Because I could not stop for Death--
He kindly stopped for me--
The carriage held but just ourselves--
I don’t remember when I first read those lines, but I won’t soon forget when I first heard them put to music—to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” no less. What genius thought to sing an Emily Dickinson poem? Apparently, English majors everywhere have been doing it for years, but the phenomenon somehow passed me by—I majored in history—until last week, when Garrison Keillor came to campus and crooned, “Because I could not stop for Death.”
Best known as host of the Minnesota Public Radio show A Prairie Home Companion, Keillor heard last year that the plaster ceiling in the parlor of Dickinson’s house—which is part of the college-owned Emily Dickinson Museum on Main Street in Amherst—had collapsed. He asked how he could help, and his Dec. 9, 2010, benefit performance in Johnson Chapel was the answer. I was in the crowd, covering the talk for the next issue of Amherst magazine.
In addition to singing to a full house, Keillor ruminated on “the most famous shy person in America.” He read from her letters and poems, recited his own 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 related his own childhood in Minnesota to Dickinson’s in 19th-century Amherst, finding similarities between a Christian revival meeting he once attended and those Dickinson would have encountered at Mount Holyoke. 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.”
“She is so close that we expect her to somehow justify her life and the choices she made,” he said of the poet—to explain why she wore white, why she stayed inside, why she’d stand at the top of her staircase and eavesdrop on conversations down below.
He closed by leading the audience in two songs: the 1964 Temptations hit “My Girl,” and, since the occasion celebrated the 180th anniversary of the poet’s birth, “Happy Birthday.” The crowd in Johnson Chapel sang willingly and with passion.
Emily Gold Boutilier is the editor of Amherst magazine.