After hearing that a plaster ceiling in Emily Dickinson's house had collapsed, Garrison Keillor asked how he could help. His Dec. 9, 2010, benefit performance in Johnson Chapel was the answer.

The most famous shy person

By Emily Gold Boutilier

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The carriage held but just ourselves—
And Immortality.

What genius thought to sing an Emily Dickinson poem to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”? Apparently, English majors everywhere have been doing it for years, but the phenomenon somehow passed me by—until Garrison Keillor came to campus and crooned “Because I could not stop for Death.”

Keillor is host of the Minnesota Public Radio show A Prairie Home Companion. When news spread last year that the plaster ceiling in the parlor of Dickinson’s house—part of the college-owned Emily Dickinson Museum on Main Street in Amherst—had collapsed, he asked how he could help. His Dec. 9, 2010, benefit performance in Johnson Chapel, which raised $35,000 for the museum, was the answer.


Speaking to a full house, Keillor ruminated on “the most famous shy person in America.” He read from her letters and poems, recited parodies (“Because I could not stop my bike, I ran into a tree...”) and offered his take on her well-known reclusiveness, which he described as “simply letting go of the scaffolding, of things she didn’t need anymore.” He spoke of the poet’s religious crisis—“She cannot walk a line she doesn’t believe”—as “a great engine pushing her in her life.”

Keillor closed by leading the audience in the 1964 Temptations hit “My Girl,” and, because the occasion marked the 180th anniversary of the poet’s birth, “Happy Birthday.” The crowd sang along willingly and with passion.   

See for yourself
CDs and DVDs of the Garrison Keillor performance are available for sale, with proceeds benefitting the museum. For details go to the museum’s website, www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org. The site also includes, among other things, visitor information (opening day is March 31), a poem of the week and 12 “starter poems.”

Photos by Jessica Mestre ’10