Wobegonians Like Me|
Why a German listens to A
Prairie Home Companion
By Joachim Bürkert
"Does this humor
go over in Germany?", an American asked me at a reception
at the American embassy in Berlin in honor of Garrison Keillor.
I could have saved myself the answer, "Of course it
does". The hearty laughter of the more than 200 guests
that soon filled the residence of the Ambassador was the
more convincing answer. Garrison Keillor made a little speech,
and in the twinkling of an eye he had built the bridge.
The cold and gloomy weather in Berlin - it was in March
- helped him. For this is something that Lake Wobegon and
Berlin have in common, "the kind of March that God
created to show teetotalers what a hangover is like".
Regular listeners of A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
will discover even more that we have in common. Small wonder.
For the people of Lake Wobegon have their roots in Norway
- or Germany. They are our relatives, and, as we can learn
from Garrison Keillor week by week, we come from the same
kind of people, these "dark people", frugal of
humor, imbued with a strong sense of duty and a hardness
toward themselves. Yes, we recognize ourselves in Garrison's
stories. And we learn something about the history of our
American relatives: Why did their ancestors once go away
from Germany? How did they fare in the New World? In his
Berlin broadcast Garrison told the touching story of the
great-grandfather of Carl Krebsbach, who a hundred years
ago left Berlin after an argument with his father and went
to America. He didn't say good bye to his dad, he didn't
look back. A sad story, and at the same time a story about
starting out, hope, hazard, the coming life, the future
where everything is still possible. In the small suitcase
that his great-grandfather had forgotten in Berlin a hundred
years later Carl Krebsbach finds a book - with empty pages,
and on the cover stands in big letters: "AMERICA".
Without doubt, our family relations with
the Wobegonians arouse my curiosity - also members of my
family came to the Midwest in the 19th century -. Yet the
value of Garrison's stories goes beyond that dimension and
is also not limited to regional peculiarities. The tales
from Lake Wobegon touch a universal nerve, like the father-and-son
story in the Berlin broadcast. Garrison is gifted with a
tremendous empathy. One can convince oneself of that even
when the show is on tour. Whether they are in Berlin, Dublin,
Ann Arbor, Salt Lake City, New Orleans or some day perhaps
in Paris, Geneva or Hong Kong, Garrison feels and understands
the particular mood of a place, the mentality of the people
there, and it is astonishing how he gets his inspiration
for his stories from the "Genius loci". Ask the
locals. They will always tell you: "He hit the nail
on the head with his jokes". In Berlin he took the
audience on a tour through the city, and he did it so elegantly
that you thought this man had lived in Berlin for 20 years.
When he arrived at the "Bismarckstrasse" he asked
his millions of listeners: "Isn't it touching that
they named a street for the capital of North Dakota?"
Garrison Keillor, born in Anoka, Minnesota, and deeply rooted
in the American heartland, is also a real citizen of the
When I describe why I listen to A PRAIRIE
HOME COMPANION, I also have to say something about Garrison
Keillor's voice, i.e. about his talent to tell stories with
his own voice. Again an example from the Berlin show: In
the News from Lake Wobegon Garrison told how two people
were eating a chocolate cake. Actually nothing extraordinary.
But with Garrison Keillor! You listen to this warm and peaceful
baritone. You close your eyes and you feel how a piece of
chocolate cake is melting on your tongue and unfolding a
wonderful taste, and you have the feeling of eating chocolate
cake for the first time in your life. His words create fireworks
of imagination, and all senses resonate. You taste, smell,
see and hear the days of Lake Wobegon. And even ordinary
and well-known things appear in a new light.
Anybody who likes radio has to love this
show: With A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION Keillor has succeeded
in giving new life to a genre that the rise of television
had supposedly made extinct: the classic live variety show,
which in Keillor's hands doesn't become a nostalgic recreation
of the "golden age of radio", but exists very
much in the present. The superb quality of the musicians,
the joy that the actors bring to their work, and above all,
Keillor's distinctive voice and his inexhaustible imagination
make the show a unique radio experience, in which millions
join in, week after week. So do I. I listen to it and I
am marveling at that radio-miracle from Minnesota, and as
someone who works in radio himself, I go green with envy.
Joachim Bürkert, a radio
journalist, lives in Heidelberg, Germany and recently visited St. Paul
during a trip to the United States.