“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

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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 my secret.” Unable to guess his secret, some of the kids walked away shaking their heads saying, “The old man’s crazy: all he does is work!” But a few of them watched in fascination as he carved. It made them feel happy to see him working. Sometimes he even let them help paint the birds. And the children were so engaged in what they were doing, they never thought of it as work. They had learned the old man’s secret. And so had I. *                      *                      * In 1970, when I was nine-years old, aunt Sooky and uncle Aaron took me to see my first Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup, at the Tantamount Theater in Carmel Valley. Duck Soup was a revelation – fast-paced, unpredictable, extremely amusing, and entirely entertaining. In fact, it was almost a cartoon starring real people. I could easily relate to the Marx Brothers: four (and later three) oddball, anarchic outliers who rebelled against every manner of authority and pretension. They never got the girl, but they always got the better of their oppressors. Though they were short and disenfranchised, through a combination of chutzpah, contrivance, and pure unabashed brashness, they somehow managed to prevail. I became a devout Marx Brothers fan. Groucho became my new idol, much to the relief of my shy older cousin Bobby, who had politely tolerated my effusive idolatry for so many years. I would practice using Groucho’s one-liners and snappy comebacks in conversation, embarrassing my female classmates and enraging my parents’ houseguests. I proceeded to read every book in the Pacific Grove Public Library about the lives and careers of the Marx Brothers. The librarian, peering over her spectacles, would look at me incredulously – a nine-year old attempting to check out a 482-page volume entitled, Harpo Speaks. I still read every new book about them. Of course, I was too young to know the definition of the word “scholar,” let alone knew what one looked like. Later in life, Holly Tannen, the Mistress of Folklore, explained it to me quite succinctly, “A scholar is someone who has taken the time to read everything that has been published on his or her subject.” As a nine-year old boy, I was too young to realize it, but that’s what I was already doing. Mr. Hayes, our fifth-grade teacher at Forest Grove Elementary School, was a great advocate of literature and he turned us on to a bunch of wonderful books and authors. Each student kept a journal containing the book reports they’d written about what they were reading that year. I still have my fifth-grade book report journal. I drew a nice, full-color portrait of Groucho on the cover. Every book report I wrote that year discussed a book about (or authored by) one of the Marx Brothers. My fifth-grade book report journal is an interesting artifact of that chapter of my life. Seeing the Marx Brothers movies for the first time, while simultaneously reading through all the library books about them, I first got in touch with my inner scholar. Admittedly, this behavior does seem a bit obsessive/compulsive for a fifth-grader. I was (and still am) a pretty obsessive/compulsive person. It’s a condition that lends itself to the research, reading, and reflection essential to the creation of non-fiction essays, such as the one the reader is now enjoying. Although, in my own childlike way, I vaguely understood the concept, the adults around me were largely unaware of any manner of scholarship, mine or theirs. I hoped I might receive praise for my extensive research and focus. But that was not to be. On the cover of my book report journal, Mr. Hayes wrote the following comment. His little offering would continue to dog my confidence through decades of scholarly research and study. “Couldn’t you read something else for a change?” *                      *                      * Back when the world was young, there was once a magical art-house movie theater eleven miles down the Carmel Valley Road called the Tantamount Theater. It was only a twenty five-minute drive, but fifty years ago when I was a child it seemed the longest car trip ever –  a veritable endurance test spent in the back seat of uncle Aaron’s silver Mercedes sedan. I can still remember the smell of the red leather seats. As we barreled down the empty two-lane highway, I would crane my neck to look out the window at the expansive starlit sky. The Tantamount Theater was unlike any other theater. Set in the Carmel Valley countryside, it was only open on weekend nights, so as not to disturb their neighbors. François and Ralph, the impresarios, an older gay, bohemian couple, were world-class puppeteers. There were no streetlights. Just above the Los Laureles Lodge, you’d turn off of Middle Canyon Road and proceed in pitch-blackness, down the long gravel driveway. Just when it seemed as if you might have made a wrong turn, François, a diminutive older gentleman, clad in a hand-woven cloak of his own design and manufacture, would materialize out of the darkness, holding a flashlight, directing you

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.

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.”