Many of us grew up singing “This Land is Your Land,” without knowing much about who composed it.
It is just one of more than 1,000 songs written by folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie. Another, “Roll on Columbia,” was selected as Washington’s state song.
During a performance March 23 at the Everett Library, Adam Miller, an autoharpist, folk singer and storyteller, will use all those talents to tell Guthrie’s story.
It’s the only chance for people to hear Miller’s “Woody Guthrie: When the World’s on Fire” performance in Washington this year.
“Everybody thinks they know about Woody Guthrie,” Miller said. “If you tell people what happened in his life, it’s better than a movie.”
His Woody Guthrie show is one of 17 different singing/storytelling shows he performs.
He tailors his shows to the interests and lore of where he’s performing. When touring in Michigan, Indiana an Ohio, “they’re all focused on the Great Lakes and that particular branch of folk songs,” he said. Some shows are just for children. And some audiences are more interested in the Irish roots of American folk tunes or cowboy songs.
Miller, 58, lives in Drain, Oregon, south of Eugene. His stop in Everett is one of about 200 concerts he performs each year.
He said he can’t read music — “it’s meaningless to me.” Instead, he relies on his ability to remember all the music he hears. “These songs and stories are all in my head, so it makes my job interesting,” he said. He didn’t take music lessons until he was in his 30s.
Miller first began including some of Guthrie’s stories and songs in his performances 25 years ago. “It was a five-minute introduction to “This Land Is Your Land,” he said.
Over the years, it evolved into a 90-minute performance that includes 12 of Guthrie’s songs.
“Now I have a full program about Woody’s life and songs, and how he wrote them and how the songs were constructed,” Miller said.
The story and songs of Guthrie’s life, included in Miller’s album “It Might as Well Be a Myth,” was among the works selected this year for an award by the Tennessee-based Storytelling World organization for works that excel in the craft of storytelling.
Guthrie’s ability to put new words to old tunes was what allowed him to compose about 1,000 songs in a dozen years, Miller said. “He did all that before he was 43 years old.”
Guthrie spent the last decade of his life in a hospital bed, slowly being overcome by the same disease his mother had, now known as Huntington’s Disease, which causes the breakdown of the brain’s nerve cells.
At the time of his death in 1967, Guthrie was considered a radical and a persona non grata, Miller said. This was due in part to his association with socialists and communists. He wrote a column for the Communist Party newspaper for nine months, Miller said.
Guthrie never was a member of the Communist Party, but Miller characterized him as “unquestionably socialistic in his world view and about as politically left as possible.”
But in the 50 years since his death, his reputation has changed. Guthrie is considered legendary in his musical influence, Miller said. In 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor as part of its American music series.
Miller considers “This Land is Your Land” as one of the best-known English language songs (and also his favorite Guthrie song).
“If you got a book on Woody Guthrie’s life, it’s a page turner — joy, sorrow, exaltation,” Miller said. “It’s great when you have a non-fiction story you don’t have to turn into a tall tale — it’s already very tall.”
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
Folk singer and storyteller Adam Miller will present stories about Woody Guthrie and perform the songs Guthrie wrote in a free performance from 2 to 3:30 p.m. March 23 at the Everett main library, 2702 Hoyt Ave. For more information, call 425-257-8000 or check online at tinyurl.com/millerconcert.