Columnist Susan Wozniak: Reimagining ‘A Prairie Home Companion’

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Published: 11/23/2017 1:00:46 PM

What do you think when someone says baby boomer? I think of Vietnam, civil rights, the British invasion, what Pete Seeger called the folk scare, and a certain program that, if it did not define at least an aspect of us, might not have succeeded with another, later, generation.

And, no, I do not mean “American Bandstand.”

I was a late comer to the program I’m talking about, having learned of it through a feature presentation on WGBH’s “Ten O’Clock News,” hosted by Christopher Lydon. One of the street reporters donned jeans and a plaid shirt to talk about a radio show that featured what people might call folk music, although it was really the kind of music that friends played together, but, only if they were good.

The show was “A Prairie Home Companion.”

I can hear dissenting voices out there, even as I sit before my computer. But consider a few things about Boomers. We actually had an elementary school class called geography that featured cultural and economic, as well as physical geography, which presented the USA as a nation of regions. Our American literature classes reinforced that notion by discussing authors as New England writers or practitioners of southern Gothic or members of the Chicago School.

Besides, when “Prairie Home” went on the air in 1974, Boomers were beginning their adventures in homesteading.

Was it any wonder that the mellow baritone of Garrison Keillor won our hearts with yarns about a Midwestern town where the strong women brought hot dishes to Lutheran church suppers, where the good-looking but shy Norwegian bachelor farmers came to town to buy Powder Milk Biscuits at Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, and the above-average children swam in summer streams and trudged through winter snow?

Oh, and, yes, to the voices that would remind me that the show was modeled on the kind of radio our grandparents enjoyed, consider that Boomers called out, “Hey! Hey! Woody Guthrie!” and tried to imitate the masters of the Delta Blues on acoustic guitars and to sing the ballads that Joan Baez revived.

While I loved the show, there were reasons I stopped listening, including the Noah Adams interlude; a growing interest in Celtic culture accompanied by a switch to a “British Isles” broadcast; and working retail on Saturday nights.

When I left that job, and found myself making late suppers on Saturday nights, I needed company in the kitchen and “Prairie Home” was the logical choice. The show had changed. There was less Woebegone and a new series about Guy Noir. The music was essentially the same. Although some of the artists who were so much a part of the show in the 1970s were no longer heard from, their replacements were in the same musical mold.

However, while driving home from the Boston suburbs about a month ago, I tuned into “Prairie Home’ and listened through three skits that did not work. I turned the radio off.

The new host, handpicked by Garrison, is Chris Thile, a gifted musician who was a member of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers, played with the likes of Edgar Meyers and won Grammy Awards and a MacArthur Fellowship.

I saw Chris perform at Tanglewood as a member of Yo Yo Ma’s “Goat Rodeo.” I was with a friend who’s a professional musician. She leaned over, her voice full of admiration, and said, “What kind of mind produces music like that?” I answered, “It’s not one mind but four.”

The week after I tuned out, that same friend asked on Facebook whether people still listen to “Prairie Home.” Her friends include musicians and music lovers who tend to be over 60. Most do not. Most think the skits don’t work. Those who do, tune in to hear Chris and his excellent guests play.

It’s wonderful when something — a product, a novel, a play, a style of automobile or an article of clothing — becomes a classic. It’s comforting to return to what you love over the years. However, things change and we change.

I wrote at the start that the USA was once a nation of regions, but, despite regionalism’s decline, it’s effect lingers. Garrison is from Minnesota and Chris from southern California. Furthermore, Garrison is 75 and Chris is 36. Garrison is a humorist, a rare breed of entertainers that includes Mark Twain and Will Rogers. Chris is a musician.

I would like to see the show continue but not as “A Prairie Home Companion.” It needs to become something new, although it needs to retain the music.

Let me be a grumpy old woman for a minute. American music has become too commercial, and, by that, too limited. Chris Thile is the real thing. He needs to shape this show to his talents, his taste and his experience.

I bet that we Boomers will turn up our hearing aids and continue to listen.

Susan Wozniak, of Easthampton, is a retired journalist and writing professor who writes a monthly column. She can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.




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