June 22, 2008

Goodbye to Lake Wobegon?

Last night, I attended a live broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” at the Blossom Music Center south of Cleveland.  I have been listening, on and off, to Keillor’s show for many years, and I’ve read several of his books.  The interesting thing about Keillor is not that he is a Democrat, but that, despite his liberal politics, the show he produces has a strong conservative, even reactionary, streak. 

Last night’s show was no exception.  We heard, as is typical for Keillor, a lot of old American music, including a song from the 1932 campaign.  Although an unabashed liberal, Keillor is a Christian, and his show often features old hymns and Gospel songs, and last night’s program had a moving hymn about the Good Shepherd.  We heard a nostalgic essay by Ian Frazier about growing up in nearby Hudson, Ohio, which is unsurprising for a show whose cornerstone is a celebration of small town life, Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon.”  (Last night’s installment directed its humor at a childless yuppie couple—far from the groom’s native Lake Wobegon—who cooked at home so infrequently that they used their oven to store DVDs.)  Is there any program on radio or TV that has as much emphasis as Keillor’s on old American music and small town life? 

There is nothing like Lake Wobegon in my background, or in the background of either of my parents, but it is still a place that seems familiar to me, because Keillor’s stories, while informed by his Minnesota background, still draw on a common American culture.  Looking at the crowd, though, I wondered about the future of that culture.  Cleveland does not have large numbers of recent immigrants, but we do have a fair number of Indian and Asian professionals working in our hospitals, universities, and medical research centers.  But the crowd, while no doubt politically liberal, was virtually all white, with representatives of such recent immigrant groups basically non-existent.  It appears that such immigrants may not have much interest in stories about rural America or the songs that sprang from rural America.  One of the things uniting a people is the stories they tell and the songs they sing.  If the new immigrants do not have an interest in the old America, what does that say about our ability to maintain a common culture in the future?

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