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They Sang for Norway

They Sang for Norway

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Olaf Oleson's Immigrant Choir

Author Ane-Charlotte Five Aarset

Minnesota Historical Society Press (June 1, 2017)

From choir singing to supporting guerrillas—the story of a Norwegian immigrant in America and the struggle for independence back home.


They were brothers from Norway’s “Red County.” One was a guerrilla leader, the other a president of a singing association. One emigrated to America, the other stayed home to fight for Norwegian independence. Both had an impact on their nation’s history. This is the story of the one who left.

Olaf Martin Oleson was among the hundreds of thousands of Norwegians who emigrated to the United States during the nineteenth century. With strongly rooted connections to the homeland, Oleson settled in the Midwest and became a successful businessman, philanthropist, and politician. He also helped form influential organizations in his new land, including the Norwegian-American Historical Association and the Norwegian Singers’ Association of America. With the choir group, Oleson shared songs of his native Norway throughout North America—while raising money to support the illegal army and new political party forming back home in the fight for liberation from Sweden.

In They Sang for Norway, Ane-Charlotte Five Aarset tells the story of O. M. Oleson—her great-grand-uncle—and his contributions to the politics and culture of two nations. It is an immigrant’s tale, an exploration of Norwegian-American life, and the story of music’s importance to a community and people.

Author information

Ane-Charlotte Five Aarset is a journalist and author in Norway. Her book Skyttergeneralen (The Marksman General) earned her Freelance Journalist of the Year honors in Norway in 2005. She is also the author of Kavaleristen (The Cavalryman).

Reviews and news

They Sang for Norway represents a major study of the Norwegian immigrant community and its close relationship to the homeland. Ane-Charlotte Five Aarset insightfully shows how the male chorus movement became one of the most national and influential cultural transfers from Norway to the Norwegian American community. Aarset in addition relates an often overlooked aspect of the choirs: their politically liberal patriotism to the fatherland. Highly recommended.”
Odd S. Lovoll, Professor Emeritus of History, St. Olaf College

In the media:

"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 Norwegian American

"The shift in focus from success in the United States to the larger context of Norwegian identity- is interesting and refreshing; often the immigrant success story seems to leave the homeland behind. Being reminded of the continuing connections between immigrant communities and the politics of the homeland is an important part of this text. . . . For those interested in the place of immigration history in the development of Iowa, this will be an invaluable contribution. Oleson's life had a lasting impact on Fort Dodge. The author provides detailed historical evidence about his life and contributions, including extensive accounts of his business dealings, names of his associates, details of the programs of each choir concert, and each trip he took. This level of detail and the inclusion of all the archival research will be invaluable to others researching related topics. . . . I appreciated the detailed treatment of the history of Fort Dodge and Oleson' s impact on the male choir movement; on the historically important context of nationalism and immigrant identity and on the interesting ways communities retained links to their homeland, I would have liked to read more."
The Annals of Iowa

"They Sang for Norway succeeds as the long overdue biog­raphy of a remarkable emigrant entrepreneur, philanthropist, choral singer and composer, civic-minded American, and tireless advocate for Norwegians in the Old and New Worlds. . . . Oleson's full life emerges chronologically through fifty-two short chap­ters, roughly half of which focus on or include music and songs. A lucid writer and able researcher, Aarset draws masterfully upon primary sources (public records, singing society publications, newspaper accounts, letters, memoirs), most of them in Norwegian, as well as a wealth of rare and vivid illustrations from archives on both sides of the Atlantic. Her family connection and Norwegian perspective provide significant dimensions throughout. . . . Skillfully telling both sides of an undiminished transatlantic story, Aar­set demonstrates how the free exchange of peoples and ideas across borders enriched both nations-especially through Oleson's encounters with such Norwe­gian artists and intellectuals as Bjørnsterne Bjørnson, Ole Bull, and Edvard Grieg. Aarset likewise illuminates important issues, debates, and paradoxes regarding cultural and linguistic pluralism that emerge, then and now, from the experiences and actions of immigrants."
James P. Leary in Norwegian-American Studies

Fargo Forum

Fort Dodge Today (p. 22)

  • This title is also available at your favorite e-book vendor.
  • 288 pages
  • 75 b&w photos and illustrations, notes, index, bibliography
  • 6x9 inches
  • ISBN: 9781681340470

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