Book review: “They Sang for Norway”

Melinda Bargreen
Everett, Wash.

Two Norwegian brothers from the so-called Red County of Nord-Trøndelag took two different directions with their lives: One stayed in Norway, organizing guerrilla forces in his country’s struggle for independence after more than four centuries of Danish and Swedish rule.

The other, Oluf Martin Olsen Five (later called Olaf Martin Oleson), emigrated to America, joining the hundreds of thousands of Norwegians who flocked to these shores during the 19th century—and contributed funds and other support to those fighting for the independence of their homeland back in Norway.

Author Ane-Charlotte Five Aarset is the great-granddaughter of Ole, the brother who stayed in Norway; this comprehensive history tells the story of her emigrating great-grand uncle, Olaf M. Oleson. And what a story it is! Oleson was a farm worker, herbalist, American pioneer, then pharmacist and entrepreneur. He was a singer, promoter of Norwegian Male Choruses, donor to Norwegian independence efforts, and early shareholder in the Norwegian American Line—and those are only a few highlights of Oleson’s story.

Soon after his 1870 emigration to the U.S., Oleson arrived in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and as he prospered, he concentrated on helping others. He established a church, a department store, and a park, among other enterprises. He co-founded utilities companies and arranged a meeting between Norwegian student singers and President Theodore Roosevelt; he brokered a commissioned song from composer Edvard Grieg, and he revisited Norway with 20,000 Norwegian male chorus members from America. He was asked to run for Congress but declined. Oleson even became a composer; the book includes his choral setting of the famous poem “In Flanders Fields.”

Oleson married twice; after he was widowed, he married a woman 20 years his junior—“the richest girl in town,” according to the author. Most of all, he promoted (and sang in) Norwegian male choruses, whose fundraising efforts helped many causes besides Norwegian’s struggle for independence from Sweden. They sent money to hurricane relief efforts in October of 1899 (believe it or not, hurricanes do occasionally hit Norway); they donated funds to rebuilding efforts when the city of Ålesund burned down a few years later.

And, beginning in 1898, Oleson and his fellow singers organized vast Norwegian-chorus events on a scale that scarcely seems possible today. The first such all-Norwegian festival was presented that year in Duluth, Minnesota, and the movement spread rapidly. Those Norwegian Americans weren’t just singing, either: During the years 1900-1914, the author estimates that donations channeled through banks and post offices, plus direct cash payments to private individuals, corresponded to “about a quarter of the Norwegian national budget per year.” Indeed, “they sang for Norway.”

This colorful history, well illustrated and crammed with interesting facts, tells a fascinating story of considerable interest to Norwegian Americans—illustrating the vital importance singing had for our forebears and the success that it is possible to achieve with determination and imagination. The extent of Oleson’s philanthropy, and its continuing impact, is outlined in a final chapter that is indeed a tribute to the American dream: that an impoverished immigrant can succeed in making a better life for not only his own family in his own time but for countless others both at home and abroad.

They Sang for Norway: Olaf Oleson’s Immigrant Choir, by Ane-Charlotte Five Aarset. Translated by Roald Aarset. Minnesota Historical Society Press, $24.95 (paperback).

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 8, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Melinda Bargreen

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based writer and composer whose career at The Seattle Times began in 1977. Her choral works include the “Norwegian Folksong Suite.” Melinda contributes to many publications and is the author of Seattle Opera’s forthcoming 50-year history book. She holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Washington in Seattle, and a doctorate in English from the University of California, Irvine.