How the West Was Won – Big Sur After the Gold Rush

The California redwoods were legendary – another tall tale of The West – like Paul Bunyan, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite, and Death Valley. They were, in fact, bigger than any trees still standing in post-Civil War America. Many were over 350-feet tall, hundreds of years old, and as big as twenty-five feet in diameter at the base. The rugged mountains south of Carmel were then still considered too inhospitable and inaccessible for the average homesteader. The vast stands of virgin redwood trees in the Santa Lucia Mountains, perched on the western-most edge of the North American continent, attracted the attention of only the most ambitious pioneers. It was a tall order just to get there. *           *           * For centuries, the prospect of acquiring “free land” was a cornerstone of the American Dream. In response to the Homestead Act, Anglo settlement of the Big Sur region began after the Continue Reading

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The Big Blonde

I haven’t worked in the film industry for decades. Thanks to so-called social media, I’ve reunited with a bunch of beloved former co-workers and crew members, many of whom I haven’t seen in ages. A veteran cinematographer, who is my Facebook friend and a former crew member, regularly posts obscure (and sometimes unrecognizable) photographs of celebrities on their birthdays, without any words of identification. It has become a fun pandemic pastime, excavating the psychic landfill that is memory, in a concerted effort to identify the individuals in the photo. Thanks to insomnia, I am frequently awake at all hours of the night. On Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in my sleep-deprived haze, I saw one of these celebrity portraits posted by this Facebook friend: a black-and-white photograph of a young man wearing a wig, a false mustache, and a sunshade rimmed, snap-brim fedora. I was only half awake at the time, Continue Reading

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Repaying My Debt to the Industry

Forty years ago, just out of my teenage years, I moved to Los Angeles to break into the motion picture industry. Through sheer coincidence, my aunt’s husband happened to know Allen Daviau, a  professional cinematographer. Shortly after my arrival in Southern California, Allen Daviau, told me something that I’ll never forget. Emphasizing the importance of punctuality in the motion picture profession, he told me: “If you’re fifteen minutes early for call time – you’re twenty minutes late.” In an industry where the milk of human kindness is in short supply, Allen Daviau (rhymes with Flavio) displayed a generosity of spirit that has never been equaled. At first, I believed that this was because he thought I was special. But as the years went by, I spoke to many others in the trade and discovered it was just his way of handling people. Everybody had their own story about the unprecedented Continue Reading

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The Criminal Mind

Before moving to the Monterey Peninsula, my parents lived on Citrus Avenue in Los Angeles. Wilshire-Crest Elementary Public School was three city blocks from our house, and I attended kindergarten there when as a five-year old. My mother would give me a dime to buy a six-ounce waxed paper container of orange juice, or a nickel for a half-pint of milk. My teacher was named Mrs. Savage. I was scared of her. I think some of the other kids were, too – she was pretty confrontational for a kindergarten teacher. One day, Mrs. Savage was banging rhythmically on a drum while all of us kids sat in a circle watching and keeping time by silently tapping our extended index fingers together. For some reason, Mrs. Savage had to leave the room for a few minutes. When she returned, she yelled angrily at the room full of five-year olds, “Why didn’t Continue Reading

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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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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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