On Friday evening, humorist/entertainer Garrison Keillor did his final performance as host of A Prairie Home Companion. The show took place at the Hollywood Bowl and will be broadcast Saturday afternoon on the usual stations.
I have always liked Prairie Home Companion, at least in principle. I would rarely listen to it, but I enjoyed it all of the few times I did; and I liked very much Robert Altman’s 2006 movie version, featuring Kevin Kline as private detective Guy Noir and Virginia Madsen as a femme fatale.
It came as an immense surprise to me how much explicitly Christian material there was in this show on Friday night. There were hymns, among them – at almost the very end of the show – the famous Doxology, the tune known as Old 100th:
Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him all creatures here below,
Praise God above, ye heavenly host,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Donald Trump promises us we’ll be saying “Merry Christmas” again, and in doing so he taps into certain anxieties shared by a not inconsiderable number of Americans. Of course, nobody is forbidden to say “Merry Christmas” now, just as people are not forbidden to sing Christian hymns, even at a massive secular event at the Hollywood Bowl, smack in the middle of the capital of the American culture industry. (And this event was massive: I’ve been to the Hollywood Bowl over a half-dozen times in the past year, and this was the most crowded I’ve ever seen it.)
But what Donald Trump and Garrison Keillor have in common is that they have discerned an underlying disquiet about the pace of cultural and economic change, and they want to reach back to an older America. What makes this desire on their part especially remarkable is that neither man is a political conservative. “Conservatives,” as the name suggests, are the ones who seek to introduce an element of respect for tradition into the changes that happen in human events. But Keillor’s politics are far from conservative, he’s actually left-wing. And Trump is not a conservative, either in the Burkean-traditionalist sense or in the CPAC-movement-ideological sense – he is a tycoon emblematic of the free market as creative destruction, of America as a country oriented toward the future (many have pointed out, for example, how rarely he mentions the Constitution or the Founding).
That two such dramatically different men have come to such a similar conclusion is striking. And the most breathtaking moment of the Keillor show tonight indicates how deep the appetite is, for reconnecting with what rock critic Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America.” About halfway through the show, Keillor asked the audience to sing along with the chorus of the Isaac Watts hymn “Marching to Zion”:
We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.
. . .
Let those refuse to sing,
Who never knew our God;
But children of the heav’nly King
May speak their joys abroad.
What initially gobsmacked me about this was that the audience’s performance was the best mass rendition of a hymn I’ve ever heard. I have been going to church services for almost half a century now, of all denominations and also a lot of non-denoms – I don’t claim to be a super-religious guy, but I love church — and I have never heard a congregation sing as beautifully as this audience did. Maybe, I thought, it’s simply because, in the entertainment-industry capital, there are a lot of good voices? But the more I reflected upon it, the more I realized that the truly amazing thing was the lack of knowingness, the lack of irony, in their singing. It sounded utterly ingenuous and sincere – as if you had torn off the veneer of the 21st-century American Cosmopolis and revealed the 19th-century tent meeting beneath.
It’s easy to romanticize the past, to forget that people could be just as mean and ornery back then as they are now. But even a romanticized past can be a usable past. And as for the result of the use we – the Trumps, the Keillors, all of us — make of the past, well, we can judge it only by its fruits.