Albert Miller (Alan Mills), CM, opera singer, folksinger, actor, writer (born 7 September 1912, possibly 1913, in Lachine, QC; died 14 June 1977 in Montréal, QC). Alan Mills was an influential folksinger and prolific recording artist who popularized a wide repertoire of Canadian folk songs during the folk music revival of the 1950s–1960s. He also acted in radio and television programs in both English and French, but is perhaps best known for the classic children’s song, “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” He was made a Member of the Order of Canada for bringing traditional folk music to new and broader audiences.
Early Life and Career
Born Albert Miller, he attended Baron Byng High School in Montréal, but dropped out at age 14. At 15, he began working as a crime reporter for the Montreal Evening Journal and Montreal Herald before taking a position at the Montréal Gazette until 1945.
At 16, he began acting in amateur theatre productions, and in 1934 he began to study lieder singing with Albert Whitehead. He made his singing debut as a bass, and briefly left his reporting position to tour from 1935-37 in Canada and the US with John Goss’s London Singers, through which he was introduced to English folk music. He sang small roles in The Magic Flute (1945) and Madama Butterfly (1947) for the Opera Guild of Montréal. In 1953 he played Leader in the Minute Opera production of Weill’s folk opera Down in the Valley. As the folk music revival took hold, he chose to concentrate on folk music. In 1947, he adopted the stage name “Alan Mills.”
Music Career Highlights
Mills found lasting success as a singer with the CBC radio show Folk Songs for Young Folk, which ran from 1947-59. His rich bass voice was featured in several CBC series, such as The Song History of Canada. Equally comfortable in English and French, he co-starred with fellow folksinger Hélène Baillargeon in the radio program, Songs de Chez Nous from 1952-55.
He made his first recording for RCA Victor in 1949 and went on to record numerous albums. His Smithsonian Folkways albums O Canada: A History in Song (1956) and Songs of the Sea (1957), both produced by the pre-eminent folksong collector Edith Fowke, were ranked by the New York Times in the top 100 recordings of their respective release years. Mills and Fowke also collaborated on songbooks (e.g., Songs of the Sea) and radio programs (e.g., Ride with the Sun) about folk music and folk tales.
Mills was heard abroad from 1948-55 through his radio programs and recordings for the CBC International Service. His first concert performance (in Ottawa, 1949) was followed by many throughout North America, and he twice toured Europe. His performances with the fiddler Jean Carignan at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival were preserved on the Vanguard recording, The Newport Folk Festival, 1960 (1996). The two men also appeared at the Mariposa Folk Festival several times, as well as the Winnipeg Folk Festival. From 1963-67, Mills toured communities across Canada and the US with guitarist and children’s entertainer Bram Morrison (of Sharon, Lois and Bram). They also toured the Eastern Arctic in 1967.
A prolific musician, Mills wrote scripts and arranged music for his shows. His widely popular tune “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” (lyrics by Rose Bonne) was later recorded by such folksingers as Burl Ives, Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger and children’s entertainers such as Fred Penner. A Burl Ives performance of the song served as the soundtrack for the popular 1964 National Film Board (NFB) film of the same name, directed by Derek Lamb.
Mills was particularly adept at singing authentic interpretations of many different styles and traditions, be it Celtic or French music, songs in the Iroquois or Huron languages, or material from his Jewish heritage. He participated with other leading non-traditional folksingers in the nine-volume Canadian Folk Songs: A Centennial Collection (1967) and wrote the accompanying English-language booklet. He often wrote the liner notes for his recordings.
Mills appeared several times on a number of radio series including Laura Limited and The Way of the Spirit. He played the role of Doctor Pangloss in a 1952 Toronto stage production of The Best of All Possible Worlds. Under the name Albert Miller, he acted in the film Operation Manhunt (1954), about Igor Gouzenko, which was filmed in Montréal. He later appeared under the name Alan Mills in 26 episodes of the CBC’s television series, Adventures in Rainbow Country (1970-71). He appeared in several NFB productions, acted in English and French radio dramas, and also appeared in TV commercials in Montréal.
In addition to publishing many books of Canadian folksongs, Mills wrote the play Ti-Jean and the Devil, based on a French Canadian tale related by Jean Carignan. It premiered 21 June 1961 on CBC Radio.
Mills was a leading popularizer of Canadian folk music and a favourite of Canadian children. “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” has been included in many recordings and books for children, and Bram Morrison has said he is indebted to Mills for many songs in his repertoire.
Mills died of cancer in 1977. The Mariposa Folk Festival mounted a Canadian folk music workshop dedicated to him in 1978 to honour the first anniversary of his death. His papers are held at Library and Archives Canada (LAC).
Member, Order of Canada (1974)
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.