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Celebrating ‘the Lutheran troubadour’

Wartburg College to host party for John Ylvisaker

John Ylvisaker continues to compose and record music in his retirement home in Waverly, Iowa. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

The composer of “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry” didn’t intend to create a new musical template for North American Lutheranism. In his youth John Ylvisaker was a fan of classical music and sang chorales in the Concordia College Choir in his hometown of Moorhead, Minnesota. He was a lover of J.S. Bach and had a complete set of Bach’s recorded works.

But then he found himself teaching music to students in public school. They didn’t love what he loved. So, overnight, Ylvisaker reinvented himself. He bought a guitar and learned to play it in less than a week.

And he never looked back.

Now at age 75, after a lifetime of helping Lutherans of all ages think differently about music, John Ylvisaker is about to be honored by his peers. On June 1-2, at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, “the Lutheran Troubadour” will be celebrated in a music festival in his honor. The college that recently awarded him an honorary degree will fete Ylvisaker in a festival of song. (See “A gathering of friends,” below, for details.)

Growing up with music

Ylvisaker’s pilgrimage is remarkable for several reasons. In the first place, he didn’t consider himself to be musical. “My Aunt Gudrun encouraged me when I was taking music lessons as a child,” he once told a journalist. “She promised to pay me every time I played a piece without mistakes. I never collected on that deal.”

But growing up near the Concordia College campus, in a professor’s family, he never missed a home concert of the college’s choir … except once. “My parents told me they’d leave without me if I wasn’t ready on time. The concert was in Fargo, across the river. I was hanging out an upstairs window, shouting at them to wait for me. It didn’t do any good.”

The earlier epiphany with the public school kids took place in Morris, Minnesota. A teaching job there in 1959 set him in a new direction. He came to realize that folk songs resonate with people in ways that “formal” music doesn’t.

While in Morris Ylvisaker helped organize a three-man performing group. “I was on guitar; a second was on spoons; the third on ukulele. All three of us vocalized in harmony.”

That began a musical performance trajectory that launched a new career for Ylvisaker, and he and his partners began doing concerts. They went on the road, singing in churches and other venues.

Steeped in a Lutheran churchly tradition, he wanted to understand why so many church members sang so poorly at worship. And why did teens and young adults just stop singing altogether?

Ylvisaker decided the music might be the problem. And the prevailing culture in the 1950s was part of that problem.

John Ylvisaker practicing his guitar in 1985. Photo courtesy John Ylvisaker

Steeped in a Lutheran churchly tradition, Ylvisaker wanted to understand why so many church members sang so poorly at worship.

“Folk music was popular in the ’50s,” he recalls. “There were the Weavers; the Limelighters; the Brothers Four; Peter, Paul and Mary; the Kingston Trio. And then came the Beatles and the Beach Boys. They changed everything.”

It occurred to Ylvisaker that folk and church music could be merged. By the end of the ’50s, the Second Vatican Council was about to be convened. That gathering of Roman Catholic leaders gave impetus to new music forms for worship.

“They knew that historical chant didn’t work anymore. Still, the leadership thought folk music in church was a passing fad. But then came musicians like the Medical Mission Sisters. They merged traditional music from the culture with music from the church.”

Just before Vatican II, Ylvisaker’s Norwegian Luth-eran denomination merged with two others to form The American Lutheran Church (TALC). Its newly-formed Youth Department included two highly-controversial clergy staff, John Schultz and Ewald Bash. Both took a liking to Ylvisaker’s new approach to music.

“Bash wrote a magazine article about what he called two significant folk singers with Minnesota roots — Bob Dylan and me. Then Mojo magazine said I was ‘the Dylan of the Bible Scene.’ In 1967, John Schultz and I collaborated on an album of religious folk music called ‘Cool Livin’. He wrote the text, I wrote the music. It’s become a cult hit in the United Kingdom.”

New music and the ALC youth division

Ylvisaker enrolled in Luther Seminary but later dropped out. Instead he went to the University of Minnesota for an advanced degree in music. One course was in “ethnomusicology” and the professor had studied the cultural music of South America. The course shaped Ylvisaker profoundly.

While in the Twin Cities he helped create a new music group, Three of a Kind. He remembers, “There was a Swedish Methodist, a Roman Catholic from Trinidad, and me — a Norwegian Lutheran.” The trio did concerts across the country.

When the Morris Nilsen Funeral Chapel in Richfield, Minnesota, organized a boy choir, Ylvisaker became its director. It allowed him to keep his finger on the pulse of “classical, churchly music.”

The ALC Youth Department wasn’t finished with Ylvisaker. They commissioned him and other musicians he rounded up to provide music for a string of national youth conventions. “Between 1964 and 2003, I wrote music for every youth gathering organized by the ALC and then the ELCA.”

The 1967 Dallas youth convention was especially memorable. “Each day featured a different season of the church year. We opened Pentecost with the song ‘Light my Fire.’ [The Rev.] David Preus, who was pastor of University Lutheran Church of Hope [in Minneapolis] at the time, danced in the aisles with his kids when we sang that song.”

Adds Ylvisaker, “Dallas solidified my reputation.”

But there were more such events, such as the New York convention in 1970. “For that one I put together a band with musicians from Texas, California, Minnesota, and New York. We played in a different hotel every night. Pete Seeger got the kids singing in Madison Square Garden that year.”

Some of what Ylvisaker tried was controversial. During another stint as a public school teacher in Buffalo, Minnesota, he converted the annual school holiday concert from traditional carols to edgy music, confronting the audience with issues about life and death, racism and social justice. There was some pushback, but he stood his ground, and his students backed him up.

In the spring there was a concert called “A Day in the Life of the Earth.” It used projected images and a sound track. “After that Christmas concert, they all showed up to see what I’d try next. There were 1,500 people in the audience. They were awestruck with what we had put together.”

After teaching at Buffalo, Ylvisaker signed on with the staff of the ALC Media Center in St Paul, Minnesota. Director Hal Dragseth was in the process of replacing a youth radio series, “Silhouette,” with a show called “Scan.” Ylvisaker became a key component in its success.

“We circulated weekly recordings to 1,200 radio stations. We interviewed all kinds of interesting people, including Hubert Humphrey. When the Scan team found out I wrote music, I became their resident composer. I wrote several hundred sound tracks for them.”

Decades of influence

In 1984, Dr. Richard Jensen, who was then the voice of “Lutheran Vespers” radio ministry, guided into production a video series about Christian baptism. Called “Reflections,” it needed music to accompany the pictures, and Ylvisaker was commissioned to write something. What he composed became his signature folk hymn, “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry.”

“Its popularity was a surprise,” Ylvisaker admits. “I was only trying to create a text to fit a video.” But the hymn is routinely ranked one of the most popular by Lutherans nearly 30 years after its composition. It has been translated into a half-dozen languages, appears in a wide spectrum of denominational hymnals, and, judging from mail Ylvisaker continues to receive, brings tears to the eyes of many who sing its evocative stanzas — describing the pilgrimage from birth, through life, to a blessed death.

“I think my best talent is in writing ballads,” Ylvisaker says. “Ballads are folk music. Even people who can’t read music can resonate with them.”

In his long musical career, Ylvisaker has written at least 1,000 songs, almost all of them with religious themes. He’s had several anthologies published and, before his health began to decline (ending his traveling), he had performed concerts and led workshops in 49 of the 50 states and completed over 320 musical tours.

Today he lives with his wife, Fern Kruger, in a retirement community within sight of the Wartburg College campus. A month from now his fan club — nobody knows how large it is — will gather there for a celebration of his life, legacy, and music.

A gathering of friends

Many of John Ylvisaker’s contemporaries in the field of religious folk music will be on hand for a music festival in his honor June 1-2, at Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa. A new generation of musicians will also attend “A Borning Cry Celebration” to perform, lead workshops, and participate in worship.
For details about this event or to register, visit www.borningcrycelebration.com.

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