Remembering Captain Kendall Morse
Captain Kendall Morse (1934–2021) was a singular figure in American folk culture. Born in Machias, Maine, he learned the craft of storytelling — and many of his favorite tales — at the feet of his legendary Uncle Curt, who he claimed was renowned for his “inability to tell the truth.” After serving in the US Coast Guard, he became a Warden for the State of Maine Department of Sea and Shore, where he captained the patrol boat Explorer, and later for the US Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Encouraged by longtime friend and fellow Mainer Gordon Bok, Kendall recorded two albums for Folk-Legacy Records, now available on Smithsonian Folkways. In addition to these and his other recordings, he published two collections of stories, Stories Told In the Kitchen and Father Fell Down the Well, with a third to be published posthumously. In Maine he was best known as the host of the Maine Public Television series In the Kitchen with Kendall Morse. Each episode featured Kendall sitting in the kitchen swapping tales with a different storyteller.
At a time when Downeast storytelling had become nationally famous, Kendall was an unusual figure. Unlike many of his peers, he spoke with a genuine accent, had lived and worked on the sea, and told stories which had been passed down through his family. An equally gifted musician, he sang simply and powerfully, with a stirring tenor that led Utah Phillips to call him “my favorite singer of folk music in North America.”
After throat cancer took his voice, Kendall continued to perform, hoarsely rasping the words to songs and stories. He could quiet a raucous room with the simple whisper: “Well, I have a story.” In 2010, he earned a Grammy nomination for the two-CD set Singing Through the Hard Times – A Tribute to Utah Phillips, which he co-produced with his wife Jacqui and myself.
To those of us who loved him, Kendall was equal parts irascible, wise, and hilarious. “Humor,” he said, “is the opiate of the melancholy” — words he lived by, especially when faced with the loss of his ability to sing. And for all his famous stories and quips (he once said his epitaph should read “I Knew If I Lived Long Enough Something Like This Would Happen”) he was completely authentic — as funny and as thoughtful in real life as he was on the stage or the television screen.
Kendall Morse leaves behind him more than a body of work. As his songs and stories are sung and retold, he has already become part of the folk process itself, like his uncle before him. It is a fitting legacy.- Dan Schatz