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Powdermilk Biscuits Presents Garrison Keillor
by Rene Wadlow
2009-07-04 09:42:22
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Powdermilk Biscuits gives shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done

On 4 July, Garrison Keillor will mark the birth 35 years ago in Minnesota of his weekly radio program A Prairie Home Companion.  Some Ovi readers may have seen the film directed by Robert Altman where Keillor plays himself and Meryl Streep a singer on the show. Keillor is basically a ‘raconteur’.  With his rich radio voice, he presents a wry view of small town Mid-West America.  Each week he presents a 20 minute extemporised monologue of happenings in Lake Wobegon, a Minnesota town “where all the women are strong, all the men good-looking and all the children are above average.”

Keillor is probably closest in style and spirit to the 1950s late-night raconteur Jean Shepherd, whose stories about his more urban upbringing are collected in In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash (1996) The book is an amusing account of growing up in the Mid-West in the late 1940s. Keillor’s Mid-West is a decade later.  While many of his observations are ‘timeless’, one collection of evocations is more time specific  Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 (2001) where he deals with his own religious background in the Plymouth Brethren, a narrow Calvinist faith that discouraged dancing, card-playing and movie-going.

As Keillor writes “We are Sanctified Brethren, whom God has chosen to live in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, a town of about 1,220 in the centre of the state, populated by German Catholics and Norwegian Lutherans, whom Scripture tells us to keep clear of, holding fast to the Principle of Separation from the Things of the World, avoiding the Unclean because we are stand-offish by nature and not given to hobnobbing with strangers.”

Keillor is one of the few on radio or television to talk about religion in a normal way, as influencing the daily life of millions of people, neither fanatics nor comic figures. Religion in the US is considered too scary, too divisive to merit much ‘prime-time’ life.  Serious television airtime is reserved for cops, lawyers, surgeons, a cowboy or a nurses’ aid but seldom a Protestant minister.

Garrison Keillor studied English literature at the University of Minnesota and now gives short poetry readings on radio in addition to the Prairie Home Companion.  Keillor had been active on the university radio, both as a speaker and a manager.  This experience led to his first post-university employment as a manager-performer- and handyman at the local Saint Paul, Minnesota radio station.  His experiences there serve as the basis for his novel WLT: A Radio Romance (1991).

Like his Minnesota neighbour, Robert Zimmerman, later better known as Bob Dylan, Keillor wanted to leave Saint Paul and seek ‘fame and fortune’ in the big city of New York.  There he began writing short stories for The New Yorker, a leading literary magazine. But Keilor was always conscious of his Minnesota roots and returned to St Paul and work on radio.

He developed A Prairie Home Companion, a mixture of musical numbers, comic skits such as “The Adventures of Guy Noir, Private Eye”, adds from fictitious sponsors such as Powdermilk Biscuits, and the 20 minute monologue of news from Lake Wobegon.  The Lake Wobegon pieces have been reworked as chapters of books that merit being known for their picture of life in Mid-West America: Lake Wobegon Days (1985) and Liberty: A Novel of Lake Wobegon (2008). Although reading does not give the radio style, Garrison Keillor’s books are a good insight into continuity and changes of small-town America.

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