The Little Flowers of St. Francis

1 As a small child, I loved a children’s story by Margaret Wise Brown called Never Worked and Never Will. I found it in a library book called Storytime Tales – A Treasury of Favorite Stories. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the illustration in the book: a group of children gathered in front of a shop counter festooned with various hand -carved and realistically painted duck decoys. The kids are all looking up at a white-haired, grandfatherly gentleman, who’s happily working behind the counter, a knife in one hand and a block of wood in the other, carving wild birds. The children asked about the sign that hung over the woodcarver’s door. It said Never Worked and Never Will. The old man explained, “It means that I never worked a day in my life and I never will. And you wouldn’t have to work either, if you knew Continue Reading

Categories: Performing.

The Monkeys’ Day Off

In my misspent boyhood, I was always so distracted with my own peculiar interests, urges, and compulsions, that I never really had a plan. I learned that sometimes it’s better to follow the path of least resistance, like the river, even if it makes you crooked. Destiny is affected by the accidental, the random, and the insignificant, as well as the intentional. When I was a kid living on First Street in Pacific Grove, California, our next-door neighbor was an organ grinder. For more than four decades, Phil could be found at the entrance to Monterey’s historic Fisherman’s Wharf, turning his hand-cranked barrel organ while his monkeys collected coins from delighted tourists. It was one of the big kicks of my boyhood to walk down the railroad tracks to the wharf, beckoned by the distant music of the barrel organ, and await my turn to hold out a nickel. The Continue Reading

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Mythology and the Oral Tradition

The British archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley said, “We need not try to make history out of legend, but we ought to assume that beneath much that is artificial or incredible there lurks something of fact.” In an oral tradition, a story or song is modified in the process of its transmission from one person to another and from one generation to the next. This transformation is known as the “folk process.” Somehow myths endure the inevitable evolution of the folk process better than the actual historical events they chronicle. Harvard Folklore Professor Albert Lord believed that story patterns had to be “supra-historical” to have such significance outside the historical process. “Their matrix is myth and not history; for when history does have an influence on stories, it is, at first, at least, history is changed, not the stories.” That is to say: story pattern is ultimately more important than getting the Continue Reading

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In a Better Place

My 44-concert, 15,000-mile, eight-week tour of the eastern United States ended on June 1. As one who ostensibly drives for a living, I have come to appreciate the sheer size of this country. It’s huge. Really. And it’s difficult to grasp the scale from the window of an airplane. One cannot fully comprehend the enormity of North America until one drives across the vast expanse of the continent. On a typical day on the road, after six or seven hours barreling 70 miles per hour down the turnpike, I arrive in the town where I’m performing that night. After a long day immobilized behind the wheel of a rental car, I am stupefied. I struggle to transition out of my interstate-induced trance into the countenance of one who is fully prepared to entertain an auditorium full of appreciative strangers. So, in the hour or so before I load into the Continue Reading

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The Turning of the Tides

  Great stories share in common a surprising but nevertheless inevitable conclusion. Long before its shores were lined with minarets and mansions, the Bosporus Strait in present-day Istanbul, Turkey, was little more than a narrow spillway through which fresh water from the ancient inland Black Sea flowed south into the Aegean Sea and on to the Mediterranean. Then, about 7,600 years ago, rising sea levels worldwide brought about a cataclysmic reversal – a natural disaster of biblical proportions. Suddenly, seawater cascaded in the opposite direction, north through the Bosporus Strait and into the Black Sea, with a force two hundred times stronger than that of Niagara Falls. The thunderous roar could be heard for sixty miles away. The waters rose rapidly, as fast as six inches per day, flooding shorelines for thousands of miles. The flood forced farmers to relocate, spreading advanced agricultural techniques westward into what is now central Continue Reading

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Running Away From Home

Running Away From Home is a concept that never goes out of style. Our folksongs and literature are full of stories about children (and adults) running away from home. It seems to be one of the kernels of American identity. Perhaps this is because so many of our ancestors really were running away from home when they first came to North America. As a child, I harbored dreams of escaping the expectations, anxieties, and responsibilities of life at home and, like Huck Finn, leaving it all behind. I think it’s perfectly natural to fantasize about running away from home. Some folks actually try it. Some folks pull it off. And some of us turn it into a profession. In so many traditional folksongs, the protagonist is either at home (and wishing they were away from home) or away from home (and wishing they were home, again). As an itinerant entertainer, Continue Reading

Categories: Performing.

Nice Work If You Can Get It

My chosen profession is not without its rewards. I performed a Christmas concert in December and, when it was over, a tall young man in his early twenties approached the CD table. “Mr. Miller,” he began, “You won’t recognize me, but you played at the library in Placerville, California, about fifteen years ago, when I was a little kid. We bought your CD: Along Came a Giant – Traditional American Folksong for Young Folks. “And,” the young man’s mother added, “He still knows all the words to all the songs on that album!” Motioning toward his teenage sisters standing nearby, the young man explained, “They were at that concert, too, but they were just toddlers.” “Thanks!” I told him, “You made my day. And you’ve validated the past twenty years of touring and performing. That’s more than I had ever hoped for!” Nice work if you can get it!   Continue Reading

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Political Correctness and Traditional Folksongs: Can They Exist in the Same Time and Space?

Last week, a friend shared an email with me, written by a songwriter I have never met. The songwriter said that she was deeply offended by songwriters who recycle a melody that, “still has the symphonic stench and terrible tune of racism.” She felt that contemporary composers should refrain from using traditional melodies that were once associated with the black face minstrel show or contained politically incorrect language. Her expressed position reminded me of an August 20, 2015 article published in the Atlanta Black Star called, “12 Childhood Nursery Rhymes You Didn’t Realize Were Racist.” This week I noticed several people posting references to this article on Facebook and vowing to “clean up their repertoires.” If I feel a song is offensive, I won’t sing it (unless I am using it in an instructional or historical context). But if I try to control what songs other people can or cannot sing, Continue Reading

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What is the Oldest American Folksong?

What’s the oldest English-language American folksong? If you heard it sung today, would it still be meaningful? I don’t mean a song that was sung in another land before it came to North America. And I don’t mean a song composed by the Indians who lived in North America for the last fifteen or twenty thousand years. What’s the oldest song we know about today, that was made up by English-speaking colonists in the British colonies in eastern North America? “Yankee Doodle” would be a good guess; its familiar melody had been popular in a number of Western European countries for centuries. At a time in history when people made their own music, songs were one of many ways American colonists could express their dissatisfaction with their British rulers across the Atlantic. British soldiers responded with songs ridiculing the colonists as country bumpkins, one of which told of a Yankee Continue Reading

Categories: Performing.

The Father of American Music

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” –Mark Twain It was Tuesday, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and only two of the signers of that document were still alive: former Presidents Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and John Adams of Massachusetts. Jefferson and Adams had once been close friends, personally and professionally. Later in life, they became professional adversaries and even enemies, representing diametrically opposing political ideologies. In their final year, these old friends – both widowers – overcame their differences and embarked on a friendly exchange of letters, a correspondence that continued for fourteen years. They were the last surviving members of a generation of American patriots who had, against all odds, fought a war with the mighty British Empire and won. Now, half a century later, American democracy had mutated Continue Reading

Categories: Libraries.