“I grew up during the folk revival, and as a small boy in the 1960s I learned to sing a lot of folksongs. When I was 11 years old, I attended a Sam Hinton concert at the Big Sur Grange on the California coast — and it made a lasting impression on me: making that early connection between events in history and the folksongs that survived them. Forty years later, when Sam Hinton died, I discovered that I was the last person in the world that still sang ’The Frog Song.’”

~Adam Miller

“I grew up during the folk revival, and as a small boy in the 1960s I learned to sing a lot of folksongs. When I was 11 years old, I attended a Sam Hinton concert at the Big Sur Grange on the California coast — and it made a lasting impression on me: making that early connection between events in history and the folksongs that survived them. Forty years later, when Sam Hinton died, I discovered that I was the last person in the world that still sang ’The Frog Song.’”

~Adam Miller

  1. Folksongs of the Great American Railroad – Free Concert

    Thursday, January 30 @ 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm
  2. Along Came a Giant – Free Concert for all Ages

    Saturday, February 8 @ 10:30 am - 11:30 am
  3. Folksongs of the Great American Railroad – Free Concert

    Monday, February 10 @ 4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

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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 sensation of the monkey’s tiny hand brushing against my fingertips as he deftly removed the coin from my grasp never ceased to both thrill and terrify me. Fifty years ago, when I knew him, Phil was a long–haired, rather bohemian fellow in his twenties, with sideburns and a waxed mustache. It’s not surprising that Phil worked alone with his monkeys. He was kind of a scary guy and we rarely spoke to him. In the early 1970s, Phil shared his home with his two capuchin monkey co-workers, Jimmy and Gomez. The monkeys had their own bedroom, with an enormous cage set in front of the widow. If you climbed up on the roof of our garage, you could look into the monkeys’ bedroom window, just a few feet away. One fateful day in my thirteenth year, believing that the neighbors were not at home, my brother and I climbed up onto the roof of our garage. We hoped to catch a glimpse of Jimmy and Gomez while off duty, in their bedroom, doing whatever it is that professional monkeys do when they’re not plying their trade. Moments later, I happened to glance into the next window. I saw that Phil was not only home, he was not alone and he was not standing up. Although I was a kid, I fully understood the implications of this observation as he glared at me through the bedroom windowpane. Naturally, he reported the “incident” to my disappointed mother. As a consequence for my indiscretion, I was grounded-to-home from all activities except public school and, rather arbitrarily, classes at the local Children’s Experimental Theater. So, like the river, I chose the path of least resistance. In order to escape house arrest after school, I began volunteering for as many activities as possible at the Children Theater: acting, fencing, setting lights, building sets, and painting scenery. Through my high school years, I worked at the theater full-time and soon it was my livelihood. This twist of fate began my path to performing on stage and ultimately to my current occupation (the one in which Folksongs travel through History and History travels through Folksongs).

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 facts right. A fragment of history, so inconspicuous that it might be overlooked, sometimes remains attached to a story for a millennium, inexplicably surviving the ever-evolving folk process of oral tradition. And the ages. Whether there is any historical reality behind the Trojan War is still a subject of great debate. Homer is said to have composed the Iliad (set during the legendary Trojan War) in an oral tradition, centuries before written Greek literature evolved. In this 12,000-line poem, he tells us, “Meriones gave Odysseus a bow, a quiver and a sword, and put a cleverly made leather helmet on his head. On the inside there was a strong lining on interwoven straps, onto which a felt cap had been sewn in. The outside was cleverly adorned all around with rows of white tusks from a shiny-toothed boar, the tusks running in alternate directions in each row.” The same boar’s tusk helmet is depicted, exactly as Homer described it, in a 3,500 year-old Minoan Age fresco painted on the wall of a residential dwelling in the ancient city of Akrotiri, on the Greek island of Santorini. The fresco was discovered fifty years ago, buried beneath the ash from an enormous volcanic eruption that destroyed the island around 1600 BC – – 600 years before the alleged Trojan War. Of the Trojan War, Professor Lord observed, “Fact is present in the epic, but relative chronology in the catalog is confused. Time is telescoped. The past of various times is all assembled into the present performance. Oral epic presents a composite picture of the past.” This phenomenon is widespread throughout the realm of the oral tradition. It is a familiar aspect of our dreams, our memory, and our stories.

Never Worked and Never Will

As a small child, I loved a library book called Storytime Tales – A Treasury of Favorite Stories. The one I liked best was called, “Never Worked and Never Will,” by Margaret Wise Brown.   In my mind’s eye, I can still see the illustration: a group of children gathered in front of a shop counter festooned with various hand-carved and realistically painted water-fowl decoys. The kids are all looking up at a grandfatherly, white-haired gentleman happily working behind the counter. Each day, he sits in his shop with a knife in one hand and a block of wood in the other, carving wild birds. But there’s one thing the children don’t understand. Over the woodcarver’s door hangs a large sign that says: “Never Worked and Never Will.” The sign puzzles some of the children. The old man explains, “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 my secret.” Unable to guess his secret, they walk away shaking their heads, “The old man’s crazy: all he does is work!” But a few of the children watch in fascination as he carves the wild geese out of wood. It makes them feel happy to see him working and sometimes he even lets them help him paint the birds. It never occurs to them to ask what the sign means because they’re so engaged with what he’s doing, they never think of it as work. And that’s how they learned the old man’s secret. I am fortunate to have one of those “Never Worked and Never Will” kind of jobs. It’s such a privilege traveling around the country, making one’s living as a 21st-century troubadour, I rarely think of it as work. Now you know my secret.

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 venue to do my sound check, unwilling and unable to endure yet another greasy offering from the proverbial roadside diner, I use the GPS device to locate the local cemetery. There, under shade of a stately tree I find a memorial bench where I can park my carcass and chill. Conjuring my supper out of a brown paper grocery bag, I attempt to shake off the road-buzz, and savor the sanctuary that is the graveyard. I wave to the occasional passing groundskeeper. But no one ever approaches me or asks me what I am doing there. The city of the dead has its own unwritten code: visitors shall not experience unwanted intrusions. Apparently, I am not the only traveller who has sought respite in the serenity of the graveyard. In 1867, the 29-year old naturalist John Muir walked from Indiana to Florida, through an American South ruined by four years of Civil War. He recounted his journey in, A 1,000 Mile Walk to the Gulf, published in 1916, explaining how he learned “to sleep in cemeteries to avoid unwanted intrusions while camping alone.” The marine biologist Edward Ricketts made a similar sojourn through the South in the 1920s. He published his recollections of the trip noting, “I came across John Muir’s thousand mile walk and was very interested in his half century old description of the country I just traveled. Muir’s advice regarding cemeteries proved particularly useful.”