Sunday, July 3, 2016

Garrison Keillor Was Telling Our Story

(Prairie Home Productions Photo)

This weekend saw Garrison Keillor's final broadcast as host of A Prairie Home Companion. His weekly program that began in 1974 has certainly had a positive influence on Public Radio. My brother said many years ago that "Garrison Keillor has done more for Public Radio than even Jennifer and Ted Stanley have!" (Long time NPR listeners will get the reference).  Many in the news and broadcast media have been weighing in on Mr. Keillor and his career. I would like to share a bit of my own experience as a frequent listener.

A Wonderful Discovery

Every fan of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion probably has their own story about how they personally connected with the program. I first discovered his radio show in the fall of 1983. I had recently returned to the States after having lived in Hong Kong where I taught in the English Department at Hong Kong Baptist College. Hong Kong was still a British Crown Colony at the time, and one thing I had come to enjoy was BBC Radio. Unlike the U.S., Britain had maintained a wide variety of radio programming with documentaries and radio drama as well as music and news broadcasts. I found that there was something about radio that opened up the imagination in a way that far surpassed the images seen on television or in the movie theater. Radio engages you in a different way. Perhaps it is linked to that ancient art of storytelling that is engrained in our psyche.

Coming back to the U.S. had been an adjustment, and finding a vibrant radio broadcast led by Garrison Keillor helped to ease my transition. No one else was doing radio like that, and it was a wonderful discovery.  As I tuned in to A Prairie Home Companion each Saturday evening, it was a nice two-hour respite at the end of the week. I came to realize that as I listened to the music, the skits, and the news from Lake Wobegon, I was being re-introduced to “middle America.” More important, I was becoming reacquainted with my own story.

A young man who travels the world sometimes tries to shed the old provincial ways that he grew up with. While broadening one’s perspective, becoming more cosmopolitan, and being more open to the world has its distinct advantages, one can also lose one’s moorings in the process. Garrison Keillor, with his humorous quirky style and a rich mellow voice that was perfect for radio, told stories about where he came from. As we all listened each week to those stories, whether we knew it or not, we were also hearing our own stories. In hearing my own story in Keillor’s thoughtful, reflective manner (always made safe and accessible by an ample supply of laughter) I came to have a greater appreciation of my own version of Lake Wobegon. My own version was the small county seat town in Alabama where I grew up. Change is a necessity, but remembering where we came from keeps us real.

Keeping the Music Real

And then there was the music. A Prairie Home Companion always brought a variety of music to the stage. We heard local choirs, bluegrass bands, opera singers, and classical musicians. There have been well-known stars like Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris, James Taylor, Yo-Yo Ma, Sheryl Crow and Neko Case. The music was always live and always real, with The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band on hand each week for musical accompaniment.

I have always loved music, especially singing in choirs and glee clubs (we never actually had a glee club in our small high school, but I always loved it whenever the music would happen). I was enthralled and amazed when I would hear Garrison Keillor have an entire audience at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul singing some old song like, “Tell me why the stars do shine, Tell me why the ivy twines…” It was sentimental, but it was happening at the moment, which made it real. It gave me hope, like when Pete Seeger would manage to turn his concert audience into a massive choir.

Shy Person Alert

The New York Times recently ran a story, “The Garrison Keillor You Never Knew,” by Cara Buckley. While never quite reaching the level of exposé, the point of the article was that the persona that Mr. Keillor created for radio is not at all who he is in real life. As I read the article, though the term Asperger's syndrome was never used, the descriptions she gave of the person she encountered were definitely in line with Asperger traits. She noted his being ill at ease with small talk, not at all the garrulous person seen on stage, and quoted the former associate at The New Yorker saying, “He is certainly the strangest person I know.” I wonder if she was even aware that she was describing Asperger traits. I wonder if she knows how many of us shy persons can relate to those traits she was describing?

Just last week on CBS Sunday Morning, Jane Pauley interviewed Garrison Keillor (“Garrison Keillor signs off”). In that delightful interview, Ms Pauley did use the term autism in her conversation with Mr. Keillor:

Keillor may owe his gentle gift for story to his belief that he's on the autism spectrum. Undiagnosed as a child, he was allowed to be himself, a little apart. Noticing, listening ...

"If you weren't high-functioning autistic," Pauley said, "you would've not had the blessings that your childhood gave you, that you are still investing in now as a 73-year-old man."

While I had long suspected that he knew on a personal level his many references to shy people, I had not been aware of the level of his experience. In the past, terms like "painfully shy" and "socially awkward" were often used to describe odd people. Even now, we often hear those terms bandied about without stopping to consider where someone might be on the "autism spectrum." [On a side note: Mr. Keillor spoke at the Minnesota 19th Annual Autism Conference in 2014. For a memorable review of his presentation, go here]

Even Non-Minnesotans Can Be Thankful

We can all be thankful, all of us fans of the long-running NPR broadcast, that Mr. Keillor not only stood where shy persons often fear to go, he graced us with his observations of our lives. Perhaps he was giving courage to other shy people (as well as offering insight to all of those “normal people”) with his humorous ad for Powder Milk Biscuits: “Made with whole wheat grown by Norwegian bachelor farmers…Whole wheat that gives shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.” Not that there is actually a biscuit for shy persons, of course, but that their plight is acknowledged; the recognition that some of us introverts have to call upon that extra reserve to move out and interact with others in order to do what we have to do. It is also therapeutic to be able to laugh about it.

Thank you, Garrison Keillor, for going where shy persons tend not to go. Thank you for telling us stories, for making us laugh, for getting us all to sing along, and above all, for keeping it real.





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2 comments:

  1. My pesonal experience came around 2011 when I was teaching sixth grade. In our book was his essay "How to Write A Letter". I had my students write an author and ask for a signed photograph. I told them we may get few responses; one student wanted to write Garrison Keillor himself. We were thrilled to get a personalized photo to my class that I still have, though I'm no longer teaching full time. I have reread his essay several times - it inspires me. You can read it here: http://fs.huntingdon.edu/english/johnson.michelle/Keillor.pdf

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by the blog, Angela, and thank you for sharing that piece by Garrison Keillor. Now I am inspired to write some letters to a couple of old friends who are living far from here.

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