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 Europe. Continue Reading

Categories: Uncategorized.

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

Categories: Uncategorized.

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

Categories: Uncategorized.

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.

George Washington’s Gift for Locker Room Jargon

Few characters in American History are as deified as George Washington. In grade school, I found him to be one of the most boring people in the social studies textbooks. These books failed to convey even a smattering of the man’s panache or spirit. They declared that General Washington was revered by his troops, but offered not one insight into the vivacity that made this guy the “the Father of his Country.” He is placed so high on a pedestal that you can’t even see his humanity. According to the school textbooks, Washington, the man, was as wooden as his teeth. (They were actually made of ivory, but that’s another story.) Perhaps professor Charles V. Willies was thinking of Washington when he wrote these words: “By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves. We fail to recognize that we could go and Continue Reading

Categories: Schools.

Showmanship: The Persuasions Killed It

In the sleepy seaside town where I grew up, I acquired a reputation for being an obsessive collector of old phonograph records. While still in grade school, I could often be found cruising the bins of the local record stores and Lighthouse Avenue antique shops. Each weekend, I would prowl the garage sales listed in the Monterey Peninsula Herald, in search of vintage records. For a mere pittance, many of my classmates were grudgingly persuaded to clandestinely sell me their grandmother’s collection of dusty 78-rpm records. Back in the 1970s, before NPR tranquilized the airwaves with its homogeneous corporate-centric programming, the left-hand side of the FM dial was populated by small, listener-supported, non-profit community public radio stations. These eclectic regional stations featured local volunteer programmers broadcasting recordings from their own personal record collections or playing albums from the station’s vast music library. The Great Silence Broadcasting company, a hometown non-profit corporation, signed the tiny ten-watt Continue Reading

Categories: Performing.

Tragedy and Performance: Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

On a Saturday night in May of 2003, I was invited to perform a living room house concert in Modesto, California, with a handful of other musicians. Although we were all friends we had never performed a show together and weren’t really familiar with each other’s repertoire’s. It was small crowd; it seemed there were as many of us performing as there were seated in the audience. Arriving late, about halfway through the show, a group of people seated themselves, more than doubling the size of the audience. Now the living room was full of people. Everybody was having a good time and they didn’t want the concert to end. Surprised by the need for an encore, we scrambled to quickly come up a song we all knew well enough to perform together for a big finale. This small group of musicians had in common a love of bluegrass and Continue Reading

Categories: Performing.

Better to Fail in Originality than to Succeed in Imitation?

Herman Melville once wrote, “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” And he knew what he was talking about. Though Moby Dick is now considered one of the greatest works of American literature, the critics panned it when it was first published in 1851. Fewer than 3,500 copies were sold during Melville’s life. The product of a year and a half of writing, the book draws on Melville’s experience at sea and on his reading of whaling literature. An unsuccessful poet, in later life financial troubles forced Melville to take a position as a customs inspector. He died in 1891. Three decades after his death – at the centennial of his birth – critics discovered his work and thus began the “Melville Revival.” Moby Dick has never been out-of-print since. A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown. As a professional entertainer, I Continue Reading

Categories: Concerts and Festivals.