Because we are blessed with the best public radio station in the country (WUNC), we frequently receive the best that public radio has to offer, live and in person. Earlier this month, A Prairie Home Companion came to Durham, North Carolina to produce and broadcast a show at our new state-of-the-art Performing Arts Center (DPAC). As I settled into my fourth-row seat, I flipped through the program, it was a darned good thing I was sitting down when I read these words written by Garrison Keillor:
I’m a radio man for thirty-some years
Doing an old variety show
Stolen from some I used to hear
When I was your age, long ago.
Critics pointed out my debts
To Bob & Ray and Garry Moore
But alcohol and cigarettes
Shoved those critics out the door.
And to twenty-year-olds who were born
Too late to hear the great Fred Allen,
I’m the creator of the form,
Sailing the airways like Magellan.
If a thief escapes and is not hung
He may be honored by the young.
— Garrison Keillor
What a great way to pay tribute to those who paved the cultural roads upon which we travel, wryly acknowledging that such tribute may be honest and honorable, but may never be judged legal. And to beg the question: had Fred Allen been as jealously protective of his variety format as others have been about their “intellectual property,” what, if anything, might we be listening to today?
Again it is clear that to be sustainable, culture itself must allow for some recycling. Keillor recognizes that, and he teaches us—prods us—in his own special way, to not forget this fact. Thus, he strengthens the integrity of his art and the integrity of his audience at the same time. And therein lies a second lesson: in all probability, it is infinitely more likely that art and culture exist in a context that is either growing stronger or weakening. Put another way, the chance that all the forces of the universe remain eternally in equilibrium around a given art in a given culture is virtually nil. Thus, to protect his art, to ensure his culture endures, Keillor is willing to err on the side of strengthening his institution, not selling it short and taking profits off the table. So good for him, and good for those who follow down his path!
P.S. The beauty of the Creative Commons licensing choices are that they provide creators and performance with a wider range of legal options than outright thievery or cultural suicide.