Norwegians of all ages mourn the passing of singer-songwriter Lillebjørn Nilsen, who died on January 27. He was 73. Nilsen was laid rest on Friday during a special ceremony at Oslo’s City Hall, in a public homage to his numerous songs about people, places and life in the Norwegian capital.
Nilsen died just weeks after Ole Paus, another much-loved singer who passed away in December. Both men were representatives of visebølgen, a wave of young talent that emerged with their voices and acoustic guitars during the 1960s.
Through a career that spanned six decades, Nilsen worked both solo and with other musicians and groups including Gitarkameratene, “(The Guitar Buddies”) a collaboration with fellow veterans Øystein Sunde, Jan Eggum and Halvdan Sivertsen who were among those playing at the memorial service at Oslo’s City Hall on Friday.
Nilsen is credited with teaching “half of Norway” to play the guitar from his songbook, first published in 1973. It has reached a total circulation of an estimated 200,000 copies, the highest of any Norwegian educational music book ever.
“I have sung his songs out loud, and I’ve sung the same songs to my daughter. He has been a big part of my life,” Norway’s Minister of Culture Lubna Jaffery told state broadcaster NRK on her way to the memorial.
At the request of Nilsen’s family, there was no broadcast from the ceremony itself. There was room for 900 people inside the same impressive room that hosts the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, but many were left standing outside in bitterly cold winter weather.
Nilsen was a multi-talent in his field, playing several instruments including banjo, ukulele, flutes and the traditional Hardanger fiddle besides his guitar. He composed and wrote his own songs, and brought a new dimension to traditional Norwegian heritage tunes by blending them with his own, more timely style.
Lillebjørn also translated songs written by colleagues abroad, including some by the American Pete Seeger who was his friend and key inspirator. One such song was Barn av regnbuen (literally” Children of the rainbow,” originally titled My Rainbow Race by Seeger). It sparked an unusual protest in 2012 when a young extremist right-wing Norwegian terrorist and mass murderer referred to it during his trial in court. He claimed Nilsen’s song was being used to brainwash Norwegian school children into embracing a multi-cultural society.
Reaction was swift: Word went out that Nilsen, after consulting with Seeger, would sing the song during the lunch hour at Youngstorget, one of Oslo’s main public squares, and an estimated 40,000 disgusted Norwegians gathered to “take the song back” and sang it together before heading back to work.
Nilsen wrote several other children’s songs, having a major hit in 1983 with Haba haba.
Lillebjørn (“Little Bjørn/Bear”) was a nickname he earned early on when working with a fellow musician, Bjørn Morisse, in a duo called “The Young Norwegians.” Morisse was the taller of the two and became Storebjørn (“Big Bjørn/Bear”), inspiring Nilsen to become Lillebjørn for the rest of his life. His full name was Bjørn Falk Nilsen. The duo had some success, releasing two albums and a few singles.
As his fame grew, Nilsen was offered the lead role in a feature movie, the 1969 Himmel og Helvete (“Heaven and Hell”). Despite its noble aim of scaring young people from taking deadly illegal drugs peddled by evil foreigners, the finished movie got such a poor reception that Nilsen was forced to condemn it. It’s widely seen as a kalkun, which is the Norwegian word for a remarkably poor movie – a “turkey”.
For many years, Nilsen played with flutist Steinar Ofsdal, who has credited Nilsen with introducing him to Norwegian heritage music. The two toured the US and played at Nordland Fest in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A recording of the concert was released as a live album.
He joined fellow musicians composing music to the work of Rudolf Nilsen (no relation), an early 20th century communist poet who wrote about the tough lives of Norway’s emerging industrial working class. The effort resulted in an album, På stengrunn, which became a soundtrack of sorts to the radical politics of the restive 1970s. One of Nilsen’s contributions to the album was Gategutt (“Street boy”), a song about the struggle for survival on Oslo’s streets. It became a radio hit. Nilsen had earned street credibility himself, having grown up in Ila, a working class neighborhood in Oslo’s inner city. He went on to write more on Oslo, creating a string of songs that became classics. One such Oslo song, Bysommer (“City Summer”), praises the good life in the capital during the summer lull when “everybody” is busy going somewhere else.
Nilsen could be seen as an Oslo urbanist even before the term was invented. In an NRK documentary, he spoke of the songbook he and the other city kids were offered in primary school: It depicted a Norway that was full of fjords, mountains and valleys, but none of the songs mentioned city streets. So Nilsen went to work telling Oslo’s stories, and was good at it.
“He supplied Oslo people with self-confidence and pride at a time when it supposedly was more fun to live in the countryside than in the city,” fellow musician Lars Klevstrand wrote in an obituary in Klassekampen.
Nilsen did glorify countryside life at least once, though, in a loosely translated version of Paul and Linda McCartney’s Heart of the country in 1979. At the time, he worked with Klevstrand, Birgitte Grimstad and Åse Kleveland in a group called Ballade. Interviewed by newspaper Klassekampen, Kleveland described Nilsen as “the poetic engine” of their group. He also brought a pile of different instruments with him to play.
“He was so curious. Most musicians settle for one single genre of music, but with Lillebjørn, you never knew. He had an enormous spectre (of ideas),” said Kleveland, a former Minister of Culture herself.
Kleveland was present at Nilsen’s memorial service on Friday. “He leaves behind a legacy which will make him live on for a long time,” she told NRK.
Columnist Audun Vinger isn’t so sure, commenting in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv that those who grew up with Nilsen’s children’s songs must be grownups by now. “Both parents and schools will have to work very hard to make Lillebjørn Nilsen’s songs able to compete with the intense impressions that children of the 2020s prefer. Perhaps Grappa, his record company, will have to hire a content manager to get its arms around TikTok,” Vinger wrote.
Nilsen’s debut as a solo recording artist came in 1971 with an album oddly titled Tilbake (“Back”), with a cover photo not of himself but of his father. His last album with new music came in 1993. He kept doing concerts, and most times he received a hero’s welcome. But it also became evident that lifestyle and health issues were taking their toll. In 2013, he collapsed on stage during a Gitarkameratene concert in Bergen.
Nilsen was married four times. He had two daughters. One of them, Siri Nilsen, is also a musician and would sometimes join her father on stage.
Throughout his career, Nilsen was honored with many prizes, including the recording industry’s Spellemannsprisen which he won six times. In 2022, he was knighted by King Harald for his artistic contributions.