Progress Notes

Joe Pryor - News Tribune Article Monday, June 04, 2007

Monday, January 28, 2008

Progress Notes

When you drive south on Highway 17 toward Iberia after you pass C highway going to Ulman you may remember seeing a sign on the right which says “Melody Lane.” I had been told that originally Melody Lane was the home of a famous gospel song writer who had an unusual name but I never knew much about it. The other day, as I was going through a scrapbook donated to the museum by Mrs. Russell Mobley, I came across an old newspaper article she had saved which tells the story of Melody Lane. I thought I would put that story on our website for others who may not have known much about Melody Lane as I myself didn’t. The story was written up in the Post Dispatch as follows:

Special to the Post-Dispatch December 8, 1948
Tuscumbia, Mo.

It is a long trail from Bergen, Norway to the Ozarks of south central Missouri, but Haldor Lillenas (photo 01) followed that path to financial and spiritual success. Now 60 years and 3000 songs later he tells his story, typically American, beginning with a poor immigrant boy who was born with a song in his heart and ending on his estate, Melody Lane.

01 Haldor Lillenas
01 Haldor Lillenas

Friend or stranger, who cares to follow State Highways 54 and 17 through the Miller County hills to the 500 acre country estate, 45 miles southeast of Jefferson City, will be warmly received by Mr. and Mrs. Lillenas.

The motorist driving along Highway 17 at a point midway between Tuscumbia and Iberia first notices a white board fence, then the entrance flanked on either side by high native stone columns and the sign, “Melody Lane.” A driveway winds among native trees, bird houses and bright blue vases, to completely encircle the spacious house, constructed of stone, and return eventually to the entrance gate (photo 02). Along this driveway, on the north side, is the new well house which protects machinery that furnishes water from a 600 foot well. On the west side is the small cabin used as a guest house now but once the dwelling of Mr. and Mrs. Lillenas while their modern home was being constructed. Parked beside the guest cabin is the house trailer which the song master and his wife use when making their numerous tours of this country. The cultivated land and the farm manager’s home is across the highway.

02 Photos of Haldor and Home
02 Photos of Haldor and Home
Click image for larger view

Haldor Lillenas greets his vistors with a quiet dignity that generates friendliness through sincerity. He is a slender man of medium height, with graying hair, and carries his 62 years lightly. He wears no conscious smile, but the calm inner peace that comes from a lifetime of kindness and spiritual communion is reflected from his strong pleasant face. He has the nervous mannerisms and the long slender fingers of the artist, but he manages to create for his visitors the welcome atmosphere of an Ozark neighbor.

Receiving the tea Mrs. Lillenas has so considerately brewed, the vistor asks the inevitable question:

“How did all this begin?”

The “all this” is the 3000 songs in the more than 50 volumes which the song writer has composed for church, home and radio and which have been translated into more than 20 different languages; a publishing business established, brought to success, and sold—and, of course, Melody Lane.

He tells the story simply. He was born near Bergan, Norway, in 1886, the son of a country storekeeper and a mother who sang for pleasure as she went about her household tasks. At the age of 2 he was brought across the North Atlantic by his parents to Northwestern Oregon two years later. At the age of 17, he began the study of bio chemistry, which he continued for four years, finding employment later in a chemical laboratory.

When his mother died, he left home to make his own way in the world. He joined the Nazarene church in 1908, and after attending Deets Pacific Bible College, he entered the ministry in California. He received most of his musical education at the Siegel Myers School of Music in Chicago. Here he completed a three year study of harmony, counterpoint and composition. It was while serving as pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene at Indianapolis, that Lillenas found it necessary to make a decision. He would have to give all his time to music composition or devote ful time to his pastorate. He elected to become a fulltime song writer and publisher. He founded the Lillenas Publishing Co. in Indianapolis in 1924. In 1930 he sold the assets of his company to the Nazarene Publishing House of Kansas City, with the proviso that he was to be retained as song editor and manager of the music department. He did this to free himself of the routine of business details and devote full time to music editing and composition. His next move was to find a quiet retreat where he could escape the noise and hurry of the city. He found it among the Miller County hills, and he has been enjoying it for the past 10 years.

Mrs. Lillenas, also an accomplished song writer, is a gracious host. The years, in passing, have dealt even more lightly with her than her husband. She is a talented, charming woman, unassuming and with the same friendly spirit of her husband. She is quite willing to let a steaming roast wait while Haldor patiently retells his story to a late staying visitor. It was more than 41 years ago that Berth Mae Wilson, daughter of Dr. W.C. Wilson, later General Superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene, met the young Scandinavian song writer while they both were attending a Los Angeles Bible College. They were married after graduation, and have labored together since as pastors, evangelists, singers and writers of sacred songs.

The living room is easily the hub of the Lillenas home. It is a large low ceilinged room, accessible by single entrance from anyone of a half dozen surrounding rooms. The outstanding feature is the large fireplace, built of rocks from 20 states and several foreign countries. On the mantle are vases of many sizes and colors; among them is a native Agaruna Indian vase which vies for attention with the slab of Italian marble and a curiously colored rock from Belgium. The fireplace is large enough to accept the cordwood length backlogs and foresticks. The construction is such that no matter how the wind blows the fireplace never smokes. An Ozark neighbor showed Lillenas how to build the fireplace in this manner. The sliding fire screen, which prevents fire from popping out on the wide stone hearth, is the music master’s own idea and handiwork.

Walking about the grounds among the many vases and inspecting the numerous bird houses, sitting reflectively before his fire place, working over the scores of a new song at the desk in the studio which joins the living room, playing new tunes on the grand piano, assisting with the worship at a neighboring country church, painting a red Ozark sunset, or capturing on canvas the fall flame of the sumac which blazes on the ridges and spills over into his valley---these are the things that make up a Lillenas day. Except Tuesdays. On this day the song writer goes into Kansas City, for he is the song editor for one of the city’s publishing companies.

Seated before the crackling fire, started against the coolness of late fall, and sipping fragrant tea, Lillenas continued his story.

Which of the more than 3000 he has composed does he like best? He thinks perhaps it might be “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” written in 1919, or possibly “The City Where They Need no Sun” composed in 1911. His best known song is “Jesus Has Lifted Me.” Others are: “I Have Settled The Question,” “It Is Glory Just To Walk With Him,” “Wonderful Peace,” “The Peace That Jesus Gives,” “Your Roses May Have Thorns,” and “The Garden of His Heart.”

As a small child he began making up his own songs. He sang in his native tongue the Norwegian translations of the then popular Moody and Sankey gospel hymns. He listened to his mother sing the old songs of Norway in her rich contralto voice. He improvised. He made his first effort to sell songs at the age of 19.

“I was living in North Dakota at that time.” He said, smiling gleefully, “and I noticed an advertisement from a publishing company asking for new songs to publish. I didn’t know then that a reputable publisher never has to advertise for songs. I spent $25 to have my songs published and I received $3.65 in “royalties” from that venture. My first few songs” he finished with a grin, “were not too successful.”

The song writer’s road to success is long and seldom strewn with roses. Lillenas does not recommend that young hopefuls follow too closely in his footsteps. He remembers that song publishers showed an amazing lack of interest in his early efforts. After much disappointment, he finally succeeded in selling one publisher 10 of his songs for 50 cents each. One of these songs, “He Set Me Free,” became popular.

The Lillenas songs have a quality which appears to come directly from the heart, and out of a rich and varied experience. Life in a sod house on the Dakota plains including youthful efforts to plow a straight furrow with three big red steers and one small ox, enabled the highly imaginative boy to get close to nature. Perhaps he stored up impressions while living in a log house among the shadows of Douglas firs, Sitka spruce, and the towering cedars of Oregon---impressions later to be translated into soul stirring songs. One experience which definitely affected his later life came to him in the soft summer dusk in Astori, Oregon. It was shortly after the death of his mother . He paused to listen to a street corner service. There he heard for the first time the strains of “Tell Mother I’ll Be There.” He made his decision then to devote his life to Christian service.

The trail from the storm swept coast of Norway to peace and plenty in the Ozark hills is long and thorny, but Haldor Lillenas has proved that one may compete the journey if he has talent, perseverance and faith. No wonder he sang:

“In the cool of the day He walks with me,
In the rose bordered way He talks with me,
In love’s holy union, and sacred communion,
In the garden of my heart”

As the trained fingers of the musician sweep the keys of the grand piano to release the music, as the notes are echoed by hundreds of birds outside, it is not difficult to believe that the song masters have found a spiritual garden of the heart in Melody Lane.

Haldor Lillenas truly was a prolific writer of gospel songs. As noted above his music organization later became the Nazarene Publishing Company of Kansas City, Mo. He worked as editor there for more than twenty years. More than 2200 references to him can be found on a Google search. Here is one of them if you want to read more about him:

It is surprising that more people don’t realize how famous Haldor was at one time in the gospel music field. A lot of people here knew he wrote gospel songs, but I’m not sure I realized just how prolific a writer he was nor how famous he was and continues to be. And to think that he chose Miller County as the one place in the entire country where he could rest his soul the best to write and compose his music!

That’s all for this week.

Joe Pryor

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