On his Prairie Home Companion radio program Saturday night, Garrison Keillor did something truly unusual--and, in the context of broadcasting, highly original as well. He wrote and performed, along with the guitarist Pat Donohue, a serious ballad about a serious news event that was just nine days in the past.
Usually Keillor deals with the news only through satire. But there was no comedy, and no irony, in the grim song he sang this week. The subject was the dance-hall fire at West Warwick, RI that killed 97 and injured 187 others.
Keillor's song was a peculiar moment in the mass media's response to disaster--and all the more effective for that reason. Songwriters have often written ballads about great calamities, but usually a considerable period after the event. One of the most famous of recent times, Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, appeared in 1976, some months after a ferocious 1975 storm sent that iron-ore-carrying freighter and its crew of 29 to the bottom of Lake Superior.
Something else set Keillor's song apart. His approach was far from the gently elegiac tone of most news coverage. It was accusatory as well as mournful.
Keillor is a much-admired novelist, memoirist, and satirist who has written eight books for adults (including Lake Wobegon Days and Lake Wobegon Boy) and three for children. In print and on the radio, his manner is generous and rarely judgmental; he seldom asks us to deal with anything that we (or for that matter he) might find truly uncomfortable. Even if there's a sharpness to his comedy now and then, those not listening carefully might imagine he was describing a Norman Rockwell version of the Midwest.
But the Rhode Island disaster, in which scores of the innocent were suddenly swept to their death by flames, brought out another, grimmer Keillor. He made his ballad into a moving and highly realistic commentary, locating the source of the fire in the psychology of music and show business.
He clearly fixed the blame, but not on the company that installed flammable soundproofing or the inspectors who missed it or the owners who didn't control what happened in their building. He blamed instead the ambitions of performers, with which he associated himself. The victims in Rhode Island may have been killed by men with long hair and rock 'n' roll dreams, but in a larger sense they were destroyed by vanity, ambition, memories of past glory, and the blind carelessness that accompanies desperate yearning for success.
Written from within the music business (his show is modelled on the Grand Ole Opry), what he said was more direct and more piercing than anything I've read or heard spoken on the Rhode Island tragedy since it happened.
When he introduced the song, he said Rhode Island had been "on the minds of all of us, especially people in my line of work." He began by describing the old wooden dance hall, the blue-collar town, the old rock 'n' roll band on its way down.
The people in the room included "all the beautiful daughters and all the passionate sons" along with "the poor old musicians who were beautiful once." The first chord was struck and "a fountain of fire" rose up from the floor. That fire, metaphorically, was recognizable to everyone in show business. It wasn't just a pyrotechnic device: "It was the white flash/It was the flame we all know/The flash of the deal and the press and money/When you're in the big show."
Great White, the band (which Keillor didn't name) once played in stadiums, shooting its sparks to the sky, "but the old dance hall ceiling/Was nine feet high."
"It was the white flash/It was the flame of success/The flash of the girls and the money/and the dreams and your name in the press."
He ended lamenting what "we" in show business do to the young out of pure vanity. "I pray God to protect them, protect them, protect them, from you and from me."
He cast all this as a folk song (apparently untitled), with some country feeling and a few echoes of rock, more or less the mix of music he usually includes in his show. As if he were worried about how the song would be received, and unwilling to draw too much attention to something so far from his norm, he introduced it quickly as "a little song I've written." When he finished he didn't comment further and moved along quickly to other items on the program.
Yesterday morning one of his listeners wrote to the program's chat-room to praise "Garrison Keillor and his lovely song about the poor souls who died in the night-club fire. It was beautiful, poetic, heart-wrenching, and a fine memorial to those who lost their lives and their friends and family." Perhaps it was even better than that. In truth, it sounded to me like a classic being born.