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Grammy-winner Bill Miller to perform concert at Eiteljorg Museum April 5

by Bryan Corbin, editor, Storyteller magazine | Jan 31, 2018
Bill Miller image

A powerful singer-songwriter, Bill Miller is known for his percussive guitar style and intense vocals. His Native American flute-playing has earned him Grammy awards. Drawing upon his Mohican heritage, Miller sings poignantly about his Native experience, combining traditional singing styles of northern tribes with classic rock, gospel, blues and Native flute. Highly admired in music circles, Miller has performed on the same stages with Pearl Jam, Tori Amos and Arlo Guthrie, and participated in a Johnny Cash documentary and tribute album.

To hear an artist of Miller’s virtuosity perform live is a real treat. Eiteljorg visitors can experience his concert at a free event starting at 7 p.m. April 5 at the museum. Miller’s performance is part of an evening that begins with a fascinating panel discussion about an IUPUI professor’s project to revive Mohican-language hymns that almost were lost to history.

Interwoven into Bill Miller’s songs is the history of Mohican and other tribal cultures and his own family story. His song “Love Sustained” is about his mother, who raised nine children on the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation near Green Bay, Wisconsin, amid his father’s battles with alcoholism. During his 35-year music career, Miller has produced more than a dozen albums, performed across North America, toured with national acts in the 1990s and built up a social-media following. As a musician he has connected with audiences of many cultures and faiths. “I’ve had unlikely alliances with people who you’d never think I’d be influenced by,” he said.

Miller also has lived through recent personal tragedies, including deaths of his mother and adult son, and his own near-fatal illness and heart surgery. Now touring again, he remains passionate about musical excellence. “I’m playing on a different level, spiritually. I’m very confident in what I do. I don’t have a doubt anymore,” Miller said.

Historical detective story

The spiritual dimension of Bill Miller’s songs has won over many fans, including Rachel Wheeler, Ph.D., religious studies professor at IUPUI. She first heard Miller in 2001 during research into missionaries who worked among Mohicans in the 1700s. Her research compared a Congregational (Puritan) mission in Miller’s ancestral community of Stockbridge, Mass., to a German Moravian mission in a nearby Mohican community.

In the Moravian church archives in Bethlehem, Pa., Wheeler found lyrics of 18th century hymns, written in the Mohican language. Moravian records provided glimpses into the lives of Mohican communities of centuries ago, before their removal from the Hudson River Valley and New England to Indiana and eventually Wisconsin, where the tribe is based today.

Wheeler sought to recreate the Mohican hymns, but the project faced huge obstacles: the Mohican hymn tradition disappeared, the last fluent Mohican speakers died in the 1930s and the rediscovered lyrics lacked sheet music. Wheeler collaborated with Sarah Eyerly, Ph.D., Florida State University musicology professor, who located the original music in Germany and matched up lyrics with hymn tunes. Mohican composer Brent Michael Davids developed arrangements of the hymns that modern choir singers can perform. Exactly how the Mohican hymns sounded in the 1700s is not known; but through the team’s reverse engineering, the hymns again can be sung in Moravian musical styles. Bill Miller is working on new music rooted in Native music traditions to go with the Mohican-authored lyrics.

Miller’s own recordings explore Christianity and Native spirituality. At the April 5 event, during the panel discussion with Wheeler, Eyerly and others, Miller plans to debut new music for the Mohican hymns, followed by a concert of his own material. “I think it’s a beautiful circle of me coming into my own heritage with my faith,” he said of the collaboration. “What I want this project to be as far as my connection to it is to add my spirit voice to it.”

DETAILS:

Mohican Songs of the Spirit
Eiteljorg Museum’s Clowes Court

Thursday April 5
7 p.m.

Panel discussion with Dr. Rachel Wheeler, Dr. Sarah Eyerly, Bill Miller and others.
8 p.m.
Concert by singer-songwriter, fine-art painter and activist Bill Miller.

Free Admission

Sponsored by:
IUPUI American Indian Programs
IUPUI Department of Religious Studies
Spirit & Place
American Council of Learned Societies
Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art

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This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Storyteller magazine. 

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