A Prairie Home Companion from American Public Media

The Old Scout
The Pleasures of Perfect Cadence
May 8, 2007

Flowering crabapples are in full purple bloom on both sides of our house. It feels as if we're a ballroom and soon a crowd of teenagers in strapless gowns and white tuxes will come and stand around, as they do at proms, girls with girls and boys with boys, being elaborately cool and hoping somebody notices. I saw a prom crowd last Saturday night, all of them looking good except one boy in a tux who had decided to wear a white long-billed cap, evidently to set himself apart as an independent thinker. He had no date. He kept sidling up near people who then edged away from him. You could almost see wavy stink lines emanating from him.

This was much too painful to watch. I've been in his shoes. Some of us grew up in great fear of conformity and built that fear into real social ineptitude and then wondered why we felt lousy. We assumed it was the price of being an artist and an original thinker. And then we noticed we were wearing a dumb hat and dumb shoes. Ai yi yi caramba! Depressing. And this was two decades before Prozac, and the only drugs available were the ones at the Grateful Dead concert, which I did not take because they made you do weird things like dance around shirtless and throw your arms up toward the sun and scream in tongues. I felt weird enough already.

Back in the day, we were more alienated from society than kids are today, and Thoreau was to blame for it. A gentle man, good with small children, smart about bugs and plants, but his line about daring to march to your own drummer, which is repeated every year at high school graduations, is just plain clueless. It excuses a rotten sense of rhythm as being a sign of intellectual rigor.

Somehow Thoreau missed out on the pleasure of being in tempo. He never drilled with the Concord militia, and if he ever attended dances, he didn't mention it in his journal. And when he matriculated at Harvard in 1833, there was no marching band where he could've played his flute and learned how thrilling it is when 50 or 60 people hit the cadence, the bass drum going BOOMBOOMBOOMBOOMBOOM and the snares setting up a back beat and the saxophones swinging back and forth and all the shoes going slapslapslapslap up the street — this is electrifying to the whole town and the populace lines the curbs to watch the parade go by. Rhythm, Henry — shared rhythm — is a powerful thing, compared to which your personal drummer who goes BOOMBOOMboinkBOOMboinkBOOMBOOM is a puny thing. So get over yourself, O Great One. Get with the program.

It was easier to rebel back when there was a mainstream in this country, which there isn't anymore, just a thousand little niches. Celebrities are people you never heard of, the big TV shows are ones you never watch. Young people leading comfortable middle-class lives embrace gangsta rap as the most outrageous rebellion going, every man a pimp, every woman his chattel, but who gives a rip? Violent stupid ugly stuff, but nobody cares what rappers say, it's just acorns on the roof, because, brother, we're all trotting along to our own drummers now, engrossed in our own iPod. No wonder people keep drifting back into retrospection. They're looking for the beat.

That's the appealing thing about Barack Obama, in addition to his smarts and his resume. He is an outsider who found the center. He is completely new, a break from the old rhetoric, a guy who doesn't pummel the old straw men or seem put together by pollsters. He has youth, skinniness, blackness, cool intelligence, an unabashed love of country, and it's exciting to imagine him in the White House. He is a rebel who got over himself and discovered the beauty of the American cadence. Not like the Current Occupant, who came from the privileged mainstream and is still flailing against it, the Iraq war his latest attempt to prove that he knows better than Father.

People who are dubious about a Clinton Restoration are mighty taken with Senator Obama, who seems to hear the drummer the rest of us hear. The beautiful old tune about picking up our feet and redeeming our promise and bringing people back together. Eight years of corruption and deliberate ignorance. Time for the big dogs to move over and let the skinny dog run.

© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.



From the Desk of Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor
Photo by Cheryl Walsh Bellville


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