It’s been a quiet week at the University, our ivory tower, out here on the margins of convention.
Despite the threat of global warming, an abnormally temperate autumn does not ensure an easier winter. One can only expect to be anchored inside during the tedious months ahead. And in this case, there is no better solvent of stasis than tuning one’s ears and antennas toward the frequencies of public radio.
The concentration of ownership in corporate radio has left listeners with a glut of bland, sound-alike programming. Conversely, the noncommercial programming of public radio has kept listener support by providing educational and unconventional shows.
Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” presented by Minnesota Public Radio, has been a staple of public radio for more than 30 years.
Keillor’s vision for “A Prairie Home Companion” developed after writing an article for the New Yorker magazine about the “Grand Ole Opry.”
He envisioned a radio program that would provide musical features and fictional skits. Today, unlike other talk shows, a bulk of the show’s programming is musical guests. Folk musicians from Sweden to the Mississippi delta bring their nickel harps, dulcimers and banjos to kick out the jams on “A Prairie Home Companion.”
You won’t find David Letterman or Jay Leno trading tunes with their guests. Traditionally, musical guests play a song or two before Keillor steps in with a tune of his own,
poking fun at his guests or the wider population of Minnesota. His sprightly croon keeps a mean double-time with the show’s “Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band,” playing everything from honky-tonk to country ballads.
Keillor’s vocal accompaniment is often a backdrop for his fictional commercial plugs. Powdermilk Biscuits (the blue box with a biscuit on it) might be the fanciful sponsors of the first musical acts. However, the regular listeners are sure to get an earful about the virtues of ketchup from the Ketchup Advisory Board. Are your children disrespectful? Is your marital partner losing interest in you? Then it’s about time that you discovered the benefits of ketchup.
It is this brand of humor, often kitsch and other times elevated with clever wordplay, that provides listeners an alternative to common talk show hosts. Relax, ensconce yourself next to the radio, and “Prairie Home Companion” will surely transport you back to those coverall days of bathtub gin and mail-order catalogs.
Another delight, aside from the music, is the sound effects of Tom Keith. His vocal gymnastics prompt the listener to question how many inanimate sounds it is possible for the human voice to reproduce.
“When the show started,” Keillor said, “it was something funny to do with my friends, and then it became an achievement that I hoped would be successful, and now it’s a good way of life.”
Garrison Keillor began his radio career as a student at the University in the 1960s, when he also worked at the Daily. Since then, he has published adult and children’s fiction, poems and a multitude of miscellaneous prose (115 works by Keillor are listed for sale on amazon.com). His own childhood in Anoka, Minn., is the inspiration for his insightful stories of small-town Midwestern life.
Indeed, a large part of the author’s repertoire revolves around the fictional vignettes showcased on the second hour of “A Prairie Home Companion.” The news from Lake Wobegone, Minn. is a weekly update on the squabbles and seasonal adjustments of its citizenry.
In Lake Wobegone, we find all the underpinnings of small town life. There are the potluck dinners for which the town’s women strategize about their Jell-O molds. Busloads of Lutheran men return from the Risk Takers rally in Minneapolis, determined to express their emotions. And then there are the men’s seasonal hunting trips north to distance themselves from their wives, ultimately ending in drunken bathos.
Keillor usually approaches his subject matter, even the most serious of it, with comic investigation. Religious revelations are undermined by silly stereotypes.
” ‘Oh,’ Carl said. ‘Don’t be so hard on (Lutherans). Catholics I tell ya, they are a breed unto themselves. They are opposed to abortion and they’re in favor of electrocution, hard on everybody but especially on each other. Catholics believe that forgiveness is a divine quality and so they don’t practice it personally.’ “
Keillor solves his characters’ moral conflicts with comedy instead of confronting them with analysis. It can come off hokey, but it works. Keillor’s perspective on Midwestern life might seem dated to us city dwellers. However, one only needs to step outside the city limits to the more remote locales of Minnesota to appreciate his credibility.
If only for his technique, Keillor will always remain a master storyteller. He can capably guide the listener from all likely paths of narrative and shepherd them down any number of verbal avenues and cul-de-sacs without losing their attention:
“Carl took the bottle of whiskey and he divided it up among all four of them. He held it up and he said the hunter’s creed: ‘That which is wild and free, love it and let it go. And if it loves you it will come back. And if it doesn’t, go out and find it and kill it.’ “