Tuesday, March 26, 2013

An Evening with Garrison Keillor

So I went to hear Garrison Keillor last night. He was at Samford University which hosts the Tom and Marla Corts Distinguished Authors Series. Garrison Keillor has a way of drawing you in. He is a writer who tells stories laced with humor and insight that reflect Americana. He appears to be talking about himself, but then you realize that you have been there, too. You laugh out loud at times, you are gently moved at times, and you know he is telling our story as well as his.

“Garrison Keillor: A Brand New Retrospective” That’s how the event was billed. Keillor, the host of A Prairie Home Companion, is a writer who also loves music and he likes to sing. He had described the program earlier in a press release:  "A man at 70 relives the good times - and the music that brings it all back: hymns, jingles, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, pop tunes, limericks, rock 'n roll, Beethoven, love sonnets, rags, blues, rousers, with Richard Dworsky, Rob Fisher, and Christine DiGiallonardo."

The evening began with some jaunty piano music from Richard Dworsky and Rob Fisher. Then Keillor walked onto the stage singing a jingle that he made up talking about how things were “back in the day” when there were no gadgets such as iPods and cell phones and a man could leave the house and actually be alone. He continued with a long list of “how things used to be,” and even worked into the number a bit about how he first came to Birmingham in 1993 when the big snow storm hit “and made us feel right at home.” After the light incidental music, he was joined onstage by Christine DiGiallonardo who accompanied him in some duets. When he introduced the young lady he said that when picking a duet partner, it is always helpful to pick someone who is younger, more talented and knows music better than you do. “Always pick a superior partner,” he added, “as I look out at the audience I see that that is what most of you have done.”

Here’s What You Need to Know about Life

After a couple of more songs, Garrison began to rattle off a list of ten things. They were ten things that he felt like we should all know, most of them were laugh-out-loud bits of insight. For example, he said, “Make sure you marry someone with a good sense of humor, he paused briefly as he examined the thumb and fingers of his left hand, “because they are going to need it! After all, this is the person who will have the most access to the details of your life.” He went on with his list, until he got to the notion that we should lighten up and be cheerful. Keillor turned 70 this year. He told us that when you reach the biblically allotted number, you learn that it’s best to accept life and be cheerful. You learn to be grateful.

With that Keillor told a story of his trip to the Mayo Clinic for an MRI to try to figure out why he was having headaches. He described in great detail a near accident on the snowy drive up to the Mayo Clinic. After the medical tests, “they were able to see that there was no tumor – which was great news, I was elated. But I would have missed out on that wonderful news if I had died in an accident on the highway, which could have happened – you learn to be grateful.”

The storyteller then went on to describe meeting an elderly couple when he was in the cafeteria of the Mayo Clinic. The wife was in a wheelchair and the husband had obviously suffered a stroke as some point, his right arm hanging downward like a dead weight and his face drooping so that he looked constantly displeased. His wife was saying things like “you just have to take one day at a time; you gotta have faith; doctors don’t know everything, you know, my uncle lived longer than his doctors said he would.” Keillor then said the audience, “That’s the problem with surviving catastrophic things like a stroke – you have to endure words of encouragement from other people. They mean well, but you want to just shoot them…except you don’t have the coordination in your right arm to handle a gun.”

Reminiscence in Story and Song

As the evening continued, we heard the host of A Prairie Home Companion tell about events throughout his life. We heard about his witnessing a baptism in the creek near their house when he was five years old and his father had just come back from the war. He told of not being allowed to play football in the seventh grade because his doctor noted his mitral valve prolapse and how that led to his first job as a writer when he began to report on the games for the local paper. We learned of the first girl he fell in love with in high school, and how she so casually left him the night of the school prom, thus giving him understanding of what those blues songs were about that he had been singing, but didn’t really understand until that moment.

Christine DiGiallonardo
and Garrison Keillor
We heard many songs from Keillor and his small troupe of musicians: gospel, blues, American standard, rock and roll. At 70 years of age, I was impressed that Mr. Keillor still has a vocal range from tenor all the way down to bass. After one of the hymns that he and Ms DiGiallonardo sang, he told the audience about how his mother had died not long before at the age of 97. He and his siblings had sung that hymn along with others to their mother while she was on her death-bed.  Keillor said that his mother believed the message of those songs, and his sister who sang them along with him believed them. He said he had tried to believe them, but he wasn’t at that same place that some people in his family were. “I tried to believe them. I also tried not to believe them, and that’s even harder than trying to believe them.” He added that he was more inclined on certain days toward belief than he was on other days. I think everyone knew exactly what he meant – even those who claim belief would know deep down what he meant. Thus Garrison Keillor was once again telling his story which was really our story as well.

 All in all, it was a delightful evening. We were given some insight into life, but not so much as to get either bummed out or overly elated. Mr. Keillor kept any insight balanced by humor and the simple fun of sharing music together. As we were walking out of the performance hall, I heard a lady humming the tune of the last gospel hymn that had closed the evening. What is that they say in show business? If they leave humming the tunes, the show has been a success.

[Photos are from the AL.com news release]



  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Greg, and thank you for stopping by. It was a fun evening and I enjoyed writing about it.


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