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Bill Miller... Songs and Stories from the Heart Path
June 30, 2001
by Roger Kuhns

RogerKuhns directs musicTOears, a promotional agency for acoustic musicians who write original material. He helps train, manage and produce professional musicians, creating opportunities for affiliated artists to perform.

Jean White is one of a number of these talented singer-songwriters who regularly appear in
musicTOears acoustic music concerts at various coffee houses and bistros throughout Door County and the Midwest.
FISH CREEK, WI - The stage is a lonely place... and, a revealing place, where the soul of an artist can be exposed for all to see. The tools of Bill Miller's trade are on the Door Community Auditorium stage - a sunburst six string guitar, a drum, wooden flutes, rattles and bells. I am in the audience with my wife Liz and her daughter Marcelle - anxious, for I have been following Bill Miller's music for a long time, and this is the first chance I have had to see him play live.

The lighting is sparse illuminating a small area around the microphones and instruments. Three golden eagle feathers hang from the microphone stand. Later he will sing: "These are the feathers of a golden eagle, these are the feathers of an ancient people." I feel a sense of purpose in the imminent performance. Much is due to my personal expectation, but there is tangible energy in the air because a good and talented man is near.

Bill Miller walks on stage in his Native American attire. His long black hair flows slightly as he strides toward the light. He picks up a wooden courting flute. The atmosphere resonates with deep long notes and pull-off sharp punctuating tones associated with a simpler people and a clearer vision of our world. A hauntingly familiar natural melodic tone begins deep and slowly ascends to middle registers. Then without faltering he picks up a second tenor flute and adds it to the instrumentation. This second flute climbs higher into the upper octaves, slowly bringing the audience into the here and now. With one free hand he begins to hammer-on guitar chords while continuing to play the flute. He taps the strings and rich acoustic guitar sounds fill out the space around the flute Then his rich vibrato delivers the words to "Reservation Road"
(from The Art Of Survival, Vanguard 1990). The audience is transported to another time and place. Emotion flows through powerful strumming, head nodding and flowing black hair:

"And just for that moment we were racing with the wind
the sound of horses thundering echoed once again
back to the place where our hearts and souls belong
a thousand dreams away from the reservation road…"

Bill Miller

Twenty-three years ago Bill was married in Door County. His June 30, 2001 concert at the Door Community Auditorium is his first return visit. It has been a long road - ten albums and two and a half decades on the road - a path that stretches back further into the Wisconsin woods than a quarter of a century. He was born to a Mohican father and a German mother, raised on the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation near Shawano. In those early years, before he left home at 19, were prolonged episodes of abuse and alcoholism in his family. Bill speaks freely of his past and his path to self-understanding and healing.

The concert continues... Bill tells a story about the first time he left home and the reservation - 1973, the tail end of the turbulent Viet Nam years, the ongoing civil rights struggle, the mountain to climb for all the aching and hoping for equality and peace. He slides to Milwaukee with an art school scholarship, and for the first time in his life sees a black man. The man calls out, "Hey chief!" The man's girl friend wants to touch Bill's long black hair.

"We were talking and touching each other's hair," Bill says. "This was all B.C. -
Before Casinos - and I wanted to be an artist. Everyone at the school looks like they've just come back from France. They have berets and the artist's look. I looked like a fisherman in my reservation clothes."

Bill's apartment was above a bar in the Milwaukee ghetto. He had come from an abusive environment and was naïve about the world away from the reservation. "This guy came up to me and said 'you an Indian or something'? And I replied, something like, 'yeah, I'm sorry', like we did. This guy, his name was David, said, 'Pleased to meet you, I'm a Pollock.' He told me terrible Pollock jokes, and I laughed and cried like I hadn't in years. When you grow up in violence and alcohol you forget how to laugh."

Bill pauses... The words stick in his throat and his voice wavers from emotion. "I learned things from this guy. He asked me to come over to his house for the weekend. So I did and met his family, they were all Polish. You know the first thing we did was go bowling. This guy was in a league and had a shirt that said 'Dave' on it and everything!" The audience laughs at that and the laughter is an anticipated release from an emotional insight that was about to be heard. "After dinner Dave's dad called him down stairs to have a talk. Now in my family something bad happened every few days - some violence - so I figured this kid was about to be told that I wasn't wanted in the house or worse. So I followed him downstairs and looked around the corner as Dave went to his dad. The dad had Dave sit on his lap, and he hugged him and told him he loved him. It was so tender, so loving. He kissed his son and told him he loved him." Bill pauses again as his eyes grow moist and the words fail to come for a moment. "I wondered where was this for me? I never had that. Here's this Polish dad showing love to his son - that moment still hits me. I struggle with it and even after twenty-six years of touring it still affects me. I learned to be a peacemaker not from my people but from this Polish man."

Bill then sings "Listening" from his
Raven In The Snow album. His words urged, "Listen to me, I am the thunder you refuse to hear."

An orange-yellow spotlight focuses on center stage and gives the appearance that Bill is singing at sunset. He speaks of his influences - Peter Rowan (
Dust Bowl Chicken) and Bob Dylan (who he says is the most powerful Jewish medicine man he's ever met) and many others. In his playing are the rock riffs of Jimi Hendrix's style and Nashville blues with a thread of country and a bit of southern jazz. His music flows from earthy wooden flute solos into hard driving acoustic guitar licks. The music is the vehicle that takes his words like a hawk on the wind to the heart of the listener.

Bill says, "I appreciate people who have something to stand up for. I stand up for the truth. If you stand up for what you believe in you have no idea how many people you'll affect." This is his lead-in for the title track from his new album
Ghost Dance, which is the winner of five Native American music awards (Vanguard Records, 2000):

"I wanna go where the blind can see
I wanna go where the lame will walk
I wanna see the sick onces clean
where the deaf can hear and the silent talk."
Ghost Dance
Bill speaks of what he calls our throwaway society. "The material stuff gets to be its own mountain and its too big to climb over - can't see beyond that. I always write about my sons. Who wants to be a millionaire? Well, gee, everyone - but is that going to remove what happened to me as a child? The question should be: who wants to be a better dad? There are all these fear shows, Survivor; it's all a bunch of crap. I think those people who make it through all the bad marriages and childhoods - they deserve a hand."

"I write about nature's things, I write about what I see. I appreciate those little things." Bill speaks of watching a baby blue jay with his son, and how nurturing and fulfilling that was as a father. "I don't do drugs, I don't do cocaine, I do blue jays!" he says referring to the moment. Family is a huge part of Bill's life, and his career on the road as a musician coupled with his abusive childhood puts a strain on being a good father. "Sometimes I get scared that I'll be what my dad was," he admits. "There are so many things near the edge that we got to get into." Then Bill sings "Every Mountain I Climb" (also from
Ghost Dance): "For every mountain I climb / for every river that winds / for every wind that blows / I will send out my prayers / for the children below."

The main part of the performance is completed with a song sung in the Menominee language to the accompaniment of bells and a drum. "I praise you for the rivers and mountains and streams / Eagle visions that we dream…" While Bill keeps up the drum beat he then deftly begins rapping the guitar with his other hand, and once the drumstick is set aside the powerful and familiar chords of Dylan's All Along The Watchtower resonate through the auditorium. The driving medley of the Menominee and folk-rock songs and crossover instrumentation seems to encapsulate the evening through the strong emotional experiences in Bill Miller's life.

An encore of reservation life sung to a blues progression seems to further mingle disparate cultures and remind us that music is of the world and world music is from us all. Here in this man's body we the audience glimpse the bruises and scars of so many, and through his song and energy some find solace and a healing touch. By letting in the words and music and message a person can perhaps see within themselves a little more than usual, and be the better for the experience.
He is weary, having driven up from Nashville that day and having a gig in Baraboo the next morning.
But he takes time for the people - to talk, pose for photos and sign autographs. After all of this there are just a few of us remaining in the hall, and he is gracious enough to spend a few moments with me.

RK (Roger Kuhns): "You write so much about your own life and it seems so very honest. Where do you go inside yourself to write these songs?"

BM (Bill Miller): "Well, right here," (Bill taps my own CD... the one I had just given him entitled Eye Of The Storm.) "I grew up in a storm. It's scary but not as scary as for those who haven't grown up in it. I find the most gold in the darkest corners. So I head for the storm and draw upon my own experiences and those of others. I do a lot of listening. That's where I pick up a lot of these things. I carry a little tape recorder around and then write short stories from the conversations. Then with these compiled I work out timing and a rhyme scheme."

RK: "During the performance you mentioned you like to live dangerously, what do you mean?"

BM: "I don't mean doing drugs or racing around. It's powerful to live dangerously by standing up for what you believe in; in finding the truth. That's what I mean by the danger; the risk of standing up for something."

RK: "Tell me about being a father."

BM: "It is an honor, and it is scary. I worry that I could do what dad did. I have a chance in my life to make up for his mistakes. I also have a group of men that help me. Fatherhood is the biggest challenge of my life."

RK: "What are the biggest challenges for Native Americans in America now?"

BM: "We must grow out of our own communities, and all of this must come from the heart. Grants and politics - no, that isn't going to do it. It is education; one group educates others. The Native American must first be good to his brother before we can achieve being good to others. You know my mother is a full-blooded German, but I don't see her as anything other than my mother - the woman who cared for me and loved me. We got to get to that, that healing point. We must tell all the stories we have, then move on. Too many times our stories are cut off. We must tell them, we must get that out - the garbage and the poison - get that out and then move on. You can't move on if you don't do that."

RK: "Do you see the positive effects your message and your music has on people?"

BM: "No, not really. I'm not into that, into that kind of recognition. I keep moving, I can't stop the journey I'm on; I plant seeds of hope in a world of despair. I'm telling truthful things. What happens is beyond my control, but I try to be as honest as I can."

"I heard a voice callin' out to me
might've been a vision might've been a dream
it said some things will come and some will go
we're only here a moment don't you know."

from "The Vision" by Bill Miller in Ghost Dance

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