Bridging Norways

Kai Robert Johansen’s recent visit to Norwegian America is a memory that will last a lifetime

Photo: Marte Hult
“One of my greatest memories from this trip was meeting 99-year-old Gerd, who was born in Oslo. She was so grateful and sang along with me. But I was the one who really benefited from meeting her.”

Leslee Lane Hoyum
Rockford, Minn.

The trees of northern Minnesota are on fire with gold and red leaves gently falling to the earth creating a carpet of topaz and garnet. The early morning dew glistens on the fields, and the refreshing scent of luscious farmland enlivens one’s soul. This is October in the Upper Midwest—a world where anything can happen—and it does each time Kai Robert Johansen brings fun-loving, warm-hearted, and talented performers from Østfold.

“It brings a new experience each time—and I mean it,” said Johansen as he and the Islandsmoen’s Men’s Choir, Moss, and vocalist Jannicke Heian Frølandshagen, Råde, under the direction of Hilde Everløff Andersen traveled throughout Minnesota and North and South Dakota the week of October 8.

Singing to full houses in a variety of venues, including country clubs, churches, a Sons of Norway lodge hall, a community college theater, and a remodeled opera house, the entertainers wowed their audiences, mostly composed of Norwegian Americans. Thirty-one percent of North Dakota’s population claims Norwegian heritage, 20 percent of Minnesota’s, and 15 percent of South Dakota’s. They are immigrants and the descendants of immigrants who came during the great emigration periods—1825 to 1925 and after World War II. Norwegian immigrants may have been desperately poor, but they hated leaving Norway. So, when they arrived in America, they created lots of “little Norways.”

Although the entertainers were fed mostly American foods, they soon found that their hosts were not strangers to krumkake, sandbakkelse, or lutefisk. Nor were they unfamiliar with the Norwegian national anthem, “Ja vi elsker,” or bunads. Perhaps more than any other European immigrants, Norwegian Americans carry on old-country traditions, even those that folks back in Norway have largely dropped, including Hardanger embroidery, rosemaling, acanthus carving, rømmegrøt luncheons, and lefse. And most surprising of all is hearing Norwegian dialects that long ago died in Norway.

“I have been truly fascinated with the Norwegian-American culture,” said Johansen. “It brings us all back to a simpler time, and we love it! People couldn’t be kinder. You can be at an American football game, in a museum, a grocery store, or at a gas station in a large or small city and almost everyone you meet has some connection to Norway, and they want to tell you about it. ‘My family is from Bodø; my son is married to a gal from Stavanger; I was born in Kristiansund; I have a cousin in Sarpsborg.’

“One of my greatest memories from this trip was meeting 99-year-old Gerd, who was born in Oslo,” continued Johansen. “She is the niece of Kristian Haugar, a brilliant Norwegian pianist, orchestra leader, and composer of popular music from the late 1920s to the mid-1950s. He wrote many familiar compositions, such as the prize-winning Charleston i Grukkedalen, Blåklokker, En Oslodag, En herre med bart, and Når kastanjene blomstrer i Bygdø Allé, many of which I play. It was an amazing afternoon.”

Although the performers’ primary focus was to entertain, they also found time to tour the Twin Cities, visiting Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Pipestone National Monument to learn about Native American culture; Forest City Stockade, a fort where Norwegian immigrants sought safety during the Sioux Indian Uprising of 1862; Fort Snelling, a military fort dating to Minnesota’s earliest days; the State Capitol; the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca; Norway House; Mindekirken; the Hjemkomst Museum; and, of course, Mall of America, the largest indoor shopping center in the U.S.

The tour was a win-win for all performers and their audiences. They were the perfect ambassadors not only for their hometowns but for all of Østfold. From a Norwegian perspective, I think Jannicke Heian Frølandshagen said it best: “I am sitting on the plane waiting to depart for home … now officially missing the gang already. What a great adventure I have had in the United States. It’s been a memory that will last a lifetime. Thank you!”

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 17, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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