Ode to Lillebjørn

Norway bids a folk hero farewell

Ode to Lillebjørn Nilsen
Photo: Cornelius Poppe
Lillebjørn Nilsen greeted his fans at Rockefeller in Oslo in 2007.

Tove Andersson

Oslo’s beloved son Lillebjørn (“Little Bear”), Bjørn Falk Nilsen, was born on Dec. 21, 1950. He had a gentle voice, a slightly grief-stricken gaze and a place in everyone’s hearts.

He was a composer and lyricist, a fiddler, a vocalist as well as painter and was one of the leading figures in Norwegian folk music. His storytelling came from his hometown Oslo. His lyrics often function as short stories, naming streets and places in the city.

But he also had musical collaborations that crossed borders, like the one with American folk legend Pete Seeger, translating many of his songs into Norwegian.

Lillebjørn’s voice was warm with a soothing effect on the listener. At his funeral in Oslo, Culture Minister Lubna Jaffery said, “His music and warm voice have brought joy and comfort to generations.”

Photo: Bjørn Sigurdsøn / NTB
In 2007, Lillebjørn Nilsen received the “City Patriot” prize in Oslo.

Most Norwegians who play guitar are familiar with Lillebjørn’s Guitar Book, a guitar manual of which 200,000 copies have been sold. This classic book includes drawings that show how techniques should be applied for the best sound.

Today, Lillebjørn’s songs are a part of every Norwegian’s upbringing: “Tanta til Beate,” “Se alltid lyst på livet,” “Stilleste gutt på sovesal 1,” and “Alexander Kiellands plass.”

Throughout his career, Lillebjørn focused on combining folk music with traditional Norwegian music, American rock ’n’ roll and ethnic music. He was a member of Ballade! and Gitarkameratene (The Guitar Comrades), a popular group with Øystein Sunde, Jan Eggum, and Halvdan Sivertsen.

Photo: Jan Greve / NTB
Lillebjørn Nilsen was a member of Gitarkameratene. Pictured from left to right are Jan Eggum, Øystein Sunde, Halvdan Sivertsen, and Nilsen.

In addition to playing guitar and singing, the troubadour both painted and illustrated. His father started the country’s first graphic screen-printing business, and in the late 1990s, “Little Bear” traveled to Chicago to attend the Art Institute. There he met Bob Dylan, a meeting described in his blog:

“Bob turned the mic over and started with his back to us. He brought forth the old Tom Dooley in D major! Fun… Eventually, Bob turned the microphone and smiled at us. Even more fun. Then he kept going for two hours without a break.”

Lillebjørn Nilsen
Photo: Ola Næss
In the summer of 1985, a young Lillebjørn Nilsen was seen in action in the“Rock on The Dock” concert in Oslo.

Lillebjørn released recordings between 1971 and 2012 and about 10 guitar books. Among many curiosities, he remade “Hey Jude” into “Hei Knut.” It should be noted that he sang in Norwegian wherever he was in the world.

Throughout his career, the beloved Norwegian artist received many awards, including the prestigious Spellemannspris (the Norwegian equivalent to the Grammy), and he was awarded the Prøysen Prize, the Julius Prize, and the Norwegian Book Art Award, and the St. Hallvard Medal, the City of Oslo’s highest award for the love for Oslo described in his songs.

In 2022, he was appointed Knight of the First Class of the Order of St. Olav. On that occasion, a press release from Oslo Municipality read: “The award is based on the fact that Lillebjørn Nilsen has created songs and music that portray life in Oslo. The songs have become public domain, and they are used for singalongs all over the country.”

Lillebjørn Nilsen
Photo: Heiko Junge / NTB
In 2012, Lillebjørn Nilsen was greeted by a crowd of 40,000 at Youngstorget in Oslo, who came to remember the 69 young people who died at the hand of Anders Behring Breivik at Utøya on July 22, 2011. He sang his beloved Norwegian rendition of Pete Seeger’s “My Rainbow Race,” “Barn av regnbuen.”

But it was a very special song that would unite the nation after the tragedy at Utøya on July 22, 2011. Lillebjørn Nilsen had called the originator of the tune “My Rainbow Race,” Pete Seeger, to ask for advice. He asked him if he should perform his version, the beautiful “Barn av regnbuen” before 40,000 mourning people in Oslo.

Seeger told him that he believed that it was the Norwegian’s duty to perform it. The song will forever be a reminder of the strength and the love that Lillebjørn gave to the Norwegian people.

Lillebjørn’s lyrics differ slightly from Seeger’s, expressing a strong affirmation of his love for life and humankind:

En himmel full av stjerner.

Blått hav så langt du ser.

En jord der blomster gror.

Kan du ønske mer?

Sammen skal vi leve.

Hver søster og hver bror.

Små barn av regnbuen

Og en frodig jord.

A sky full of stars

Blue seas as far as you can see

An Earth where flowers grow

Can you wish for anything more?

Together we shall live

Every sister and every brother

Like little children of the rainbow

And a peaceful Earth.

Norway’s folk hero Lillebjørn Nilsen died on Jan. 27, 2024, in Oslo. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

Listen to Lillebjørn sing “Barn av regnbuen”:

See also “Good night, Lillebjørn,” The Norwegian American, April 2024.

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Tove Andersson

Tove Andersson is a freelance journalist who writes about travel and culture. She conducts interviews for the street magazine Oslo while writing poetry and fiction. Jeg heter Navnløs (My name is nameless) was published in 2020. Her website is www.frilanskatalogen.no/frilanstove, and she can be reached at tove.andersson@skrift.no.