GK responds to queries on topics from childbearing to potato salad, with a little bookstore fetish in between.

Here's your chance to ask GK your most pressing questions—about the writing life, the radio life, Lake Wobegon, Guy Noir, whatever you like. Also, feel free to send feedback about the show. Honest comments and criticism are always welcome! Send your own post to the host.
November, 1999

Dear Garrison,

I hope you can answer a question I have regarding the story of Bob, a young artist. I have always been unclear about the nature of Bob's relationship with Bernice. Sometimes it seems as if they married, and Bernice's father, "Pops" is living with them. Other times, however, I wonder if perhaps Bernice is Bob's unmarried aunt. This ambiguity does lends a certain dramatic tension to the sketch, but frankly, its keeping me up at night.

Please help!

Dear Joanne, The ambiguity is deliberate, I'm afraid, and was part of the original Bob concept. I suppose we need to resolve it someday. But artists are orphans, are they not? And I'm not sure that Bob is capable of being a husband. He is something of a mystery to me, as you can see. His fortitude for one thing, or whatever you want to call it - whatever it is that makes a person persevere though he gets no recognition or reward and only gets abuse from Pops.

Dear Mr. Keillor,

I am a Naval Officer who left Minnesota many years ago to fly helicopters. Your show has brought many belly-laughs, even in the Persian Gulf, where my friends would mail me a tape of your latest broadcast. My question to you is - were there are any "salty" Lake Wobegon residents that joined the Navy? If so, were their tattoos a subject of conversation at the diner?

Thank you. Lieutenant Nichole McNeely San Diego, California

Dear Lieutenant, Tattooing is not a Lutheran art, and the boys who went into the Navy were careful not to get tattoos, or at least not to get them on parts of the body subject to public exposure. In Lake Wobegon, of course, this involves more of the body than might be the case in San Diego. There are many Wobegonians, for example, whose shoulders and upper forearms have never been viewed by the general public. I seem to recall seeing a tattoo on Carl Krebsbach's upper shoulder, and recall that it was a shield with the words "Semper Fidelis" underneath. Nobody would object to that, of course. There now are rumors of young women with tattoos on their butts, but this is something we'll never know more about. In Lake Wobegon, we are all right with the idea of not knowing.


Was there any particular reason why you chose "Tishomingo Blues" for the theme song of "The Prairie Home Companion? It is one of my favorite traditional jazz blues, but seldom heard (except on PHC).

Best regards, Jim Huheey

Dear Mr. Huheey, We use only a sliver of Tishomingo for the theme, but I've always liked the song, going back to college years when I heard the Doc Evans Band do it. It was composed by Spencer Williams back around 1917 or so, so it's of the Handy/Joplin era when black composers tried to get a new sound onto the page. It's blue and elegant, too.

Garrison, I know this sounds like a silly question, but you have to understand how important it is to my romantic livelihood. Every time my husband and I have a dinner that includes catsup the romantic conversations turn to the age old question - which came first, the french fry or the catsup? This is considered a very serious topic and effectively ends the romantic dinner. Can you please help us with this question. I know lots of people who listen to NPR have had this question and have been afraid to ask.

R Campbell

Dear Ms Campbell, Both the french fry and catsup were invented right here in St. Paul. Catsup was invented as a tomato tonic at the St. Paul Home for the Moody, a precursor of the Moody Institute, by a man named Dr. Ketcham, who promulgated it as a diet supplement to help moody and sickly children "catch up" in school. This was somewhere around 1902, approximately the second week of October, I believe on a Tuesday. But healthy persons grew to enjoy it too, and so the french fry was invented by a Swedish couple for the St. Paul World's Fair of 1914. Julienned potatoes cooked in a deep frier. They were called Swedish Fries, but of course nobody bought them, and then they were called French Fries and sales sky-rocketed.

Dear Garrison: You had a lot of fun with the Ralston song on the old Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters, and I assume you were kidding when you said Jim Lehrer used to sing the opener, when in fact you and I know it was Curley Bradley, the star of the show after 1944. He also had a musical variety show every week called the KC Jamboree from WWVA, Wheeling, West Virginia. You were joking about Lehrer weren't you?

Stan Claussen

Dear Mr. Claussen, The name Curley Bradley rings a bell, and now I am not so certain as I was that Jim Lehrer was the one. Mr. Lehrer is a Texan and certainly is a straight shooter and I recently heard him sing the Ralston song and it sounded exactly as it did when I was a boy. I guess that only Mr. Lehrer knows for sure what he did before he started doing the news on PBS.

Dear Mr. Keillor:

I'm a lawyer who practices family law, and have often suggested that waiting families listen to the story of the Tollerud's Korean baby. By my reckoning, that little girl must be well into Junior High by now. How is she doing?

Mary Svendsen Cary, IL

Dear Ms Svendsen, Corinne Tollerud is thriving at Lake Wobegon high school, so far as I can gather, and is getting to that age when girls give their mothers gray hair. Thank goodness girls never give their fathers any problems. The boys who are attracted to Corinne's exotic good looks, though, are giving her father fits.

Dear Mr. Keillor, I'm 10 years old and I love your show. Ever since I first heard A Prairie Home Companion I've been begging my parents to take me to a show but it has never happened. How many kids have ever been to your show and how old were they?

Corinne Mathieu Madison WI

Dear Corinne, Glad you like the show. I like the show a lot more when there are kids around to hear it, and usually I spot a few, though usually they're up in the cheap seats in the balcony, which is a shame. I'd rather look at kids than look at the suits in the expensive seats. Some kids are in the seats on stage which are cheaper ($10) and which you have to buy the same day as the show. Rush seats. It's a long show for a young child to sit through, and I think you need to be ten or twelve to be able to sit still that long. It's too bad. We should have a children's section where you could sit as long as you liked, and then, during the boring parts, you could run up to the roof and run around and scream.

Dear Mr. Keillor:

My husband and I and live in New York City and do various artsy things that disgust our parents, but we're torn between the city filth and culture and our equally compelling desire to farm - probably with some nice animals like sheep or cows. It seems to us that you have the perfect life - you live in a small town, yet still hang out with artsy and officially suspicious people and do a lot of good creative work.

Any advice on how we could do the same?

Kelly and Pavol in NY

Dear Kelly and Pavol, I don't do anything artsy or hang out with suspicious people. I used to and then I got this part-time job and now I hang out with musicians. Musicians are only suspicious if you see them on the street. When they sit down and play, they're okay. As for New York, it's an exciting place for creative people, and who can explain it, but there's a hum in the air, and for people in certain fields - classical music, opera, theater, dance, painting - it's the place to be. My wife, a Minnesota girl, was a freelance musician in New York for years, loves it still despite all the privations she endured there. I thought about moving there back in 1966 but thought it would be a dreadful place to be poor in; I preferred being poor in a rented farmhouse in Minnesota where the rent was low and food was cheap and plentiful, especially the stuff you grew yourself. For young writers, New York doesn't make much sense as a place to live. A writer needs time, and New York demands that you use a great deal of time just to pay the basics. You wouldn't have to go very far upstate to find a farmhouse to rent. On the other hand, there's nothing like sheep to really complicate your life. But I am not your parent and I'm not going to worry.

Dear Garrison,

In the time I have listened to your show, I have picked up on subtle "less-than-complimentary" references to St. Cloud, MN. Having never visited St. Cloud, I was wondering if you have had a difficult experience with that community in the past which could be a subconscious basis for these references.

Forgive me for asking such a personal question.

Tom Loff

Dear Mr. Loff, St. Cloud is the big trading center in central Minnesota, and includes one of the longest shopping strips around. You leave the bucolic splendor of Lake Wobegon, or Albany, or Avon, and you head in to St. Cloud and find yourself in an endless procession of K-Marts and Walmarts and Cloudmarts and three of every franchise restaurant in America. There are about four miles of sheer unadulterated squalor. Urban hell. The handsome old downtown is mostly falling to pieces.

dEAR gARRISON, This post to the host is under the influence of a few gin & tonics, but the thought behind the statements are fundamentally solid (one hopes).

Here it goes: How much do you love to write versus the love to perform. I'm sure they are both rewarding, but does the love of performing and creating the craft keep renewing itself? How have you kept writing and performing for all of these years?? Are you thankful that you found something that you truly love to do?

scott peterson

dEAR sCOTT, I am an old guy who never had the imagination and spunk to put my career into third gear and get out of radio and into television, so here I am, plunking along. I wouldn't call it love. I have kept writing the show because I'm a Calvinist and am afraid what would happen if I didn't. I assume that I'd hit the skids and wind up slumped over in the back row of the Union Gospel Mission, waiting for the sermon to end and the baloney sandwiches to be served. What I'd truly love to do - and I think about this every week - is to get in a car and head west across the Dakotas and Montana and go bumping around the west and sleep outdoors at night and meet odd people and have adventures. But of course I'd only get as far as Rapid City and then I'd miss my family too much and turn around and come home.

Don't get tied down too soon, Scott. You've got to get your adventuring in early. And don't mix those gin and tonics too strong. Light on the gin, and a lot of tonic.

Mr. Keillor,
At the risk of being subversive, would you be in favor of retiring The Star Spangled Banner as our national anthem and replacing it with another tune?

An honest patriot

Dear Honest Patriot, I honestly love the Star Spangled Banner and find it a wonderful song to sing. The problem is that it's used as a big show-off vehicle by every soloist who sings it at sporting events and it's pitched too high for the normal person to sing. They ought to bring it down a few keys and everybody sing it together and then you'd see what a fine piece of music (and poetry) it is.

Garrison, My wife and I listen to your wonderful stories with great pleasure. However we have a serious disagreement concerning their preparation. My wife, a writer and editor, is sure you know exactly where you are going. I think you make most of it up as you go along and surprise yourself sometimes. Do you know where one of your tales will end when you begin it? Do you have a script outline and all the characters when you commence your monologue? Or a wisp of an idea that you like?

Lawrence Weisburg New York, NY

Dear Mr. Weisburg, Your wife is closer to the truth. I write the News from Lake Wobegon on Saturday morning. It's about three pages single spaced. I think of it as a set of notes, and I don't study it too hard - though I find that a person does tend to remember something you wrote a few hours before - and indeed sometimes I surprise myself in the telling, but I'm a writer, not an improv performer. I've seen people improvise and it always seems somehow formulaic to me and full of tricks. But because I work without a script at hand, the News sounds improvised. Those long pauses are most likely me trying to remember where in the world this story is supposed to go next.

Dear Garrison:

Whenever you plug "Powdermilk Biscuits" I always think I have heard about them a long time ago (say 40 or 50 years ago). It seems like I remember somebody (Tennessee Ernie?) talking about those on the radio when I was a tot. Or maybe I am thinking of the Lightcrust Doughboys somehow. Anyway, is the name Powdermilk Biscuits original with you?

Thanks, Jennifer Dinger

Dear Jennifer, Yes, it is. Invented back around the very start of the show in 1974. The name doesn't really make sense, does it, and that's because I'm not a baker.

Hi Garrison,

My question for you is this: having read some of the responses to your posts, and having listened your show for quite a number of years now, We get the feeling that you are a disillusioned academic. Is this the case, or have you known just one too many prisoners of the ivory tower?

All the best,
Andy and Betsy (a couple of disoriented AND disillusioned academics)

Dear Andy and Betsy, I never taught a class, so I'm not an academic, but I hung around the University of Minnesota for most of the sixties and so I knew a lot of them. And I've heard a lot about the political wars in the humanities and about the decline of basic writing skills among college freshmen and so forth and so on. But I get the impression that the wars are abating. And I believe that the enthusiasm of young people is a powerful antidote to disillusionment. Ever so often I speak to a college class and I always come away from it thinking I'd like to be an academic.

Garrison, You have used the word "crimony" several times recently. I can find no definition of crimony anywhere. Can you please help me?

Frank Palmeri

Dear Mr. Palmeri, It's 'Criminy,' an old interjection, or expostulation, from my youth. You could translate it as "Ufta" or "Oy veh" or "Yikes".

Dear Mr Keillor, I only just now have learned of the wondrous World's Largest Pile of Burlap Bags, and eagerly ventured onto the Web to find the web site. Alas, apparently the Board of Directors apparently no longer are providing information, and the site cannot be found. I was wondering what has become of it these last 2 years - did the town council indeed accept it? And is it still the wonder it once was?

Yours in wonder, Paul Fritschle San Jose, CA

Dear Mr. Fritschle, The WLPBB has been left to molder and is slowly oxidizing and settling and declining but is still pretty stupendous for a pile of burlap bags. Here in Minnesota we call them gunny sacks. I don't know why.

Dear Mr. Keillor,

I grew up in St. Paul and was part of the Jewish Community that is active and alive and well in St. Paul and Minneapolis. I was a member of several of Jewish youth groups (I am sure they were created so we would all fall in love and marry "nice Jewish boys and girls") and when we had conventions from the Midwest there would invariably be a person from the Range or North Dakota who lived in some tiny town and was the only Jewish kid for miles. I would love to hear about this person living in Lake Wobegon. Isn't there at least one Jewish family who lives there?

Thank you very much, Yours, Linda

Dear Linda, I wouldn't venture to tell a story about a Jewish family, no matter what. I'm sorry, but it would cause so much trouble, and I'd be miserable, and I'd be answering mail for years to come. There was one Jewish family in my home town, and I liked them a lot, and they'd probably be pleased and amused if I talked about them, but I would get in such trouble as you wouldn't believe. Gentiles can't tell stories about Jews, and white people can't tell stories about African-Americans, and that's the rules of that.

Mr. Keillor, I recently listened to you "Babe Ruth Comes To Lake Wobegon" story for the first time. As with all your literary work, it was clever and well-crafted. And you seem to have a real passion for the game of baseball. Are you particularly concerned about the future of Major League Baseball, with its exorbitant salaries, pampered athletes and fragile labor relations?? From what I hear the future of your own Minnesota Twins is in doubt.

-Greg Thomas Hough Portland, OR

Dear Mr. Hough, I'm afraid that my interest in baseball took a big fall back when the Twins moved into an domed stadium. I enjoy seeing the St. Paul Saints, a Class A team, and I've happened across various other minor-league and high school and amateur games over the years, saw the field, wandered in, sat down, and enjoyed it. But major-league baseball is a corporate sport, it doesn't belong to us, it's all about money, and its future has very little to do with us. When a sport isn't fun anymore, then our attention turns away from it to things that are. You can sit and watch your kid play soccer and get more fun from it than you can sitting in the upper reaches of a ballpark watching two corporations spar on the field.

Mr. Keillor, There is one concern/consideration that I would like to bring up to you. I enjoy your show for the "most" part, but there are times I find myself hard pressed to keep listening. I'm sure you realize that you are broadcasting to millions of Americans (and beyond?). We Americans cover a wide breadth of religions out here. Why is it your show seems to constantly go back to Gospel choir music? Being Jewish, I do take some minor offense to this. How about Jewish music from time to time? I realize that we are a minority within this Judeo-Christian society, but we do feel that we sometimes get the cold shoulder when national programs like yours take little heed of your potential audience.

Thank you for your time and consideration.
Bruce Goldstein

Dear Mr. Goldstein, If, by Jewish music, you mean a cantor intoning the Kol Nidrei, then you won't hear that on PHC. We don't engage in that sort of religio-cultural acquisitiveness. The sacred music of the synagogue doesn't belong on our show, it belongs in a sacred place among those who consider it sacred. It isn't show music. Christian gospel music crossed the line into show business somewhere back along the way, and so the gospel group we presented last week, the Fairfield Four, is quite comfortable singing in front of a non-believing audience. And you'd find many Jews who enjoy black gospel music who don't subscribe at all to the theology underlying it. We do occasionally have a klezmer band on the show, which is music of Jewish people, and of course we have a lot of Jewish musicians. I can't tell you how many, because we don't keep track, but two of the Shoes are Jews, and whenever either of them has brought us a piece of music appropriate to a Jewish holiday, we've been glad for it. When Gil Shaham plays on the show this week, is that Jewish music? I don't know. The reason the show occasionally does Christian gospel music is simply that that's the music I grew up with, just as the comedy is somehow based on my own life and not on yours. It isn't based on a survey of common American experiences. We don't submit the comedy to a focus group. We don't test it to see if it conforms to the sensibilities of other ethnic or religious groups. I just stand up and talk about what strikes me personally as interesting. The reason for this is to save time. It's easier to be one guy standing on a stage and talking off the top of your head than it is to be a multicultural task force trying to craft a piece of comedy that will appeal to all Americans.

The same is true of the music. It may horrify you to hear this, but the show consists of music that I personally like. That's why you don't hear rap music on the show. That's why other sorts of music, that probably most Americans would much prefer, are not heard on the show.

Whether one old white Lutheran out in Minnesota should have this power is, of course, an interesting question, and perhaps would be the basis for an interesting lawsuit. It is the public airwaves, after all, and all of these public radio stations were built with a good deal of tax money. Maybe it's illegal for me to sing "Abide With Me," as I did a year or so ago. I don't know. I'm sorry if it offended you. All that a performer can offer to the public is what's in his heart, based on who he is and where he comes from, and when that's not possible, then there's no point in it. If I felt that most Jewish listeners feel as you do, I would quit the show next week and find something else to do.

Dear Mr Keillor,

My request for advice stems from your voice talent work on The Civil War and on PHC. As a computer game designer I'm struck by the way an audience empathizes with these works and painfully reminded that my medium still hasn't achieved this. Though we're separated by our mediums, I was wondering if you could offer any advice in this area.

Elijah Meeks Director of Design Oilbased

Dear Mr. Meeks, I don't know what "voice talent work" means. I'm not "talent". I'm a person and I talk and of course people respond more deeply to the human voice than they do to computer games. If this ever changes, I hope I'm dead by then. We're separated by more than our mediums.


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).

Available now»

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