Though Garrison Keillor’s last Prairie Home Companion Radio Show was in July, it’s only today that I finally got to listen to it. 42 years he did this show, week after week, month after month, year after year, until it all added up to a number he decided to pay attention to and do that supremely difficult thing—say goodbye to something you do so well and love so much even while you’re still at the height of your game. That’s pretty special.
I’m big on the ceremony side of things and was wondering how his last show could do justice to the occasion, wrap up something so monumental and give it the farewell it deserved. Did it meet my expectation?
Well, first a bit of background. I wouldn’t call myself a diehard fan, but have listened to the show off and on for at least 20 years and mostly have enjoyed it. I went to two or three live shows in San Francisco, went to hear Garrison speak two or three times, read many of his books, enjoyed his poetry collections (of other poets), got to meet Fred Newman (the sound effects guy) at our school when my colleague James got him to visit and enjoyed him again at school when he gave a workshop for music teachers. (Which was excellent!) I’d hoped with Fred’s influence our kids could get on the radio show, but it never happened and hey, I’m not bitter. (Though I think it would have been great and an important nod to music education!)
In short, I greatly admire the man, his capacity to hold so much in his head and tell it with such charm and style, be it his Lake Wobegon monologues or other stories. I admire his hard work and dedication and his longevity. The 42-year mark especially resonated as it matched my wife’s retirement this June and is my current number working the same job. So I hoped the last show to wrap up in great dramatic fashion the woven threads from over four decades.
Instead, it began with what gave him pleasure, singing duets with the women vocalists he likes to sing with. But then came a phone call with Barack Obama and hey, that’s pretty significant! Both of them admiring the other and proclaiming how much they’ll miss each other as they move on in their respective fields. I had great expectations of the Lake Wobegon final story that didn’t quite deliver and then felt some genuine disappointment as his fellow long-time companions—Fred Newman, Sue Scott and others—asked him point blank how he was feeling and he tap danced around it with, “Hey, I’m from Lake Wobegon. We Lutherans are not big on feelings.”
Well, between his love of poetry and the many poignant moments he paints in the casual descriptions of “his home town,” you know the guy feels things deeply. But truth be told, I do believe he is a Minnesotan at heart and well-versed in looking at his shoes and making sure none of his heart is showing on his sleeve. And that’s okay. It’s honest and one way of dealing with emotion. But as someone (me here) who lives perpetually close to tears and wants to bring deep feeling into the room when the occasion calls for it (like at the end of every workshop I give), it’s hard for me to understand.
But then there was a little crack in the armor. After he officially closed the show, he kept on singing. A medley of “Goodbye” songs, one he wrote with direct reference to some of the highlights of the years, Goodnight Irene, Happy Trails and there were a few moments where it seemed he was singing very softly and did I detect a tiny crack in his voice? He did have a little theme going about some of his work being remembered minus his name and his coming to peace with that. He sang an old hymn called Only Remembered and this said it well:
“Only the truth that in life we have spoken, only the seed that on earth we have sown.
These shall pass onward when we are forgotten, fruits of the harvest from what we have done.
Only remembered, only remembered, only remembered by what we have done.
Thus would we pass from the earth and its toiling, only remembered by what we have done.”
Mr. Keillor, you have done so much. Created a mythical world peopled with Clarence Bunsen and Pastor Liz and women who were strong, men who were good looking and children who were all above average. You told the stories that made us smile, made us laugh, and sometimes touched us deeper than a chuckle. You brought great musicians and poets into our living rooms, got us looking forward to the next adventure of Guy Noir or Lefty and Dusty. You increased our respect for ketchup and managed to lightly sprinkle liberal politics into the shows and then pour it on a bit thicker in your excellent book Homegrown Democrat. You gave us continuity, a 42-year Mini-series without graphic violence, drugs and torrid sex, something to look forward to each week, something to depend on, something that proved to be a touchstone of reliability in a world changing much too fast. The world has indeed been made a better place by the sheer luck and hard work of you falling into something that fit you perfectly and you staying true to it year after year. I imagine there are days you’ll wake up wondering if it all really happened, was it just a dream? Days you will miss it and days you’ll be happy to sleep in a bit, not get on the plane and maybe write that existential soul-anguished poem you always meant to write. Followed by a bawdy limerick.
You closed the show finally with the one song and one word that came close to doing the closure justice. “Amen.”
Amen, indeed. Thanks for all the years.