(above: Cover of Time magazine, November 4, 1985. Keillor was the subject of the cover story ‘Lonesome Whistle Blowing‘ by John Skow)
I hear that old piano
From down the avenue.
I smell the pine trees
I look around for you.
Oh my sweet, my sweet old someone
Coming through that door…
The band is playin’
Honey, could we ask for more?
Those words, set to the tune of ‘Tishomingo Blues‘ open ‘A Prarie Home Companion’, which is performed every Saturday afternoon for two hours. And they are sung by its host and creator, Garrison Keillor. His red sneakers tap along to the beat as he introduces the members of the show’s radio acting company and the house band, ‘Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band,’ led by pianist Rich Dworsky. Then he introduces the musical and other special guests of that week’s show and reads ads for the made-up sponsors of the show – Powedermilk Biscuits, Guy’s Shoes, Bebop-a-Reebop Rhubarb pie and the longest sponsor of all, Jack’s Auto Repair.
The show itself is a throw-back to old-time variety shows that dominated the airwaves in the golden age of radio. There are one-time radio dramas, musical guests, and regular sketches like ‘Life of the Cowboys’ and ‘Guy Noir.’
The most famous part of the show comes in the third half-hour, ‘News from Lake Wobegon.’ This regular feature has Keillor relating anecdotal news from “his home town” of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, in his famous droll voice. He tells stories of the various people in this town: their misadventures, their quirks, their absurd but detailed ethics that keeps them going despite the unhappiness they expect out of life. Lake Wobegon is made up of the descendents of Norwegian and German immigrants. The Norwegians are Lutheran while the Germans are Catholic. Keillor says he “imported” those qualities in order to talk about Minnesotans and the midwest in general, since many small towns that dot the upper-midwest are made up of those kinds of people. Through the ethics of the town, Keillor presents a people who believe utmost in the Protestant work-ethic to the point of absurdity. In his 2004 book Homegrown Democrat which has been called a collection of political essays but I think it’s more of an autobiography used to justify his political views, Keillor titles the first chapter “Don’t think you’re special,” which is something the citizens of Lake Wobegon strive to live up to. Keillor ended the show on June 13, 1987 to move on to other projects. His second Lake Wobegon book, Leaving Home was a collection of ‘News.’ It ends with a farewell to the Lake that was the monologue on the last show.
When the show ended, Keillor moved to the Upper West Side of New York and continued to write. He produced a tribute to old-time radio, WLT: A Radio Romance. In my opinion, this is his best work of fiction. Like the Lake Wobegon books, WLT is more a collection of stories than a novel and tells the improbable history not of a town, but a radio station. The number of characters is smaller – and more characters appear throughout the novel rather than in just a few stories. WLT first appeared in Keillor story ‘WLT (The Edgar Era)’ which ran in The New Yorker in 1976. WLT also appears in one of Keillor’s most anthologized stories (and one of my personal favorites), ‘The Tip-Top Club’ that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1981 and was added to Happy to Be Here in its 1983 reprint. It tells the story of a quirky show on WLT hosted by Bud Swenson which consists of people calling in and telling Bud over the air about their lives and their quirky solutions to everyday problems. Much like Keillor’s name on A Prarie Home Companion, the number to call is never said on the air, and could only be learned from another Tip-Topper, from someone who knew the rules. Bud quietly retires and Wayne Barger takes his place. Wayne freely gives out the number on the air and talks at length about the psychology books he’s read. He sees himself as an educator who values radio for its ability to inform. The Tip-Toppers revolted, calling in and asking Wayne to retire that night. After a year, Wayne left and was replaced by a commercial rock and pop show.
A Prarie Home Companion didn’t stay off the air for too long. It returned in 1993 keeping the format of the original and it continues on to this day. Ever since he wanted to be a writer at the age of 14, Keillor wanted to write for the New Yorker. His heroes were its regular writers Thurber, Liebling, Perelman and White. As he described them in Happy to Be Here: “Four gentleman. One blind, one fat, one delicate and one a chicken rancher.”
Keillor’s work is a masters work of radio storytelling. His writing takes the quirks of living in the midwest and makes them universal. The characters he creates are likable, even if they are among groups that are suspicious like fundamentalists or just plain out-there religious folks. He has a great respect for the American writers, and he writes in the great tradition of Midwestern writers like Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Carl Sandberg. His work doesn’t pine for an older age, but shows that the folks in the small towns in the Midwest are just like anyone else in any time. They have the same misadventures and the misunderstandings they have demonstrate how silly city folk are.
Keillor has likened himself to the prodigal son of the Gospel of Luke. He has said that one has to “leave Lake Wobegon in order to talk about it.” He’s recreated a small-town that is so familiar it might as well exist. He’s brought it to life to the point that even city dwellers can see the small-towns in their communities along with the bizzare cast of characters that populate them. Keillor hasn’t left Lake Wobegon – he’s kept going back.
MORE: Keillor in 2002 on the BBC’s World Book Club / A Prarie Home Companion / News from Lake Wobegon podcast / A Prarie Home Companion sampler: Tishomingo Blues, Life of the Cowboys, Guy Noir, News from Lake Wobegon / Interview with the Paris Review / New Yorker piece on the Grand Ole Opry that inspired “A Prarie Home Companion” (paywall) / Keillor on Charlie Rose archive / 1985 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman / Keillor on St. Paul, 2008 /
By Day, Robert O’Connor is a mild-mannered reporter for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He’s a journalist, musician, adventurer and a dozen other things. He’s from St. Paul, Minnesota – a city that knows how to keep its secrets. His work has appeared in Hot Press, Time Out Chicago, The New Indian Express, KFAI, the Chi-Town Daily News and a few other places.
First posted: Sunday, November 21st, 2010.