My father’s homespun philosopher hero was Will Rogers. Characters like Will Rogers come along maybe once in a generation. For my generation, Garrison Keillor has proven to be the American folk humorist most worthy of a statue in the U.S. Capitol Building.
I was born after Will Rogers died in 1935 at age 55, but I knew him through his movies and the retrospectives of his newspaper columns and radio shows. As the quintessential American cowboy, Rogers performed rope tricks in the Ziegfeld Follies and then became one of the world’s best-known celebrities of the 1920s and 1930s as a humorist, social commentator, and star of 71 movies, 50 of which were silent films.
My father loved the folksy style of Will Rogers, and so I came to hear many of his aphorisms. “I joked about every prominent man of my time,” Rogers famously said, “but I never met a man I ‘dident’ (sic) like.”
When I saw Garrison Keillor perform live in a show he titled “A Brand-New Retrospective” on April 16, 2013, I was immediately struck that he was the reincarnation of Will Rogers. Keillor’s views of the “common man” seemed to me the same magic mirror that Rogers employed to reflect on America’s iconic values. Both men had been born out in the American hinterland—Will Rogers in the Oologah Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), and Garrison Keillor on the prairie of Minnesota. And both men had become acclaimed humorists on the radio.
I have been a fan of Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show, and I own a collection of his Lake Wobegon stories. I had even seen his A Prairie Home Companion movie (2006) where he played himself as directed by Robert Altman.
Keillor’s touring show in Boone, North Carolina opened with two acts recruited from the North Carolina High Country environs. The Mountain Home Bluegrass Boys and The Forget-Me-Nots (three young women playing Celtic fiddle music) were equal in talent to anything on Keillor’s national radio show, and his recognition of them obviously boosted their careers.
Without an intermission or introduction, Keillor strolled onto the platform stage set at the end of a convocation center more suited to basketball and then descended with a handheld microphone down the center aisle. After a greeting, he asked the audience to stand and join him in an a cappella singing of America the Beautiful. The act of the communal singing was a powerful bonding experience. Keillor remained in the aisles during a chatty monolog about turning 70 years of age, and then he stayed among the people for twenty minutes or more before he took the stage where his three musical accomplices had gathered for the rest of the show.
After performing for more than an hour, Keillor again came down into the aisles and announced a bathroom break for those who needed it. With the house lights up, and nervous people moving around him, he strolled and talked and led the audience in some familiar pop songs including one from Elvis and one from the Beatles. In all, Keillor performed non-stop for well over two hours.
The night of this performance followed the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, and we might rightly have expected Keillor to make comments. The Mountain Home Bluegrass Boys had already dedicated a hymn—Shenandoah/Sweet Hour of Prayer—to open the show; and although Keillor did not mention the event that was on everyone’s mind, when he led the a cappella singing of Amazing Grace, there was great personal emotion, and the harmonies of the combined voices were profound. I felt that a compassionate genius had recognized this moment of grieving and that he had allowed it to occur without any show business considerations.
There is a statue of Will Rogers that faces the House Chamber in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U. S. Capitol Building. Presidents rub the left shoe of the Rogers statue for good luck before entering the House Chamber to deliver the State of the Union Address. A friend of FDR during the traumatic years of the Great Depression, Will Rogers spoke for the common people who suffered and endured.
I think that Presidents today would do well to be the frequent confidant of Garrison Keillor. Keillor is our Will Rogers. He can speak for us without politics getting in the way. If something works for Lake Wobegon, I’ll take a chance that it will work in my hometown.
Thank you, Garrison Keillor, for your visit to Boone. Each one of us felt liked by you that night. Will Rogers could not have done better.