The Band is Playing

It’s Saturday and the band is playing
Honey, could we ask for more?

Prairie Home Companion theme song, adapted from “Tishomingo Blues,” by Spencer Williams

This is the story of two goodbye shows. The first was given by someone you’ve probably heard of—Garrison Keillor is retiring as the host of Prairie Home Companion this summer and Beth bought tickets to his last show at in the Washington, D.C. area as a birthday present to me. The show was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.

The other man you probably haven’t heard of unless you had the very good fortune to have a child in an elementary school instrumental program at June’s school or the school where Noah attended fourth and fifth grade. His name is Mr. G, and next year instead of splitting his time between the two schools, he will teach at just one, so June will have a new orchestra teacher in fifth grade. Mr. G’s last concert at June’s school was Wednesday.

Saturday: A Prairie Home Companion

Prairie Home Companion has been on the air since 1974, with a brief interruption in the late eighties and early nineties. I must have started listening to it around the time it came back on the air in 1992; that’s when I got hooked on public radio. When I was in grad school in the mid to late nineties, I’d often knock off studying or grading around six p.m. on Saturdays and then I’d clean the apartment for an hour or two while listening to it. Back then, rather than being near the end of my Saturday nights, its eight o’clock ending time might be when Beth and I left to go out to a movie or something. We used to do that kind of thing a lot in our younger days. Anyway, it’s how I used to transition from work to play in the middle of the weekend.

Nowadays I’m more likely to listen to it while I’m cooking dinner with Noah—his night to help me is Saturday—though sometimes we listen to music of his choice instead. I rarely listen to a show all the way through any more, but I still enjoy it and find it something about it deeply comforting. Keillor, a tall, bespectacled almost seventy-four-year-old man who loves words and stories, has a deep singing voice, a sometimes dry wit and liberal politics, often reminds me of my Dad, who would be a year younger than Keillor if he were still alive. That’s part of the appeal, no doubt.

When Prairie Home Companion travels it comes to about a half dozen venues regularly. One of those is Wolf Trap, in Vienna, Virginia, which is just a stone’s throw from where we live, but despite this, we’d never gone to see the show. I’d never suggested it because it’s not really Beth’s thing, but when I heard Keillor was retiring I told her I’d like to go, so she bought tickets. By the time I asked, the seats under the roof were sold out, but I didn’t mind sitting of the lawn. You can picnic and if the weather’s nice it’s quite pleasant. We’ve probably seen more shows at Wolf Trap on the lawn than under the roof.

Speaking of shows we’ve seen there…Wolf Trap is a place we used to go a lot more often pre-kids than we do now and while Beth and I were on the lawn waiting for the show to start we made the amusing discovery that our lists of shows we remember seeing there have surprisingly little overlap. We’re both sure we saw performances of Beauty and the Beast and West Side Story there and probably the McGonagall sisters. But she doesn’t remember seeing a Buddy Holly tribute act I thought we saw there and she insists we’ve seen David Sedaris at one of the smaller, indoor theaters on the property and I thought surely I’d remember that because I really like him. We both think we might have seen the Indigo Girls there, but we’re not entirely certain. What has happened to our youth? I mean I know we’re not in our twenties or thirties anymore but shouldn’t we be able to at least remember that time? What are we going to reminisce about when we’re eighty?

I guess it’s a good thing I started blogging. At least there’s a record of our forties.

Anyway, back to the show. We got to the parking lot around 4:35 and walked to the lawn where we set up our blanket. We had to walk around a while to find a spot as the lawn was already packed but we found a place we could squeeze in with a good view of the stage. (The pictures were actually taken by our neighbor Chris, who was also at the show. They were on the opposite side of the lawn, so you can imagine us just to the side of the footbridge in the background of the picture.)

The show was very much as I expected. There was old-timey music including a Civil War song, a jazz band, a Guy Noir sketch, some Trump-related political satire, a parody of a Dylan song (“Don’t Think Twice”), and of course, the Lake Woebegon monologue. The only unexpected parts were the fifteen minutes before taping began when Keillor wandered through the audience, even up on the lawn, engaging in a sing-along with the audience. It being Memorial Day weekend, he started with a medley of patriotic songs, but soon it was Elvis Presley and the Beatles. (There was more singing with the audience after the taping ended as well.) I have to admit I was just a bit star-struck when he passed within fifty yards of us and then when he got back on stage and sang his opening song, “It’s Saturday, the band is playing/Honey, could we ask for more?” I felt a little thrill to actually be there.

About a half hour into the show, we dug into the picnic Beth packed for us, Havarti cheese, crackers, watermelon, a vegetable slaw, couscous salad, and chocolate chip cookies. The day had been hot—I thought he must have been very warm in that suit—but it cooled slowly as we sat on the grass and watched the golden evening light travel slowly down the backdrop of a gray frame house behind Keillor on the stage.

Soon it was over and we headed back to the parking lot, where, as Keillor had predicted from the stage, there was a terrible traffic jam. We sat in the car for over forty minutes before we could move at all. I guess that’s why some people left immediately after the monologue. Even so, we were home by 9:45, late for us to be out, but not too late.

Prairie Home Companion will still be on the air after Keillor retires. He’s handing it over to a new host, Chris Thile, next fall. Thile was actually at the show we saw, singing and playing mandolin. I look forward to seeing in what new direction he takes the show, but I know I will always miss Garrison Keillor.

Wednesday: Our Musical Garden

Three nights later June had her last concert with Mr. G. Let me tell you a little about him before I write about the concert. He’s the kind of teacher who show up for everything, and I mean everything. Any time we were at June’s school whether it was for Reading Night or STEM night or any other kind of night, there was Mr. G. I heard from parents of kids who went to one of the middle schools that June’s school feeds into that he would go to their band and orchestra concerts to see his former students play. When a friend of June’s who acts professionally was in a show, Mr. G was in the audience. He’s that kind of teacher.

You might think if you were in charge of instrumental music at two large and growing elementary schools—there are one hundred thirty kids in band and orchestra at June’s school alone—and the school district told you they wanted you to teach at just one, you might breathe a sigh of relief, but Mr. G said no, he’d prefer to stay at both schools.  He wasn’t allowed to, though, so this was our farewell concert with him.

As always, June put a lot of thought into what to wear. She needed a new top, as she wore sweaters to both the Holiday Sing and the Winter Concert earlier this year, and after an unusually cool May, warm and humid weather is here. She and Beth went to the thrift store the weekend before the concert to look for a “plain white blouse,” or that’s what I told them to do. Beth told me ahead of time, she doubted they’d be coming home with anything plain. What June chose was a lacy, knee-length, short-sleeved dress. She paired it with black capris and finished the outfit with music note socks and shiny black Mary Janes.

There was none of the usual rush to find sheet music because she’d left it at school during the rehearsal earlier that day. We all would have liked Noah to come, but he was sunk deep in homework (and would end up staying up late that night trying to finish a research project for Physics).

We made our way to the gym, took our seats in front of the orchestra, and looked at the program while the musicians warmed up. The theme of the concert was “Our Musical Garden” and many of the kids were wearing leis. At first we thought it was just the fifth graders but then we noticed some of the fourth graders had them, too.

I noticed that along with his trademark vest, Mr. G wore a tie with musical notes which reminded me of June’s socks and that reminded me that just before June’s birthday when she was having her music-themed party and I was looking everywhere for music note pajamas with no success, it was Mr. G who found some for her online. She wore those not only at the party but once or twice a week after that until the weather got too warm for them.

June had her lessons this year with a group of four other string players who had at least two years’ experience at the beginning of the school year. She was the least experienced of the group, having started violin the summer before second grade. They’ve been working on an arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” all year and it was the first song in the concert. She was gratified to finally play it for an audience.

Between the string quintet, the advanced orchestra, the combined orchestra, and the combined band and orchestra, June played twelve pieces of music. My favorite was “Sakura, Sakura” a Japanese piece meant to evoke cherry blossoms, but the Can-Can is always fun, especially as they play it faster and faster.

The concert was quite eclectic. There was classical music by Dvorák and Handel, folk songs, jazz, blues, music from Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings. The fifth grade clarinets played “Kum-Bah-Yah” and the fifth grade trumpets played “Eight Days a Week.”

Here’s the string quintet playing Handel’s “Gavotte,” taken by mom of one of June’s friends.

In between the songs, a few students read original poems about their band and orchestra experiences.  Zoë’s was a limerick that started, “There once was a jolly old fellow/who even taught me to play the cello.” (That one was my favorite.) They ended the concert with “Ode to Joy,” which seemed appropriate to me because Mr. G brings so much joy to everything he does. When I asked June what she liked about him, she said, “He makes music fun.”

So thank you, Garrison Keillor and Mr. G. Thanks for the music and the fun. We really couldn’t have asked for more.

  • Nicole MacPherson

    That’s awesome, I love how musical your children are!