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American culture took a sharp turn when the guitar took supremacy over the keyboard. I was a teenager, I remember it. Little Richard sat down at the piano in 1955 and tore the joint apart with “Tutti Frutti” (A wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom!) and Jerry Lee Lewis did the same with “Great Balls of Fire” but Elvis, who could play piano, picked up a guitar as a prop, and a nice Jewish kid in Hibbing, Minnesota, decided to be an alienated loner cowboy poet and a whole generation of angry heroes with Stratocasters emerged and there went the ball game.

The piano is not a loner instrument. It requires a piano tuner and piano movers. It is a piece of furniture. Playing piano implies home ownership. You can’t put it on the back of your motorcycle. The piano has social standing; it belongs in church or school or a barroom. It is an instrument around which people gather. Whereas the guitar became the instrument of alienation. Your parents wanted you to take piano lessons with Mrs. Lindquist but you went to a junk shop and bought a Sears Silvertone used for $7 and got a Mel Bay chord book from the library and sat in your bedroom and taught yourself to play a G chord and a D7 and then started writing your own songs, about being misunderstood and mistreated and hoping to find a woman to leave this town with and head down the highway.

I know people who wound up leading regimented lives in large organizations who nonetheless imagined themselves as loner cowboys and maybe this is why my generation screwed up so royally.

The guitar took over during the Eisenhower administration but Ike was a general, not a guitarist, and alienation didn’t win the White House until the guy with monumental hair who put together a winning majority of alienated voters. He was a loner at heart, a victim of witch hunts and media conspiracies, and he was adored by enormous crowds and he glowed in their adoration. He never was an accompanist, he was himself, a genius, a winner, a hero. He was a great lead guitarist though he never touched a tuning peg.

People were sick of government, of process and tradition and all the rigmarole and mickeymouse. Done with it. Bobby Zimmerman never intended to take over his dad’s appliance business. My generation was suspicious of all things corporate and we all had guitar fantasies like Bobby’s, of leaving town and following our heart and becoming an artist, letting our hair grow long, wearing cowboy clothes, making our own rules, living free.

I know people who wound up leading regimented lives in large organizations who nonetheless imagined themselves as loner cowboys and maybe this is why my generation screwed up so royally. Brilliant loners invented fabulous electronic gizmos but in the fields of social betterment requiring consensus, we’re a mess, and this is what opened the door to an angry alienated rock ’n’ roll president.

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Uncle Joe is the opposite of alienated, a dog owner and churchgoer, who’s spent most of his working life listening to other people talk. He’s a sing-along guy.

I make no judgment about any of this. I think old people should shut up and leave politics to the young and spend our time dozing on a porch and watching for scarlet tanagers. This is not about politics, it���s about instruments. I feel the nation needs more pianists.

I went to a Bruce Springsteen concert once where he sat solo on stage and accompanied himself at the piano and sang new songs and you could feel the audience’s dissatisfaction, wanting the Boss to reach into that piano and pull out a guitar and play “Born To Run.” It was brave of him to do a show at the piano but they wanted him to be a standard alienated rock ’n’ roll hero.

Little Richard sang, “Shake, baby, shake,” but really he was singing gospel about the joy that Jesus can bring, and my generation passed that up and chose the guitar and got moody and introspective and along came pseudo-intellectual stuff like “My Back Pages” and “Imagine” and though the Beatles ventured into gospel with “Help!” the choice of alienated cowboy over gospel preaching defined my generation and changed America.


Pop music is about the supremacy of youth and fighting for independence in a world that doesn’t understand you and gospel tells us to give up power, unplug that guitar, don’t be alienated, gather around the piano and find your joy with the others. Loss is gain. Be grateful for everything, for Daisy who drove you crazy, for the wop bop a loo bop, and all the shaking going on. It was all good.

Garrison Keillor
Prairie Home Productions