Maine songwriter breathes new life into Longfellow epic, lost film classic

Local songwriter David Karl Roberts didn’t set out to rewrite Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s most famous poem. It just happened.

“It kind of came about by accident,” Roberts said, sitting on his couch in South Portland. “A lot of times when I write songs, I’ll stick some chords together and I’ll blurt out the first thing that comes to me.”

This spring, the first thing that came to him was the name Evangeline.

An albumen print photograph of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, probably taken in 1868 when he was in London. Photo courtesy of Maine Memory Network item 4114

An albumen print photograph of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, probably taken in 1868 when he was in London. (This photo is Maine Memory Network item no. 4114)

That’s the title of Longfellow’s 1847 epic poem of lost love set against the backdrop of the 18th century Acadian expulsion from Nova Scotia. In the tale, French Canadian lovers Evangeline Bellefontaine and Gabriel Lajeunesse get separated when the British forced their people out in 1755. They then spend sad years searching for each other. Finally, Evangeline finds Gabriel but only in time to watch him die in her arms. It’s not a happy story.

When Roberts sang the name, he said he remembered it was a poem, but not the story. So, he looked into it and became fascinated. Along the way, he read other versions of the story, too. You see, Longfellow didn’t completely invent the narrative.

According to the Maine Historical Society, the Portland-born poet first heard about it over dinner with Nathanial Hawthorne in April 1840:

“Hawthorne brought the Reverend Horace Conolly with him… Conolly related a tale he had heard from a French-Canadian woman… Conolly had hoped Hawthorne would take the story and turn it into a novel, but he was not interested. Longfellow, however, was intrigued, and reportedly called the story, ‘the best illustration of faithfulness and the constancy of woman that I have ever heard of or read.’ He asked for Hawthorne’s blessing to turn it into a poem.”

Hawthorne must have said it was fine with him. Seven years later, Longfellow published the 1,399-line poem. It was a hit and made him the most famous writer in America.

Roberts is in good company with his latest version of Longfellow’s tragedy. Evangeline inspired scores of similar 19th century poems along with many paintings. Hollywood made two film versions in the early 20th century, including one that is now considered a lost classic, meaning the U.S. Library of Congress can’t locate any remaining copies. Robbie Robertson of The Band wrote a song by the same name in the 1970s. The poem was standard curriculum in American schools for decades. There’s also a statue of the fictional heroine in Nova Scotia.

Like the original, Roberts’ new song is quite long. It clocks in at almost 10 minutes.

“Originally, it was like 15 minutes long,” he said, smiling. “I had to knock it down.”

The new song is a comeback, of sorts, for Roberts. He used to be a staple of Portland’s music scene 20 years ago. He toured as a solo act and as part of the bands Crazy Moonbeams and Killer Greens. He also worked at the local guitar store. But then he vanished.

“I’ve been at home,” Roberts said. “I’ve got twin boys, that are now 14, and when they came along, late nights and me didn’t get along anymore. So, I became a home dad.”

It’s a decision he doesn’t regret.

“It’s been great,” he said. “There’s no pressure anymore. No pressure to make a living at it.”

Roberts recently recorded his new tune with singer Molly Ladd. It’s available to stream and download.

Spending time with his kids is actually how he met Ladd. She’s the librarian at the local library, where he brings his sons. They met again at a local open mic and began collaborating.

Roberts isn’t sure what his next song will be about or if it will be as epic as this one.

“I’m just going to keep on writing songs,” he said.

David Karl Roberts and Molly Ladd recently recorded a new, 10 minute song that reworks and retells the classic tale of Evangeline. Portland's own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's best-selling poem of the same name tells the same tale and Roberts, who wrote the new piece, borrowed some of Longfellow's language for his new song. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

David Karl Roberts and Molly Ladd recently recorded a new, 10 minute song that reworks and retells the classic tale of Evangeline. Portland’s own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s best-selling poem of the same name tells the same tale and Roberts, who wrote the new piece, borrowed some of Longfellow’s language for his new song. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.