At the American Conservative Peter Tonguette recently reflected on seeing Garrison Keillor perform in Newark, Ohio. Tonguette’s column was published as “An evening with Garrison Keillor in exile.” Prudence Johnson performed with Garrison. Last month I included Prudence in my series on the Minnesota music scene in “Wash my eyes” (singing a song by Greg Brown).
Tonguette covers some of the same ground I did this past December in my post “Mr. Socialist confesses.” I greatly enjoyed Tonguette’s observations. He too noticed Keillor’s possible rethinking of his point of view (“Yet there were also signs that Keillor is mildly, politely fed up….”) I thought I would take the occasion to recommend Tonguette’s column and repost my own observations of December 8, 2021.
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This is a personal note about Garrison Keillor. I began listening to Keillor on Minnesota Public Radio while I was in law school. Garrison occupied the station’s three-hour morning slot five days a week with A Prairie Home Morning Show. I thought the show was so entertaining and funny that he would become a star.
I learned a lot about American popular music listening to the show. The first time I ever heard Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Miss Otis Regrets” was when Garrison played it. I also learned some American history. At this time of the year [i.e., December] back in 1977 or 1978 Garrison read Daniel’s Boorstin’s take on the department store from his three-volume social history The Americans. I think it was excerpted from chapter 10 (“Consumers’ Palaces”) of Boorstin’s third volume (subtitled The Democratic Experience). It’s a book I never would have read were it not for Garrison’s morning show.
After law school I moved away from the Twin Cities to work in St. Louis and lost track of Garrison’s radio career. I wasn’t surprised when he and his show went on to receive the national recognition I had thought they deserved.
My friend Bruce Sanborn reviewed Garrison’s Lake Wobegon Days for the Claremont Review of Books in 1985. We saw Garrison around town, as Bruce notes in his review. Bruce persuaded me that I wasn’t missing anything as Garrison’s career prospered. We found his politics alienating.
Eight or so years ago one of my kids asked us to take her and a guest to see Garrison’s live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion from the Minnesota State Fair. Garrison was great. Garrison’s deadpan interview with the judge of the butter sculpture competition was hilarious. The music was excellent. Even his Lake Wobegon monologue was entertaining.
Garrison became big business. He must have made a fortune working the Prairie Home Companion line. If Boorstin were still around, he could update Part Two (“Consumption Communities”) of that third volume of The Americans with a profile of Garrison, Minnesota Public Radio, American Public Radio (the company MPR set up to distribute A Prairie Home Companion), and Garrison’s fans.
When Garrison became a victim of the MeToo movement in 2017 I felt bad for him. I started patronizing his bookstore on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul (since sold). In February 2020, just before the the Covid shutdown, I went to see his beautiful show with Heather Masse of the Wailin’ Jennys. I snapped the photo above from our seat in front of the stage. Heather didn’t seem too put off by the sexual harassment thing either. My old friend Rich Dworsky was Garrison’s long-time musical director. Rich accompanied Garrison and Heather for the show. Below is a video of Garrison singing Ann Reed’s “If You Were Mine” with Heather Masse accompanied by Rich Dworsky and the band in 2016.
Garrison writes a weekly column that is carried by Binyamin Jokolvsky at Jewish World Review. Garrison has moved to Manhattan. I find his columns funny. Binyamin tells me that he also finds the columns funny and that Garrison has a lot of New York fans.
Garrison’s column this week is “Mr. Socialist confesses.” I think the column sends up the Minnesota state of mind. If it’s possible to shove a state of mind down your throat, it’s shoved down our throat every day in the Twin Cities. If a state of mind can be in the air we breathe, it’s in the air that we breathe. If air can suffocate, the air is suffocating.
Garrison himself doesn’t confess to seeing the column exactly that way. At his site he titles the column “Mr. Socialist confesses a love of opera.” Read between the lines to see if you think his confession is limited to a love of opera.