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Fiddling in the Old Country

Area musician reconnects with family roots in Norway

July 18, 2010
By BILL ACKERBAUER, The Leader-Herald

FORT PLAIN - It's a long way from the Erie Canal to the fjords of Norway, but Dick Solberg recently made that trek, drawing connections between his home and his ancestors' homeland.

He traveled to the Scandinavian country last month, visiting relatives there and retracing in reverse the course sailed 185 years ago by the first organized group of immigrants from Norway to North America.

Solberg is a professional musician who has spent his career performing for audiences around the world, but this trip was special. He already had built a musical bridge between New York and Norway, having researched and written a theatrical production about the immigrants' journey. The show, "E-RI-E the Musical," tells the story of the group of Norwegians who crossed the Atlantic on a small sloop and eventually followed the inland waterways of New York, including the newly completed Erie Canal, in 1825.

Article Video

"The musical had two main purposes," Solberg said. "First, to entertain. Second, to teach about the canal's history and our New York state history."

The show was produced in May 2007 at Canajoharie High School's Arkell Performing Arts Center with local students as actors. Sarah Ells directed.

"They all tried to do a Norwegian accent," Solberg said. "I was delighted."

Article Photos

Photo courtesy of Haugesunds Avis

In this photo from the Norwegian
newspaper Haugesunds Avis, fiddler Dick Solberg is shown aboard the replica of the Restoration during a festival last month in Norway. Solberg, who lives near Fort Plain, wrote a musical about an early group of Norwegian immigrants who sailed to America on the Restoration and traveled from New York City along the Erie Canal to Buffalo.

Solberg, known near and far as the Sun Mountain Fiddler - his last name means "Sun Mountain" in Norwegian - said he incorporated a forbidden romance into the plot, making it "a 'Romeo and Juliet' on the Erie Canal."

While the actual immigrants' story did not end as tragically as Shakespeare's tale, their settlement in America had its share of slings and arrows.

Rigorous journey

Fact Box

On the road:

Dick Solberg and his Sun Mountain Band are preparing to hit the road for their annual tour of the Midwest. Before they leave, local fans can catch them at a few venues in and around the Capital Region:

July 18 at 9 p.m. - The Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge, Mass.

Friday, July 23, at 9 p.m. - Beardslee Castle, on Route 5, west of St. Johnsville.

Saturday, July 24, at 7 p.m. - The Inn at Saratoga, Saratoga Springs.

For additional tour dates and more information, see www.sunmountainfiddler.com

In early July 1825, a group of 52 people boarded the sloop Restoration at Stavanger, a port city on Norway's southwest coast. Three months later, when they landed in New York City, they had increased their number to 53 - a baby was born on the high seas.

Solberg says the hardships these pilgrims must have faced are nearly unimaginable, especially considering the small size of their vessel: The Restoration was only 54 feet long from stem to stern.

"They must have been stacked like cordwood," he said.

Mostly Quaker farmers of modest means, the immigrants had planned to finance their settlements in the New World by selling their cargo of iron and the ship itself, but both were impounded by U.S. authorities in New York. The immigrants were told they had violated a maritime law limiting the number of passengers entering the country on a vessel depending on its size.

The leader of the group, Cleng Persson, saw them through this dilemma by appealing to American Quakers for assistance. The man has since risen to the status of folk hero among Norwegians and their American descendants.

"Cleng Persson was special," Solberg says. "He had a gift for languages ... he had charisma."

Eventually, the group's legal troubles were resolved, but not until after they spent a cold winter crammed into a tiny cabin near Kendall, outside Buffalo. Their journey from New York to Buffalo - northward up the Hudson River and westward on the Erie Canal - is the main focus of Solberg's musical.

The canal had just recently been completed, the conclusion of years of backbreaking labor done mostly by immigrants.

Solberg says the barge carrying the Norwegians must have passed a flotilla of vessels heading in the opposite direction carrying DeWitt Clinton, who was governor of New York and the political mastermind behind the construction of the canal. Originally derided as "Clinton's Ditch," the canal quickly became an economic superhighway for the state and was considered by many the eighth wonder of the world. That fall, Clinton and a party of dignitaries took a celebratory trip along the canal.

"They stopped for a party in every town along the way, including Fort Plain," Solberg said.

Clinton's victory cruise culminated in the Wedding of the Waters, a ceremony in which he poured water from Lake Erie into New York Harbor to mark the completion of his "ditch."

Dick Solberg's ancestors were not among those who made that 1825 trip on the canal - his people came to America later - but another group of Norwegians with Solberg genes made the same journey about a year ago, passing within a few miles of his home. Some of his cousins came from Norway to New York to take a heritage tour "in the footsteps of Cleng Perrson," tracing the original immigrants' canal route.

Solberg was on the road with his band at the time, so they did not connect during that visit, but he later made plans for a heritage tour of his own.

In June, Solberg and his wife, Dorine, went to Norway, where he met with relatives in and around Stavanger and stayed for three days at his family's farm on the small island of Fogn.

"We stayed on the family farm for three days," he said. "We had milk from the cow, fish from the fjords ... it was unbelievable."

On June 26, the fiddler was invited to perform songs from his musical at a Lock Day festival, a community-oriented event he describes as similar to the Canal Days celebrations conducted in the Mohawk Valley.

A photographer from a local newspaper, Haugesunds Avis, captured Solberg in a jaunty pose, fiddle at the ready, aboard the recently built replica of the Restoration, which was a central attraction of the festival.

Dorine said visiting Norway was an experience they won't forget.

"I was so glad to get to meet Dick's relatives," she said. "A roots trip is always fun."

Globetrotting performer

Dick Solberg's fiddle and his engaging personality have carried him around the world. In a career spanning more than 40 years, he has played music in more states and more countries than he can recall off the top of his head, from Edinburg, New York, to Edinburgh, Scotland, and from the Great Sacandaga Lake to the Great Wall of China.

He and his band have performed recently at the I-Go-Inn, a bar and restaurant in Edinburg (the one where shorts are more common than kilts).

Proprietor Henry Chelstowski described the Sun Mountain Fiddler as "a fantastic performer."

His sister, Helen Chelstowski, who helps run the I-Go-Inn, said Solberg has an engaging stage presence.

"He's phenomenal," she said. "He puts on a great show, and people just love him."

Solberg and his band are preparing to set out on a summer tour of the Midwest, a region that boasts more Norwegians than Norway itself.

"There are 13 pages of Solbergs in the Minneapolis phone book," he says, grinning.

Although his performance venues are spread out around the Midwest, many of them are familiar places, and he expects them to be filled with familiar faces.

"It's very rare for me to play for a slow house these days," he says, noting he has toured the Midwest for about 40 years.

Solberg escapes the upstate New York winter by performing in St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a working vacation he has enjoyed for 30 years.

When he performs away from home, he often saves money and beats homesickness by staying with friends - many of whom are longtime fans - rather than spending night after night in motels.

At the age of 62, he says, he still is able to tap into the positive energy of the fans.

"It's the circle of friends that I've built over the years that makes it possible," he says.

Dorine, who owns and manages the Picture Perfect Art Gallery in Canajoharie, spends winters in St. Thomas with her husband, but she doesn't often accompany him on his other travels. Traveling is just part of his job, she says, and they wouldn't have it any other way.

"I don't know anybody who loves their work more than my husband," she says.

Bill Ackerbauer is assistant city editor of The Leader-Herald. Find his blog, "Bill's Broadsides," online at www.leaderherald.com

 
 

 

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