Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of watching Garrison Keillor perform at the Walton Arts Center here in Fayetteville, AR. Most of us are familiar with “A Prairie Home Companion,” the weekly NPR radio broadcast with its mixed media of stories, songs, jokes and poems which true fans will go to most any length to hear every Saturday or Sunday. We are addicted to Guy Noir, Tales of the Cowboys, Lake Woebegone. We need to hear powder milk biscuit encouragement and be reminded why it’s important to eat ketchup. These are the vignettes I supposed I would be hearing that Thursday night. I was wrong.
For Garrison was actually celebrating his 70th birthday with a revue of stories, poems, and songs that would have burned the ears of some of his most faithful listeners. Few of us were actually prepared to hear the bawdy comedian who graced the stage that night. He embarrassed his 15-year-old daughter with a song about how, when she was a child, he “held out his hand” to catch whatever inappropriate bodily expulsion a toddler might emit at any given moment. He emphasized the story with a beautiful little song that highlighted fatherly love. I was not surprised when the couple in front of us with horrified expressions did not return after intermission. I was thrilled however, since it opened up a wonderful gap for better viewing as the great man continued his act.
Garrison allowed us back seat views of dates from his high school years using songs of the era to set the stage. He had one gifted female singer with whom he sang harmony and two incredible musicians who played synchronized compositions on giant grand pianos. The two grands, fit together like a yin-yang symbol, took up over half the stage. Altogether, there were four people involved in the entire onstage production of a musical revue that took us on a journey through the lifetime of one of America’s most gifted storytellers. The story-song accompanied by the pianists of how he explained to his daughter how life used to be “in the old days,” before internet and cell phones, would have been worth going to hear all by itself. Yet, he continue to regal us with collages of his young life through songs, sonnets, and poems, all of which he penned himself. He even took the audience on a merry turn about town to Penguin Eds and Dickson St., a piece he must have composed that very afternoon.
Besides being a master storyteller, Keillor is a prolific writer. Certainly you understand he must write all this stuff down, just as a minister prepares a sermon each week. However, he carries no notes, and he appears to allow himself the freedom to range a large area within the script, wandering from the path and returning, wandering and returning, but remaining true to the tale in the end. He is after all, an English Major with a “radio face,” gruff, serious, seldom smiling, and yet he insists he is quite cheerful. And he sounds it. He has and is still enjoying life. He appears to have invented the perfect job for himself. This is what I call “right livelihood.”
I feel sure it is not as effortless as it sounds or appears. But he does make it look and sound that way. He is a radio man, a fact made obvious by his lack of visual connection with his audience. For him, they exist at the other end of his voice. He is a writer and his stories are driven by sound and content. His voices is mellifluous, pitched so perfectly that one could listen to it all day. It’s easy to forget that he is a writer first, a performer second. Standing in line to shake his hand and get my book signed, it’s obvious this is true as folks waited to have their programs signed instead of purchasing a book. Come on Fayetteville, I thought. The man is a world-renowned artist. Buy a book.
But Garrison didn’t seem to mind. After all these years, I’m sure he’s used to it. He has probably signed millions of programs instead of books. He treated each person with quiet dignity as he touched them on the arm, had his picture made dozens of times with cell phones, shook hands. I was so excited to meet the great man (and have my book signed) that I could barely contain myself. He told me I was awfully lively for an English major. “Didn’t I think they could be terribly stuffy and rigid?” he asked. At first I didn’t think so; not the ones I knew anyway. Then I realized I didn’t really know that many English majors. I knew writers, from all walks of life. And that made the difference. I only hope some of his mastery rubbed off on me as he took my elbow and shook my hand. Thanks, Garrison, for making the long trip from Minnesota to Arkansas. And for making the life of the writer/performer something I can claim with pride I share with you.