May 27--WAVERLY, Iowa -- When John Ylvisaker talks music, he practices the art of showing and telling.
The prolific Lutheran composer may, in fact, sit down at the 6-foot Yamaha grand piano that holds a prominent position in his home in Waverly. The piano was a 10th anniversary gift from his wife. There, he allows the music to make his point. With a glimmer in his eye, he'll add his own commentary.
On a recent morning, Ylvisaker's fingers moved easily across the keys as played "I Was There To Hear Your Borning Cry," a piece he's played thousands of times and that's perhaps his most well-known and much-beloved hymn. He looks down at the ivories instead of the pages of music spread before him.
"I never did learn to read," said Ylvisaker, 75, of Waverly.
As a youth, music teachers were initially fooled.
"It took them awhile to figure it out. I had a better ear than eyes," Ylvisaker said. "I would trick them to play the song so I would memorize it and reproduce it."
The lapse didn't hold Ylvisaker back. The composer, arranger and writer from Moorhead, Minn., has more than 1,000 copyrighted song titles to his name. In his lifetime, he's composed music for Lutheran churches and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America radio programs and youth gatherings. He's taught high school music, directed choirs, produced albums and entertained audiences across the nation. These days, Ylvisaker keeps busy producing recordings of his best work in his home studio.
Fellow musicians and fans of Ylvisaker's work will gather at Wartburg College on June 1-2 to honor his legacy. The Rev. Phil Blom, a retired pastor and longtime friend from Neenah, Wis., expects hundreds to come from near and far for the Borning Cry Celebration.
In Lutheran circles and beyond, Ylvisaker is an icon. His song, "I Was There To Hear Your Borning Cry," originally composed for what was then the American Lutheran Church for a series on baptism, is a staple hymn often played at life's most poignant celebrations and memorials.
"It really is unprecedented that the reason that all these musicians are coming to one place is they want to recognize the trailblazer that really opened the door to Christian contemporary music," Blom said.
The celebration will offer music workshops -- registration required in advance -- and a free concert featuring a variety of contemporary church artists and worship service open to the public. All are welcome to join the choir on June 2.
"It's been a long interest of many that we celebrate that legacy sometime and now seems to be the right time," Blom said.
Ylvisaker took a generalist path through music studies. He learned multiple instruments, including piano, voice and flute. His personal collection includes a banjo and mandolin, as well as African and Native American instruments.
"You just never know what he's going to pick up," said his wife, Fern Kruger. "So you get a lot of entertainment."
Listening to the artists who passed through the Padded Cell, a club in Minneapolis, proved formative during Ylvisaker's younger years. A Pete Seeger concert in the early 1960s also profoundly shaped his view of music and his career path.
Seeger took to the stage in flannel and heavy boots and carried a banjo. His rendition of "Cold Creek March" rallied the crowd and won over Ylvisaker.
"We started to sing full-throated songs," Ylvisaker said. "And it changed my life. I decided I wanted the church to be like that, where people would sing full-throated songs they'd never heard before rather than try to get through a hymn and give up."
Lee Nelson, director of the Wartburg Choir, grew up singing Ylvisaker's religious songs. He will participate in the celebratory weekend in June.
"In so many ways he really formed or reformed, I should say, how the church looks at the use of music and the types of music within the church and the church service," Nelson said.
(c)2013 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa)
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