“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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It’s Bigger Than You Are

To the west of the southern tip of Greenland, in the Qikiqtaaluk Region of the eastern Canadian Arctic’s Nunavut territory, is an inlet of the North Atlantic Ocean that extends into southeastern Baffin Island, called Frobisher Bay. It is named for the English explorer and privateer, Sir Martin Frobisher (1535-1594). In June of 1576, the 40-year-old Frobisher mounted an expedition to discover the fabled Northwest Passage and thereby a shorter route to China. On Kodlunarn Island, near the frigid bay that bears his name, Frobisher came upon a sparkling black rock that contained brassy yellow crystals. Although he didn’t find the Northwest Passage, Frobisher wasn’t disappointed, for he believed he’d discovered the “mother lode.” He took the black stone back to England and had his investors examine it carefully. This convinced them that Frobisher had indeed discovered gold in the “New World,” and they quickly raised the capital to finance his second voyage. In July of 1577, Admiral Frobisher returned to Hall’s Island in Qikiqtaaluk and established the first European mining operation in Canada. His men loaded 200 tons of ore onto the ships and sailed back to England. Word of Frobisher’s remarkable accomplishments reached Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted to invest in the North American gold mine. Her magnanimity helped make his third voyage possible. In June of 1578, Frobisher left England with 15 ships and 400 men. But this was no voyage of discovery: this was a for-profit mining expedition. After weeks of backbreaking work on Hall’s Island, they’d stocked the holds of their vessels with an abundance of the sparkling black rock. Frobisher sailed his fleet across the Atlantic and delivered the 1,400-ton cargo of ore to the foundry in Dartford, England. But the smelters had bad news – after many failed attempts, they discovered that they could not refine gold from the ore because it turned out to be common iron pyrite – it was “fool’s gold.” Frobisher was crestfallen. This major faux pas not only tarnished his reputation, but it also bankrupted him, as well as most of his investors, a few of whom were forced into debtor’s prison. In the end, the worthless sparkling black ore was used to pave the streets of London ­– a detail has become entrenched in English folklore. Sir Richard “Dick” Whittington (1354–1423), a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, was a successful merchant who appointed Lord Mayor of London in 1397, 1406, and 1419. A traditional rhyme survives in the English oral tradition:   Turn again, Whittington, Once Lord Mayor of London! Turn again, Whittington, Twice Lord Mayor of London! Turn again, Whittington, Thrice Lord Mayor of London! Fictionalized versions of Whittington’s biography have been immortalized in five centuries of theatrical plays, pantomimes, and storybooks that tell the folktale of “Dick Whittington and his Cat.” The earliest written reference to his legend is a theatrical registry notice dated 1604-1605. In The Adventures of Sir Richard Whittington, published in 1730, young Dick travels to London because he had heard that the streets of the city were “paved with gold.” On Friday, August 20, 1576, during his first voyage to Kodlunarn Island, Admiral Frobisher dispatched five British sailors from the 25-ton barque Gabriel anchored in Frobisher Bay, to go ashore in wooden rowboat. He instructed them to stay away from the Natives, who had already proved themselves to be formidable warriors. Unfortunately, the sailors did not heed his warning and were captured by the local Inuit; very likely to gain possession of their well-built hardwood English dinghy and oars. The all-too-brief Arctic summer was nearing its end and soon sea ice would choke the bay. After five days of waiting for the missing sailors to return, Frobisher threw in the towel and set sail for England, short-handed. Michael Lok, a prominent investor in the expedition, wrote that Frobisher presumed the five sailors had been apprehended by the Inuit and “judged they were taken and kept by force. The Canadian archaeologist and historian Robert McGhee has written about sailors long confined aboard a diminutive sixteenth-century sailing vessel: “Perhaps we should try to imagine the motives of the five sailors, young men who for ten weeks had endured the cramped quarters of a cold, wet, pitching ship. They had lived on bad food and worse beer, and had slept huddled together on the hard deck of a tiny forecastle. They had been subject to the discipline of a captain famous for his temper and impetuous actions. For the past few days they had come to be acquainted with the most extraordinary people they had ever met, smiling strangers who brought them fresh fish … dressed in warm furs, were eager to trade furs and ivory objects that could easily be sold for a profit at home in England, and introduced the sailors to their shy, tattooed, and charming wives and daughters. An invitation to come ashore and further their acquaintance, as well as to walk freely on the dry tundra and drink clean water from a stream, may have been too enticing to resist.” Nearly 300 years later, in 1860, an Arctic enthusiast from Cincinnati, Ohio, named Charles Francis Hall (1821-1871), sailed to Baffin Island, in the eastern Canadian Arctic, aboard the George Henry, a New London, Connecticut, three-masted whaler, commanded by Captain Sidney Tobias Buddington (1823-1888). Hall hoped to discover the fate of the lost Franklin Expedition – two enormous, state-of-the-art, fully-outfitted, screw-propellor, steam-powered ships with 129 men and officers, that left England in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage and were never heard from again. The lateness of the season forced George Henry to “winter over” at Baffin Island, as solid sea ice surrounded their ship, and it was soon the vessel was as immobilized as an almond in a bar of chocolate. Like the other Indigenous peoples of North America, the Inuit had no written language. Through an interpreter, the local Inuit elders on Baffin Island told Hall about Frobisher’s mining exploits on Kodlunarn Island in the 1570s, which they

Fearless

A few decades ago, I flew to Sitka, Alaska, to perform for the kids at Blatchly Middle School. After I’d finished playing for all the students, while I was chatting with the principal and several of the teachers, a teenage boy walked into the room. He couldn’t have been more than 14. I could tell that there was something different about him. It was not evident in his manner or his walk, but rather in the apparent anxiety the teachers displayed in his presence. Having gigged at thousands of schools in 48 states, I quickly understood that this boy was what administrators call a “difficult student.” Uninhibited, the boy strode right over to me pointing to the guitar in my hands. He was all business. “Can you play ‘Smoke on the Water?’” he asked matter of factly. Having pretty well completely missed rock and roll as a genre, I was sorry I couldn’t fulfill his request. I smiled and told him, “No, I can’t.” And without thinking I handed him the guitar. “Can you?” I asked. Glancing sideways, I suddenly noticed the genuine terror in the eyes of the teachers as they stood by in nervous tableau. I immediately realized I had done the very thing that they wished I had not. The principal was biting his lip. Nobody moved or dared say a word. It was clear that they all feared the boy would smash the guitar against one of the wooden desks. The young man fumbled with his left hang, trying to find his fingering. Then he enthusiastically played a nearly flawless rendition of “Smoke on the Water.” I was amazed. But not as amazed as the teachers. He knew the lick by heart and by the time he finished his solo, the tension in the room was so thick, you could cut it with a knife. The boy looked down at my guitar and spun it in his hands. One of the teachers winced, preparing for the worst. Nobody breathed. Then the boy handed the instrument back to me and said, “Nice axe,” and walked out of the room. The teachers and principal shook their heads in disbelief. Once they’d caught their breath, they regaled me with stories of the many times the boy had acted out physically or destroyed something. Though I can’t remember the boy’s name, I’ve never forgotten him. He’s about 30 years old now and probably has kids of his own. That experience left me fearless. After every concert, I’d invite kids to come up and try my instruments just so they can see what it feels like to hold and play them. The seed of all song Lies in the hearts of children Waiting to be born.

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).