ABOUT SIX WEEKS AGO, my family and I went to see a live show of "A Prairie Home Companion" at Wolf Trap, the performing arts center in the Washington area. In summary, it was a wonderful evening, full of the usual "Prairie Home Companion" fare of nostalgia, humor, great music and literary brilliance.
But I'm easy to please. I've been listening to the show since the late 1970s and feel like I've practically grown up with it. Through it, I've discovered so many musicians whom I have since followed religiously. And I've spent many a Saturday night swept away by Garrison Keillor's pastoral and sometimes existential "News From Lake Wobegon" (which I now listen to via my iPod; the podcasts of the "News" are available online for free.)
In fact, while I've been meaning to write about this performance much sooner than today, July 4th seems like a perfect occasion to pronounce the program and Keillor, the show's mastermind (pictured above right), national treasures.
I know that sounds a bit over the top, especially to those who might dismiss the show as corny, overly sentimental, anachronistic and too precious sometimes for its own good. To a point, I can understand why they feel that way; if you think of the show in a certain way, all those characterizations are true. But I guess I like a little bit of all of that in my life, especially when it is spooned out as perfectly as this show does.
For example, before the show officially started with its theme song, Keillor warmed up the Wolf Trap crowd by walking slowly and without any accompanying commentary to the very back of the house (which is outside), solemnly singing every verse of "America the Beautiful." Then it was on to the "Star Spangled Banner."
Everyone of the crowd of a few thousand was on his or her feet, many singing loudly and passionately. It was as if Keillor was saying, "Before we can go through this experience together we must find something that will bond us, a common thread that everyone -- at least everyone brought up in American society -- can relate to and call his or her own." Sounds a bit sappy, right? Maybe, but not to the people who were there.
Keillor and Company tap into that shared consciousness, into American mythology, not merely to preserve cultural artifacts of the past but also to allow us to figure out what it means to be American today. And they do it with choral music, old nuggets of musical Americana -- from Stephen Foster to Bob Dylan -- quaint greetings from audience members to friends and family back home, joke shows, poetry, and sketches and faux commercials that were in style when radio required listeners to conjure visual images in their own minds. This is not mere background noise. You have to truly pay attention.
What emerges are patches of aural imagery that, if you listen week in and week out, make up a mosaic of the American Experience.
Of course, like any representation of America that you might see in, say, a museum or through a movie, the one you get from "Prairie Home Companion" is uniquely shaped by one vantage point -- namely Keillor's, which is informed by his own life and surroundings in Minnesota. When we stop to celebrate America, as we do on July 4th or on Thanksgiving, or to articulate what it is that makes America distinctive, we are contemplating a myth.
By myth, I don't mean a falsehood but rather a narrative that embodies the values of a nation. Most nations have such myths, and the key to creating a coherent culture is to find ways to demonstrate those values, as "Prairie Home Companion" does every week. And it does so in a way that can be accessible to everyone regardless of whether they've grown up Lutheran in a small farm town "on the edge of the Prairie," as Keillor describes Lake Wobegon. Even a Jewish guy like me who grew up in Indiana and lives now in the Washington, D.C., area -- and others with more disparate backgrounds -- can relate because it contains common personal and communal ingredients that so many Americans share regardless of who they are.
Do you see now where I'm going with this idea of the show being a nation treasure?
One of the most common themes Keillor has come back to repeatedly for years in his "News from Lake Wobegon," is the contrast between the quaint, God-fearing and unambitious atmosphere of his fictional town against the marvelously fast-paced, glimmering but sometimes heartless culture of the big city (whether it is Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York City, Paris, Los Angeles or, you name it). People are constantly going to and from those places to Lake Wobegon, and the juxtaposition is always insightful and humorous and often poignant.
Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, he described this year's commencement ceremony at Lake Wobegon High School and how all of the graduates saw it as a gateway moment to the glamor, excitement and opportunity of the big city. The big American city is, in the Keillor narrative, dynamic and full of possibility. It is constantly tugging the sleeve of every Wobegonian. By contrast, people who remain in Lake Wobegon sit around complaining about their problems, fear change and shun ambition as immodest and almost an affront to God.
Keillor has also spoken frequently about his life -- though it is often hard to tell which of these autobiographical tales are fact and which fiction -- and most of the time of his youthful yearning to go to New York and become a famous writer. or to Paris, and live the life of an intellectual. (Ironically, he has cultivated his literary fame from Minnesota.)
Still -- and here is the delicious tension of his narrative -- even those who go away are wistfully nostalgic for the quiet, simple and slower-paced ways of Lake Wobegon. I remember at least 20 years ago, Keillor once told the story of how many former Wobegonians, who subscribed to the local paper, the Herald-Star (owned and edited by Harold Starr), wrote passionate letters to the editor when they read that certain buildings were being torn down or other changes to the landscape were in the works. Even though many lived far away and hadn't visited the town for years, they wanted it to remain exactly as it was when they were there.
They were yearning not only to preserve what defined them personally but also what remains an archetype of the American Experience: a place where everyone looks out for one another, where we are unencumbered by the adverse trappings of the big city and where certain virtues remain intact and uncorrupted. This may be a leap, but that's perhaps why so many July 4th celebrations are local, quaint and feature opportunities for neighbors to come together. Perhaps because of a cultural instinct we acquire by just living here, we're trying recreate something that defines our understanding of at least one aspect of American life, one which most of us will leave behind as soon as we suit up and go to work the next day.
That is one vision of the American myth that strikes this American in his kishkes and that has kept him listening loyally for all these years. As brilliantly sappy as it all can be, "Prairie Home Companion" recharges my American batteries every week. Check it out if you don't already.
Photo credit: Brian Velenchenko via "Prairie Home Companion" Web site.