I caught Prairie Home Companion on tv last Tuesday; Robert Altman's last film, starring M. Streep, K. Kline, W. Harrelson, L. Lohan, L. Tomlin, and PHC's founder himself G. Keillor. When it was released, I didn't get to see it on the big screen, it's a movie that lends itself well to the cosiness of the small screen. It's a movie about the making of the radio show of the same name, which is broadcast on public radio in the US, with a plot twist. The radio show as I remember it during my college days was sometimes hokey, but always entertaining. Puns, gentle literary humor, music, storytelling, all performed live in front of an audience one hears on air through their applause. Mr. Keillor's voice projects as the tranquil embodiment of the Midwest, very trustworthy in its bass grumble.
While the story was somewhat forgettable, I enjoyed listening to the folk songs performed by the actors. Didn't realize that it was Woody Harrelson until I heard him speak, he seemed shorter than I thought, and paired very well as Dusty to John C. Reilly's Lefty, two cowboys twanging their guitars and singing about all sorts of silliness (cowboy toilet humor). Ms. Streep has shown off her singing chops in previous films, so it comes as no surprise that she warbles as well as she does. She and her sister, played by Ms. Tomlin (her alto harmonizing against Streep's soprano), sing songs in dedication to their mother.
A few weeks back, I recall listening to a podcast about a musical ethnographer in the US who recorded a lot of folk music and ditties throughout the eastern seaboard and the south. He played samples of it through the presentation, and the voices were untrained but charming. Short spurts of it are enough to enjoy, listening to the words, the backyard noises, the underlying melodies. A lot of these songs will probably end up disappearing without the help of academic recordings, or shows like Prairie Home Companion.
Last month, the school I work for hosted a student music camp, and one particular workshop and concert dealt with tribal music, the facilitator (whose name I can't recall) is a dedicated Filipina ethnographist who has studied indigenous music around the country, hoping to save some of it before it all dies out. She taught the students about the links between music, the self, and storytelling without a lot of big instruments or fancy add ons. It was magical for the students to work with basic tools and sounds and learn how to make music through their own sense of rhythm. The students raved about the eye opening themes they picked up from her; I thought how wonderful it would be if their parents could have joined them in that eureka moment.