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 world.

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.


Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

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