Randy Miller | Ewing Arts
As a hazy early summer moon rises over the grassy hillside overlooking Lake Warren in East Alstead, Randy Miller puts his violin under his chin and draws the bow on the strings to demonstrate different playing styles: the vigorous sawing motion common to New England, the brewing of the southern Appalachians, the jagged slam of Scotland and the singing pounding of Ireland.
Suddenly, Miller’s 1815 house echoes with the sounds of folk music. It is fitting that Miller, the son of a Presbyterian pastor, lives in a house that once served as a rectory for the Second Congregational Church across the street. In fact, he says his father came out of retirement to briefly serve in the White Church so typical of a New England village. And in the 1980s, he notes, the church used to organize counter-dances in the basement common room. Miller, 73, came to New Hampshire in the 1970s for contra dance, a form of folk dance.
A multi-instrumentalist, Miller has recorded six albums of traditional New England music and Irish violin and another is on the way. He has published important songbooks preserving heritage folk music, including New England Fiddler’s Repertoire with Jack Perron of Peterborough. And he is a visual artist in the medium of woodcut. For these reasons, the directors of the Monadnock Folklore Society nominated him for an Ewing Arts Award as an advocate for the arts.
“He has been playing violin, piano or accordion for counter dances for over 45 years,” writes Lisa Sieverts, calling for counter dancing and a member of the company’s board of directors, in the nomination. “He has toured nationally and internationally, bringing New England dance music to new audiences. In addition, he was a welcoming mentor to other musicians…. “
“I have spent most of my musical career as a counter dance musician,” Miller says, “but in my later years I turned to Irish session music.”
He and his wife, Deb Keller, whom he met while working at Old Farmer’s Almanac, published by Yankee Publishing in Dublin, made two trips to Ireland before she succumbed to cancer in August 2019. When they met over 20 years ago, Keller worked as an editor and Miller as a fact-checker.
Keller liked counter dancing. “She loved to dance,” he said in a distant voice.
In a strange twist of fate, Miller spent most of the pandemic speechless, vocal cords frozen over from chemotherapy for a rare tongue cancer diagnosed in the fall of 2019. He filled the quiet time around the house. on the hill “hanging out, playing my instruments, trying to keep in shape while walking.
“Have you ever been on chemotherapy? He asks, shaking his head at the thought. Although part of his tongue has been “cut”, as he puts it, he is “cancer free and silent at the moment”. And he eagerly recites the concerts that have returned to his calendar: Wednesday evenings at the Salt Hill Pub in West Lebanon, Friday evenings at the Hungry Diner in Walpole, monthly appearances at the Brewbakers Cafe in Keene, dances at the ‘Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy.
Contra dancing is set to make a post-pandemic comeback, Miller predicts: “By the end of fall, the dances will be on.”
Miller has lived in East Alstead since 1973. His first home in the village was a “corn nursery” which has been converted into a rustic seasonal cabin.
On this balmy June evening, he’s sitting in a room in the front corner of the Federal-style house, surrounded by musical instruments. He picks them up and plays them, as easily as a summer walk down a country lane – at least it seems. Sieverts describes Miller as an “unfazed” musician. He takes a French accordion and launches into “Darling Nelly Gray”, an abolitionist song from the Civil War era still played in balls, then “I’ll Remember You, Love, in My Prayers”.
Miller grew up in a musical household. A talented musician with a perfect ear, her mother was a church organist. She made him practice the piano for 30 minutes every day right after school, when all he wanted, he said, was to go out and play with his friends. “I regretted it.”
But playing the piano didn’t stop the 6-foot-2 Miller from becoming an athlete in two sports: baseball and basketball. He and his roommate, Al Wellington, helped underdog Oberlin College win the Ohio Athletic Conference Tournament Championship in 1970. He and Wellington wrote a book about it: “Oberlin Fever: A Championship Spirit in Black and White ”. The book, along with its tunebooks, are available on Miller’s website: fiddlecasebooks.com.
From his parents, Miller says, he learned that “whatever you do, you really have to do your best and put it all in.
Her siblings – two brothers and a sister – all started playing musical instruments. When Miller and his brothers, Ralph and Rodney (the boys were known as the Three Rs), were in high school in Irondequoit, NY, they formed a trio that performed at area festivals, with Ralph on the banjo, Rodney on the violin and Randy on guitar. Sister Joanna played the cello.
Miller took up the violin at age 22, a recent graduate from Oberlin with a degree in English literature, assigned to an alternative service working in a hospital (“screwing light bulbs”) during the Vietnam War due to his status as a conscientious objector. It was inspired by Paddy Cronin from West Roxbury, Mass. To County Kerry, Ireland, who hung wallpaper by day and played the violin by night.
It was in Boston that Miller discovered folk music and counter dance. He has heard that counter dancing is very common in New Hampshire. He attended his first dance at Francestown Town Hall. “I sat there all night, speechless.” Listening to the “eight or ten” musicians on stage, he said, he had become hooked.
He learned to play the violin on his own, but says he didn’t feel proficient for at least a decade. He quotes an old adage: Seven years listening, seven years practicing, seven years playing, and then you’re a fiddler.
It was also in Boston that he began woodcutting. “I’ve always been interested in drawing, sketching, doodling,” he says. “I took studio art classes in college.”
A neighbor gave Miller a set of chisels he had no use for, and Miller rushed to the Boston Public Library to “read all I could about the woodcut.” Among other works, he created the art for the 1977 children’s book “My Village, Sturbridge” by Gary Bowen and the frontispiece to the Old Farmer’s Almanac of the Roman Goddess of Agriculture, Ceres, in 1999. He has since dropped out. woodcut because, he says, his eyesight can no longer adapt to the demanding job. It takes about a month and a half or more to do an engraving, working steadily for four hours a day, he says. He made his last engraving – of a historic stamping machine – in 2001 for Markem in Keene.
As a counter-dance caller, Sieverts has known Miller for nearly two decades as a “wonderful fiddler and reliable colleague,” she says, but she developed a deeper appreciation for Miller’s multidimensional artistic talents as she was preparing for the Ewing Arts nomination. “I realized I had only seen one side of Randy.”