Real-life folk hero the North Pond Hermit inspires folk songs

Christopher Knight – the North Pond Hermit, as he was almost immediately nicknamed, upon his arrest – has a story too strange to be believed. 27 years in the Maine woods, with no heat, no running water, no health care, no contact with any other humans, and innumerable possibilities for injury or death. He never set a fire, for fear of people seeing it. He stole food and other necessities from nearby camps, rather than hunt. He somehow managed to never break any bones, be attacked by an animal, freeze or starve to death or be seen by virtually anyone. In other words: he’s a real life folk hero.

It’s not surprising Knight’s tale has already resonated with Maine songwriters, particularly those in the folk and bluegrass communities. Less than 72 hours after the Hermit story broke, the BDN’s own Troy Bennett – photographer by day, folk musician with the Squid Jiggers and the Half Moon Jug Band by night – wrote his own North Pond Hermit song, which has already received thousands of views and been played on radio stations statewide.

Now Belgrade-based songwriter Stan Keach has upped the game, recording a North Pond Hermit song of his own, titled “We Don’t Know the North Pond Hermit.” It features Keach on guitar and vocals and “Barefoot” Dan Simons (of the multi-talented Simons family) on mandolin. Keach has written and performed his songs in Maine for more than 30 years, and has released several albums of bluegrass songs, including last year’s “Cry of the Loon,” an album of songs about Maine.

Both Bennett and Keach recognized that the Hermit story is ripe for retelling. It has all the elements of a traditional folk hero story, beginning with the fact that the Hermit is an outlaw. He lives outside of society, literally, in a makeshift tent in the woods, with no regard for social norms or concepts like money, like Robin Hood, or Thoreau, or even, for that matter, Yoda, though Knight wasn’t exactly giving to the poor, writing philosophy or living in exile on a swamp planet. Also like Robin Hood, or Billy the Kid or Guy Fawkes, he is a criminal, and somehow has the charm or nerve to remain sympathetic, though Knight’s crimes were far less grievous than the murderers and robbers mentioned above. His mugshot, after his arrest, has already become iconic, like Bonnie and Clyde in their cars – the shaved head, the big 1980s glasses, the look on his face, of what – resolve? Anger? Resignation? Sadness?¬†And like nearly all folk heroes, from Johnny Appleseed to Daniel Boone, he’s already been mythologized, to the point where the fact will almost certainly get separated from the fiction.

Time will tell if Knight’s story remains in the public consciousness, since the story’s only been out there for a little over a week, and our 24-hour news cycle seems to have a terminal case of short term memory loss. There’s still lots more to find out, too, as it’ll probably take months for a trial date to be set, and who knows what will happen to the guy when all is said and done and he’s once again a free man. Will he try to escape back into the woods? Will he try to assimilate back into society? Will he be exploited by those who see his story as a way to make money or grab ratings? Credit must be given to the Kennebec County authorities currently holding Mr. Knight, as they are aware that their defendant is in a uniquely sensitive position. Folk heroes are not just famous because of their acts, real or imaginary – they’re famous because their stories reflect the world we live in. The songs, poems, films and other art that tell those stories only help add to the legend.

Emily Burnham

About Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native, a UMaine graduate, a proud Bangorian and an arts and lifestyle writer for the Bangor Daily News, where she's worked since 2004. She reports on everything from local bands to local food, from media and the Internet to theater and dance. In her quest for stories, she's seen countless concerts and plays, been lobster fishing, interviewed celebrities, hung out with water buffalo and played in a ukulele orchestra, to name just a few. She's interested in everything -- especially if it happens in Maine. She welcomes any and all feedback or suggestions for stories.