Norwegian Music Legend Lillebjørn Nilsen
Born: 21 December 1950
Also known as: Bjørn Nilsen, Bjørn Falk Nilsen
Bjørn Falk Nilsen: vocalist, guitarist, fiddler, composer and lyricist, born in Oslo on 21 December, 1950. Lillebjørn is one of the leading figures in Norwegian folk music. He interprets the times in which he lives through his songs – songs that have become a part of the Norwegian identity. Lillebjørn Nilsen’s guitar manual has also helped thousands of Norwegians learn to play the guitar.
Lillebjørn Nilsen has a unique ability to convey his thoughts, feelings and memories warmly and honestly, without being sentimental. His voice is pleasant, and expresses a sense of wonder, while also having a comforting and soothing effect on the listener. His lyrics often function as short stories, describing everyday situations as though they were globally influential events. His melodies are simple and catchy, but are usually presented in arrangements that reveal the artist’s versatility and exceptional musicality.
Lillebjørn has achieved success as a solo artist as well as in duo, trio and quartet formats. He has accomplished enough on his own to merit the title “king of folk music,” but has also been a member of extremely successful ensembles such as Ballade! and Gitarkameratene (Guitar Comrades). Throughout his career he has focused on combining folk music with Norwegian traditional music, American rock ’n’ roll and ethnic music, enabling him to reach all types of people in every age group and social class. He has received a number of awards for record sales, is a four-time winner of the Spellemannspris (the Norwegian Grammy), and has been awarded the Prøysen Prize, the Julius Prize and the Norwegian Book Art Award.
Lillebjørn began to play when he found a broken guitar in the attic of his apartment building. His public debut took place at the age of 14 in his school’s gymnasium, where he played “Tom Dooley.” Not long after this, he wrote his first song: “Danse, ikke gråte nå” (“Dance, Do Not Weep Now”). He was a member of the legendary Dolphins folk music club from its inception in 1965, and performed on TV for the first time later that year with Bjørn Morisse. Morisse was taller and older, and was called Store-Bjørn (Big Bear), while the younger Bjørn was called Lille-Bjørn (Little Bear). Later he adopted the name as his own, and removed the hyphen.
Morisse and Nilsen formed the group The Young Norwegians (with Steinar Ofsdal joining later), releasing a few singles on the Troll label followed by two albums. Things On Our Mind came out in 1967 on the Triola label, and featured Kari Svendsen on a few tracks. The following year Polydor released the group’s album Music. Ofsdal had by now become a member, but the group was dissolved at the beginning of 1969. After that, Lillebjørn continued his education, graduating from music school, and began his career as a writer. The first of his many song collections was published that year, followed by Lillebjørns gitarbok (Lillebjørn’s Guitar Book), which has for many years been the most important guitar instruction manual published in Norway.
During this period Lillebjørn had his first film role in Himmel og Helvete (Heaven and Hell), and also began working with other musicians including Birgitte Grimstad, Finn Kalvik, Lars Klevstrand and Hege Tunaal. He toured in Sweden, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, England and the Netherlands as well as all over Norway. He was invited to participate in a festival of political folk songs in Berlin, but refused when he was informed that he would have to cut his hair in order to participate!
Lillebjørn recorded his first solo album in the course of two days in November, 1970. Tilbake (Back) had an extremely non-commercial cover, little information designed to promote sales, and only a black-and-white photo of the artist’s father on the front. Among the songs on the album was his tribute to his father, “Far har fortalt” (“Father’s Stories”). Finn Kalvik was a guest artist on the album, which was produced by Svein Erik Børja.
The year 1973 marked one of the most important years in Lillebjørn’s career. This was the year when he released one of his best records, participated in another, and launched the first edition of his guitar manual. Øystein Sunde produced Portrett (Portrait), which features some of Lillebjørn’s most famous songs, including “Gategutt” (“Street Boy”), “Alle Duene” (“All the Doves”), “Regnet er en venn” (“The Rain is a Friend”), “Ola Tveiten” and, not least, “Barn av regnbuen” – Lillebjørn’s Norwegian version of Pete Seeger’s “Rainbow Race.” Lillebjørn was awarded a Spellemanspris for this album.
A short time after Portrett was released, the manifesto På stengrunn (On Stony Ground), 16 songs by the working-class poet Rudolf Nilsen, was recorded by Lillebjørn together with Lars Klevstrand, Jon Arne Corell, Kari Svendsen, Steinar Ofsdal and Carl Morten Iversen. This record represented a milestone in Norwegian folk music, and became a reality thanks to Lillebjørn’s recording contract with Polydor. Johnny Sareussen produced this influential album. It was re-released by Grappa in 2001, with three bonus tracks, in connection with the 100th anniversary of Rudolf Nilsen’s birth.
Lillebjørn’s next project was the children’s record …og Fia hadde sko! (…And Fia Had Shoes) (1974), where he wrote new lyrics to melodies he remembered from his childhood. Again, Johnny Sareussen was the producer. “Haba haba” from this record was a number one single in 1974, and ensured the artist’s popularity among the younger crowd, too. The following year he released the album Byen med det store hjertet (The Big-Hearted City) (1975), with Øystein Sunde serving as both producer and participating musician. Among the tracks included on this album was a new recording of “Danse, ikke gråte nå.”
Lillebjørn resumed his collaboration with Steinar Ofsdal in 1976, presenting a programme of Norwegian folk songs on tour in Norway and abroad. The album Hei-fara! was recorded and released that year, with Sigmund Groven producing, and a concert recorded in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was released on the American label Skandisk Music in 1979. It was also released in Norway the following year. At the same time, Lillebjørn established the group Ballade! together with Lars Klevstrand, Åse Kleveland and Birgitte Grimstad. The quartet released two LPs, the second of which won a Spellemannspris in 1980. In the middle of this hectic period, Lillebjørn managed to record yet another strong solo album, Oslo 3 (1979), with Johnny Sareussen producing. Well-known favorites from this album include “Stilleste gutt på sovesal 3” (“Quietest Boy in Dormitory 3”), “Bysommer” (“City Summer”) and “Blues når du var 15” (“Blues When You Were 15”).
In the summer of 1980 Lillebjørn accepted a new challenge as a writer and the host of the TV series Ta pulsen på sommer-Oslo (Feeling the Summer Beat of Oslo). The following year he went to Stockholm to write new songs, which were presented on the album Original Nilsen in September, 1982. Here we met “Tanta til Beate” (“Beate’s Aunt”) and “Vinterbror” (“Winter Brother”), and sang enthusiastically along to “Crescendo i gågata” (“Crescendo in the Pedestrian Zone”) and “Se alltid lyst på livet” (“Always Look at the Bright Side”). The producer was once again Johnny Sareussen, while the ensemble backing the artist included such prominent musicians as Jonas Fjeld, Hot Club de Norvège, Freddy Lindquist and Brynjar Hoff. The album landed at the top of the charts, generated its own TV program, and brought Lillebjørn Nilsen his third Spellemannspris.
In the summer of 1984 Lillebjørn was again engaged by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, this time together with Øystein Sunde. The two folk-singing friends broadcast radio reports from a canoe trip. Then Lillebjørn recorded the album Hilsen Nilsen (Greetings From Nilsen) (1985), produced by Johnny Sareussen and featuring musicians such as Jonas Fjeld, Øystein Sunde and Lasse Hafreager. Once again, Lillebjørn drew inspiration from his own roots, delivering what has perhaps become his most heartfelt tribute to his home territory: “Alexander Kiellands Plass” (“Alexander Kielland’s Square”). Lakis Karnezis played the bouzouki on “Blå odyssé” (“Blue Odyssey”).
The twentieth anniversary of Lillebjørn’s first public appearance was celebrated with a compilation album and a songbook, both titled Tekst og musikk: Lillebjørn Nilsen (Lyrics and Music: Lillebjørn Nilsen) (1986). The book included 80 songs, and the record 15. Lillebjørn’s next album, Sanger (Songs) (1988), was more low-key and probing than his previous records. Prior to releasing the album he had written music for the film Blücher, and the song “Se deg aldri tilbake” (“Never Look Back”) appeared both in the film and on the album. But the launching of this record was overshadowed by the first tour of the four artists who would soon become known as Gitarkameratene.
The four solo artists Lillebjørn Nilsen, Øystein Sunde, Halvdan Sivertsen and Lars Klevstrand found themselves on the same stage during a folk music festival in Sarpsborg in the summer of 1987. This appearance was so successful that they decided to go on tour together. Klevstrand, however, had to back out because of other commitments. They replaced him with Jan Eggum, and the four troubadours toured under the name “Festkonsert” (“Concert Celebration”). When a recording of their concert in Bergen was released as an album in the spring of 1989, the quartet had been renamed Gitarkameratene. The following year the group released another album with new songs. Typisk norsk (Typically Norwegian) was an enormous success, and Gitarkameratene received two Spellemannspris awards in February, 1991: one for the record, and one as Artist of the Year.
Nilsen’s career reached a high point in 1990, when he appeared on stage together with his idol, Pete Seeger, at the Tønder Festival in Denmark. Seeger thanked Lillebjørn for having made his Norwegian version of Seeger’s “Rainbow Race” one of Norway’s most popular songs of all time. Later Lillebjørn was asked to proofread and comment on the manuscript of Pete Seeger’s autobiographical songbook, Where Have All the Flowers Gone.
On Nære Nilsen (Intimate Nilsen) (1993), his next album, he was joined by a number of prominent musicians, including all the members of Gitarkameratene as well as Lars Lillo-Stenberg and Geir Sundstøl. The album was produced by Sverre Erik Henriksen. Lillebjørn displayed his intense, dynamic and outspoken side on this record. “Gul og vissen” (“Yellow and Faded”) was written together with Lillo-Stenberg, “Fort gjort å glemme” (“It’s Easy to Forget”) was a candid acknowledgment of a minor handicap, “1000 søte damer!” (“1000 Pretty Women!) was a confession bordering on the suggestive, and “Hvor kommer alle cowboyene fra?” (“Where Do All the Cowboys Come From?”) was a critique of those Norwegians who cultivate everything American while they ridicule the authentic aspects of Norwegian culture.
An exceptionally productive solo career was summed up on the double-CD compilation 40 spor (40 Tracks) in 1996. In addition to 40 recordings from the years 1973 to 1993, the collection included two illustrated booklets of 40 pages each, presenting all the lyrics and the artist’s own stories and comments for each song. This compilation confirmed Lillebjørn Nilsen’s position as a leading figure in the field of Nordic folk music.
Lillebjørn Nilsen did not release any new records in the following decade. His only recordings during this period were in 2003, when he participated in a tribute album to Vidar Sandbeck, Gull ifra grønne skoger (Gold From Green Forests), where he presented two songs by himself and one together with Gitarkameratene. In addition to the recordings already mentioned, he has appeared on many compilations with various artists, including recordings made at folk music festivals in Haugesund, Västervik, Skagen, Ingelheim and Lenzburg, and on the record for the humanitarian campaign Sammen for livet (Together for Life). His guitar manual has been reprinted several times, and has also spawned a video, Lillebjørns gitartime (Lillebjørn’s Guitar Lesson) and a CD presenting examples of the music in the book.
Lillebjørn Nilsen has always written his songs in Norwegian, and has never ceased to be amazed by the fact that some Norwegian artists write in a foreign language (mainly English) things that they are unable to express in their own language. He often refers to the first song he ever wrote, “Danse, ikke gråte nå,” as an example of how it is possible to reach audiences all over the world even when you belong to a small language group: his songs have been recorded in Germany, England, Ireland and the USA as well as throughout Scandinavia.
Paradoxically, this most Norwegian of all Norwegian folk singers is also among the most international. He is inspired by music from all over the world, whether he finds it among Norwegian silversmiths or in Pakistani marketplaces, and has even managed to “bring coals to Newcastle” in the sense that his song “Tanta til Beate” has become a standard in the repertoire of Gypsy musicians in Paris.
Lillebjørn Nilsen is the father of singer-songwriter Siri Nilsen. In 2013 he was one of three artists who were inducted into the Rockheim Hall of Fame – a mark of honor for people and bands who have had an especially significant influence on the development and dissemination of Norwegian popular music.