses in the state. Featured musicians in this section include Lucy Nicolar Poolaw, a Penobscot performer known across America as Princess Watahwaso, and Lillian Nordica, a renowned soprano from Farmington. Alongside vintage opera coats is the modern-day version created by Brown and his wife, Donna Decontie-Brown, for “militakwat,” his historic collaboration with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra.

The Maine Historical Society has previously used iPads and projector screens to add multimedia elements to their exhibits. In “Music in Maine,” many of the plaques have QR codes that allow the visitor to play songs and sounds on their own phone.

But the exhibit also represents a step up in the museum’s technology. Three new speakers allow visitors to hear relevant audio clips as they move through the exhibit without disrupting people in other sections; one is attached to a jukebox of sorts where people can play selections from Maine musicians. Laskey said those speakers were a significant investment but will also “jazz up” future exhibits.

Laskey said she hopes visitors will be as surprised by the exhibit as she was by the research that shaped it.

“When you can walk from radio cowboys to opera, that shows one aspect of the diversity of Maine music,” she said. “I was continually surprised myself. Maine is a breeding ground of creativity.”



Laskey said she wanted to involve outside collaborators in the exhibit because she is not a music historian or an ethnomusicologist who specifically studies music. Some informed the displays or loaned important objects. Others contributed their own words.

“It’s not getting filtered through the museum lens,” Laskey said. “This is your story, and those are your words, and here it is on the wall.”

Lillian Nordica as Brunnhilde at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, 1898. Photograph by Aime Dupont, American (1841-1900). Courtesy of Nordica Memorial Association / MaineMemory.Net #17289

The 18 collaborators include an Elvis tribute artist, a master artist in French Canadian Dance and the founding members of the Bluegrass Music Association of Maine. Chris Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot Nation and the tribe’s historic preservation officer, wrote about the music of powwows and his intertribal drum group called The RezDogs. Robert Sylvain wrote about his grandmother’s cherished notebook of old Acadian folk songs and his efforts to preserve the music of the first French settlers in Maine. Chris Brown, the chief financial officer of Bull Moose, told the story of Record Store Day.

Jason Brown, who performs under the name Firefly, wrote about how his original coat was inspired by springtime – the lichen growing on the trees, the moss emerging from the snow. Visitors to the “Music in Maine” exhibit will see up close the small bells that adorn the coat, a tribute to similar embellishments his ancestors wore during their own performances.

“I wanted to have the coat itself be a musical instrument,” Brown said in an interview. “As I performed, it was creating a really nice, soft ringing.”


Brown said he was glad to see the exhibit celebrates Wabanaki music past and present. He loved the way “Music in Maine” shared so many “firsts” that people might not realize happened in Maine. The message he wanted to convey during his own historic moment is also one that can be shared by this exhibit.

“It was also important to show that Indigenous creative people, we can and we are allowed and we should be able to move through a modern world and share our tradition but do it in modern ways and do it in unexpected ways,” he said.

A portrait of musician William Bergeron with a banjo circa 1910 on display at the new exhibit “Music in Maine” at the Maine Historical Society. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Brooks wrote about his own career in bluegrass and country music.

“I have always enjoyed most genres of music, but country music appealed to me the most,” he wrote. “What really captivated me were the stories told (some true, some as if they were true), the way they rhymed, and the way the music – often simple – enhanced those stories.”

In an interview, Brooks said the exhibit also gave him the chance to introduce the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame to a new audience. The Mechanic Falls museum loaned some key items to the Maine Historical Society for “Music in Maine” – including a guitar played by Fort Fairfield native Dick Curless, best known for his 1965 hit “A Tombstone Every Mile.” In his own travels across the country as a musician, he realized that many people do not know about Maine’s country music scene past or present. He hopes “Music in Maine” will provide an introduction – and then visitors will come to the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame for even more.

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