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Why 'humor is the opiate of the melancholy' to this Mainer


Kendall Morse, 81, closed his eyes and leaned back into the comfy chair in his Scarborough living room a couple weeks ago. He was trying to remember where he did his first professional gig as a storyteller and folksinger.

It was 1971, he recalled, at a college — up north — probably in Houlton. He paused a moment more, gently rocking, but the detail was missing.

“The memories are the first thing to go,” he said with a wry smile. “I forget what the others are.”

And that’s what Morse does, every day. He counters the constant challenges of a body and brain that’ve weathered eight decades of use with nuggets of dry wit and a smile.

“The humor is there. It’s not as if I have to find it. It’s all around me. I see the humor in almost everything,” he said, finishing a cup of coffee with his dog, Charlie, sprawled out on the carpet at his feet. “I made up an old saying, as a matter of fact: Humor is the opiate of the melancholy. And that is absolutely true.”

That opiate got him through a battle with cancer a decade ago. The disease left him with a rasping wheeze where his lovely singing voice used to be. His throat was reconstructed with donated tissue from someone who died.

“I tell people I have this horrible urge to sing ‘The Monster Mash,’” he said, laughing at his joke.

In reality, he doesn’t have a voice box and his doctor is puzzled by his communication skills.

“He says to me, ‘I don’t know what you’re using to make sound. You shouldn’t be able to speak at all. There’s nothing there,’” he said, shrugging.

But talk he does.

“He makes me laugh every day,” his wife of 11 years, Jacqui, said. She sits a few feet away wearing a T-shirt that says: “Crocheting takes balls.”

Jacqui is from England. They met on an online folk music forum called Mudcat Cafe.

“OK, he’s 81 — on the outside — but, basically, there’s a 4-year-old in there and I don’t think that’s ever going to change,” she said. “It’s your outlook on life, I think, that matters. And if you think you’re getting old, and you’re going to be old, then you will be old.”

Of course, he wasn’t always old.

He grew up in a humorous family in Machias. They all told stories. His uncle Curt, especially, was known far and wide for his “inability to tell the truth.”

Before ending up on stage, Morse first spent time in the U.S. Coast Guard. Then, he was a coastal warden for the old Maine Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries, enforcing fishing regulations on Penobscot Bay.

“I lived in a boat, with another warden, the year round,“ he said.

The winters were brutal on the water. The summers weren’t too bad. But his kids were growing up and he rarely saw them.

“When I’d come home they were shy about coming near me and two days later, when I left, they were upset. So, I finally decided that it was not a job for a married man,” he said.

He eventually left that job and became a fisheries enforcement agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“I retired from that, and I’ve been telling lies ever since,” he said.

It’s been a long second act. He performed regularly with the likes of Marshall Dodge and Gordon Bok. He wrote a book, made some records and had a TV show on Maine Public Broadcasting in the 1970s. In 2010, he and Jacqui, along with Dan Schatz, were nominated for a Grammy Award for producing the album “Singing Through the Hard Times: A Tribute to Utah Phillips.”

And he’s not done yet. Islandport Press just published a new book of stories by Morse called “Father Fell Down the Well.” It’s a collection of loosely-related gems he’s collected over the years. Much of it was dictated — and typed by Jacqui — straight from his memory.

“He’s not lost that humor,” Jacqui said. “The voice may not be the same — I never knew him when he had that voice. I only met Kendall when that had gone.”

“And she married me anyway,” he added, in a banter between them that probably never ends.

“And he gets up on stage and a switch goes on and ‘Kendall Morse the Performer’ comes out and he’s got the audience in the palm of his hand,” she said, looking over at him.

Morse has no intention of stopping now. Jacqui’s already trying to get him to think about another book.

“To be able to make people laugh is worth quite a lot,” he said. “I try to make somebody laugh every day. And I’ve never failed.”


This article first appeared on Bennett There Done That (Bangor Daily News) on October 3, 2015.