John Carl Ylvisaker was a rarity: A widely traveled musician rooted in Minnesota, and a self-effacing man whose music was sung by thousands across the world.
Ylvisaker, one of the most popular composers of contemporary Lutheran music, died March 9 of multiple system atrophy at his home in Waverly, Iowa. He was 79.
Gracia Grindal, a professor of rhetoric at St. Paul’s Luther Seminary for 30 years, called Ylvisaker the “Bob Dylan of Lutheranism.” It’s no coincidence, she said, that both Ylvisaker and Dylan were highly influenced by the protest music of Pete Seeger. “He was a genius, no question about it,” said Grindal, who performed poetry with Ylvisaker. “And he didn’t have any sense of his genius.”
Friends and family described Ylvisaker, who composed more than 2,000 hymns, as a prolific musician whose creativity never waned, even as his voice and body did in later years. His hymn “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry,” a gentle ballad sung in countless baptisms and church services, is known around the world.
“He knew that it had to be recognizable,” Grindal said of his music. “So he used folk. Because that’s deeply memorable music. It comes out of the ground.”
Ylvisaker was born in Fargo in 1937 to a Norwegian family steeped in Lutheran tradition. His father, Carl, chaired the religion department at Concordia College in Moorhead (Concordia’s library is named for him); his mother, Marie Sletvold, was the librarian. He received a degree in music and history from Concordia in 1959.
Lutheran music took him across Minnesota. He taught at schools in Hawley, Morris and Buffalo, and worked at churches in Fridley and St. Louis Park. For years, he was the composer-in-residence for the American Lutheran Church, headquartered in Minneapolis. It also took him far outside the state. He toured the country and overseas starting in the late 1960s; wherever he was, he would study the melodies particular to that region. Those influences, along with American folk music, were reflected in his Christian music.
“He got really curious about tunes from around the world, and he started putting biblical texts to these lost tunes,” said his son, musician Jeremy Ylvisaker of Minneapolis.
It was a stylistic change from Lutheran music that was precisely composed and performed by trained vocalists and organists. Ylvisaker’s hymns, which he presented in his intense, warbling baritone, were loose and inviting.
“For John to come into church with a guitar and encourage the congregation to sing, as a cantor would do, was quite a shift,” said his wife, Fern Kruger.
While those differences led him to be criticized by many traditional Lutheran hymn writers, they were also what made him popular.
“What John’s music does is get you in touch with your heart,” Kruger said. “He put the gospel into everyday life.”
Ylvisaker had a song for every occasion, his longtime collaborator Hal Dragseth said.
He toured extensively until 2008, performing in churches, colleges and conferences. “He would take me on tour with him,” Jeremy Ylvisaker said. “We got to be two amigos for a couple of years, hitting the road.”
Until late last year he continued working on his music, some of it still left unreleased.
“He’s not dead,” Grindal said. “He’s living in his songs.”
Besides his wife and son Jeremy, Ylvisaker is survived by sons Jon-Marc and Matthew, both of Edina; stepsons Grant and Jeremiah Brase, both of Waverly; sisters Ruth Foster and Mary Nilsen, of Des Moines; and grandchildren.
A memorial service will be at 1 p.m. on April 26 at the Wartburg College chapel in Waverly, and will be live-streamed at wartburg.edu/knightvision.