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The Blue Book of Favorite Songs

My sweet wife took me to see Garrison Keillor since I’m a long time fan of his storytelling and writing. It was a great Christmas gift from her and so thoughtful…but she’s like that.

Before we went, I expected that there would be an acapella audience sing-along sometime during the evening and mentioned that to Nancy, I knew that was something he did often on his A Prairie Home Companion radio show from which he recently retired from after several decades.  Yes, that right. Radio show, not tv. It’s a variety show that is broadcast every Saturday night on PBS stations. Garrison remains the executive producer but has turned the hosting of the show over to Chris Thile, a fine mandolin player known for his work in two acoustic music groups, Nickle Creek and Punch Brothers.

I borrowed that sing-along element from him and at times in the past when doing a show, I would incorporate a song or two and invite audience participation. The iconic old song, Tell Me Why, was one of my favorites for such a time. It was made for four part harmony and hearing lovely voices sing the parts was always wonderful. You get a crowd of folks together and there will always be some good voices present, especially among the ladies.

It was actually the way he began last evening, about a dozen minutes worth, and set the tone for the two hours he held forth. Included were patriotic songs, a few 60’s pop songs, and hymns. He began with My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, included When I Saw Her Standing There from the Beatles (funny and surprising when sung slowly),  Amazing Grace, and the Doxology, also known as Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow,which appropriately ended with the traditional “Amen.” He focused on how most of our generation learned these songs in schools, public schools, and is concerned that they are no longer taught to most children.

The majority of the evening was about recollecting good things of the past in the midst of discovering you are old or at least older. It was interesting to me that as I looked around the audience that most of the people there either had gray hair, all or partially, or no hair at all. Indeed, I’m getting older. I have plenty of wrinkles, lines, sags, and so forth. My hair has thinned considerably in the past few years and I’m less flexible but as best I can, I am refusing to surrender to “being old”. I’ve never been a majorly handsome guy, just had moments when I looked better than others, like most of us. These days I’m satisfied to know that God, my wife, my family, and true friends love me regardless and that’s enough. Any desire to impress is long gone. I guess I’m like Popeye, “I am what I am and that’s all that I am”.

For those unfamiliar with Keillor, he is from Minnesota, and though he is a learned writer and speaker with great intellect and somewhat eclectic, he is still rooted to Minnesota. He incorporates his upbringing into his stories and is appreciative of that which he gleaned. However, several decades ago, he formed Lake Woebegone, a mythical town on a lake which he populated with people, families, animals, characters. vocations, and interactions based on growing up in the environment of Minnesota. His stories out of this town became a great joy to those of us who discovered his offerings. He called Lake Woebegone, a fictitious “little town that time forgot,” He usually began his stories by saying, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone, my home town” and usually concluded with, “And that’s the news from Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Though this little lake town in Minnesota was fictitious, Garrison often spoke about going back to Lake Woebegone, as if he actually traveled there. I understand that because in all honesty I often travel back in my mind, especially to the 1950’s and 1960’s, to my hometown. I did not make up Rocky Mount, NC though it is very surreal today to think of it as it was then and what it is now. It was a good place, filled with important values, and many, many fine people that impacted one another’s lives.

Garrison Keillor focused on the music of the past to help provoke our memories last evening and as he did so I knew all the songs he had chosen. I even recalled all the words, some that I had not sung in years. In doing so, I was reminded of a book from which we sang when I was a student at Wilkinson School where I attended through the sixth grade. It was called The Blue Book of Favorite Songs.  It was published in 1928 and included songs that were written before 1900.

We sang from it every week, every Friday morning to be exact when all the classes would gather in the school auditorium. Mrs. Sarah Towe, would sit tall and erect in perfect posture and assault the keys of the piano with vigor.  We sang great patriotic songs of our nation, melodies from Stephen Foster (many which would not be politically correct today), and hymns. Often we would end with Mrs. Towe pounding the piano hard into submission as we sang Onward, Christian Soldiers. It was very moving. Sometimes as we stood we also moved our feet as if we were marching, not because we had been told to do so but because we were inspired.

Music is a wonderful source for provoking memories, and especially so during the Christmas season. We hear certain songs and remember not only the melodies and lyrics but places we were when we heard them, people we were with, and special circumstances. The carols inspire me, make me think of the best elements of Christmases past, and make me hopeful for this contemporary season…and I can’t help but smile as I think of Mrs. Sarah Towe who almost made that piano dance with her formidable version of Jingle Bells. I’m not exactly sure how Jingle Bells got connected with Christmas since it is mentioned nowhere in the song but it is a happy tune.

Happy songs…and then there was Bob Ross, who had painted “happy trees”…and happy is always a good thing, at Christmas or any other time.

I hope all of you can be happy this season. However, if you are in the midst of a season of hardship, grief, or other difficulties try to remember the times that were happy and use them as a catalyst for the hope of how things can be again.

Tags: christmas, garrison keillor, lake woebegone, the blue book of favorite songs