Warren Nelson | To tell the story of a man’s life

27 11 2013

Warren Nelson | To tell the story of a man’s life

To tell the story of a man’s life

To tell the story of a man’s life in a few paragraphs is to skim the wind over the ocean. I was privileged to meet Norbert Blei and become a friend. Obituary Norbert Blei 1935-2013 Green Bay Gazette April 23 Author, publisher and teacher.

Norbert Blei died early Tuesday morning at Scandia Village in Sister Bay, where he had been recuperating from recent surgery. He was 77.A native of Chicago, Blei moved to Door County in 1969 and became a passionate defender of its natural beauty and rural character, working from a converted chicken coop studio in Ellison Bay. He was the author of 17 books, including “Door Way: The People in the Landscape,” “Door Steps,” “Door to Door” and “Meditations on a Small Lake.” He established Cross+Roads Press in 1994 to support the work of local writers and poet. His “Chronicles of a Rural Journalist in America” recounts the furor he created with a satirical piece in the Door Reminder called “Shut the Damn Door,” advocating for sealing off Northern Door’s natural splendor from tourists. For three decades he taught writing workshops at The Clearing in Ellison Bay and was scheduled to return to the front of the class this summer.

In Memory Of Norbert Blei…My late great coyote brother

Norbert BleiI first heard of Norbert in a newspaper article, must have been in the early to mid 80s. Norb’s photo was with the article. He was standing by a newly installed mail receptacle that was there for receiving free shopper papers. He stated that no one asked permission to install any of these beside every mailbox.

They were plastic, ugly, another sore sight in beautiful Door County. I took to him immediately. He looked like me with his furry mustache. He had good solid eyebrows, strong shoulders, a granite bold face and in this photo he was pissed off.

I was impressed that the article was sent statewide. I was more impressed that the eyes of this man paid attention to detail, to any visual despoiling of an especially beautiful peninsula in neighborhood Wisconsin. I had never been to Door County but I clipped the article and vowed to one day meet the man.

I can’t remember the date of our first meeting. Seems like I had known him all my life. I believe our introduction to each other might have been during a weekend that I was playing a concert with Big Top Chautauqua at the Door Community Auditorium in the late 80s. After the show he took me to one of the funkiest greatest bars I have ever been in and I have been in many a bar in my hopping. The A.C.Tap. The place was all soul. Old. The floor was polished by 50 years of beer. Jukebox. Antique stools. Names carved in the bar-top. My kind of bar. One that welcomes conversation and joviality. We stayed till closing time. He invited me to his place the next day telling me about his hole called The Coop.

I went. It was an old chicken coop books galore, wall to wall, floor to ceiling. Paintings. Snippets of poetry. Photographs. An old long-used typewriter. Wisdom in the walls.

He gave me one of his books. I gave him a CD. We both had carved careers out of celebrating a sense of place. We were basically the same guy and would remain brothers throughout our shared time. His recognition of the history of Door County as it yet stood in old people and old buildings was honor to the past and a hope that something would remain of what was because what was authentic. “If God wanted us to have fiberglass boats, He would have given us fiberglass trees.” His written portraits of elders of Door County are priceless. The adage “They don’t make’m like they used to” applies to buildings and people and Norb and I often talked about that, bemoaning the news that an old farmhouse was being torn down, that the old country store was being demolished, that a new Condo development was rising on the heights over Lake Michigan (for me Lake Superior).

He had known about Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua, a Bayfield Peninsula tent show I founded. Years later, I booked him for a reading at the tent along with Jean Feraca. It was broadcast on Tent Show Radio. He had the perfect radio voice that licked his words. You could definitely hear Chicago, his birthplace, in it.

I never saw him enough but when we were together the stories rolled. As much as I wanted to hear all of what he was up to and writing he kept on with new writers he had discovered and wanted to put into print by his Cross+Roads Press. That was his true gift to the forest of literature. He was a great oak standing in the middle of younger aspiring writers. Generous. Encouraging. Critical– knowing truth from bullshit. Those of us who knew Norb remember well his feather-ruffling in the politics of Door County. More like a coyote’s growl. Again, his eye looking beyond himself.

We, of course, have his books to keep us company. And keep his mind and spirit alive by reading his writing. Incredible life of work. Incredible ship of wisdom that went down. I’m remembering a visit I made to Sigurd Olson’s writing shack out behind his house in Ely, Minnesota. It was kept as it was at the last hour Sigurd walked out the door to go snowshoeing and never returned. Typewriter in place. Chair staring at it. Books, snowshoes, skis, a wool hat on a hook. A museum. I wish The Coop could be left at it was on Norb’s last day. It should be on the Register of Historic Places.

There has been some Door County talk for a couple of years about a new show featuring Norb’s work with me putting music under and over his prose and crafting songs out of his writings and story. I had in mind that Norbert would play himself and I would sit and sing beside the source. Photos old and new of the Door County environs and people would be projected behind the staged program. I have to get this show on the boards. I’m casting myself in the role of Norbert Blei. The show would run 90 minutes or so and hopefully play in the summers forever. I love the thought of new people being introduced to Norbert Blei’s writings far into the Door County and Wisconsin future.

Here’s a poem I wrote in early 2012.


Codger, a dodger, confidence trickster–
Keeper of Wisconsin.
Writer, let’s know, of great Wisconsin wrongs.

I would lay light that his work
Unpaving a road through Door County
Will whisk dust up for young writers to come to
Find voice and camp there in their own
With a consciousness of no conciliations,
Follow their bare bones loosening the bullshit
To fit this new world that frighteningly forgets the old.

Prose man, poet blender.
Sender off to the world
His great working gifts.

A presence lifted from Illinois
Took the flyway of Lake Michigan
And built a nest as eagles do north
Where all can be seen from.

Perched in his coop to
Sway swoop down on any day.
Craft steeped like how-ever- old-he- is whiskey.
You can smell it on his breathway-
The truth.

Honor to the deep in shallow politics.
He is editing our time,
The anger all behind a voice of sweetness.

Plow the road.
Like that crazy crooked county road
That hauls all to the landing across from
Washington Island.
Jesus, who platted that?
Only one who can laugh along the way.

Norbert Blei ferries himself across for
All of us.

Warren Nelson
April 25, 2013


warren nelson | an old story, an old song, a new poem

27 07 2010

Warren Nelson | click the image to enlarge…

PoetryDispatch No. 328 | July 27, 2010


An Old Story, an Old Song, a New Poem


Norbert Blei

Warren is an old friend, one of those people possessed of such love of life, people, place, imaginative fervor and voice that ordinary everyday plain old conversation seems unknown to him. and ‘talk’ instead erupts into a kind of poetry that is pure Warren Nelsonese.

I’ve been fortunate to know a handful of these people in my life. You’re never sure just what Warren’s thinking, what all is building inside him, taking shape, destination—hallelujah, harmonies of voices (all his) released to the heavens. Singer, songwriter, storyteller, he can’t help it. He has neither time or interest in small talk…concerned instead that his message take air, be writ large, ‘literary’ in pulsing words, images, sounds …ideas…memories, laughter—a song sung just for you. A personal performance leaving one hungry, hanging on his every next word (And then what happened? What next?) as he pauses to catch a breath, another line, another image…lifting you up there into the song, turning his solo into a duet, though the narrative, the rhythm (decidedly Midwestern), the chorus, the finale is all his. Bravo! Encore!

I’ve told about him before in articles, interviews, ordinary conversation.

Warren Nelson Note File:

He’s a young man sometimes dressed in old man’s clothing. `Geezer fashions’ he calls his fondness for a down-home attire, be it suit-vests, gray workpants, galluses, or even a derby he may don, performing under the Big Top Chautauqua tent in Bayfield, on a summer night…

Warren Nelson: young, geezer-man of his time, but of another time as well. A past (local/Midwestern Americana) that he continually pays homage to in story, song, original musical productions–“Big, dang deals,” as he calls them. He and his multi-talented right-hand lady, Betty Ferris; his Executive Director, Carolyn Sneed; his extraordinary crew of musicians, the Ballyhoo Blue Canvas Orchestra–Bruce Bowers, Bruce Burnside, Jack Gunderson, Don Pavel, Tom Mitchell; singers Marcie Gephart, Mary Bondeson, Gwen Baxter and the lively Sally Kessler.

But that was then. The past. This is now–not the same by a long shot. No more Bayfield. No more tent. No more Big Top Chautauqua. No more WPR “Tent Show Radio” hosted by Warren Nelson. The loss(es) do and do not add up. Though they are nevertheless real. Final. Fini.

News from the front:

June 7, 2010


Dear Friends of Warren Nelson,

This is a special message to those of you who have let us know that you would like to hear news of Warren Nelson.

We are happy to report that Warren has been working really hard during these last nine months, fortunately being on the Huber Work Release program, is doing very, very well .. rejoicing in his sobriety and productivity. He was able to go home during the day six days a week, so he could write and continue his work. He has written a poem nearly every day (well over 100 .. ) and eleven new songs. He has recorded the songs with Andy Dee, Ed Willett, Randy Sabien, and Rowan Nelson-Ferris; and we plan to release the new CD, SONG IN YOUR HAT sometime in the next month. His sentence will be completed on June 20; and after that he will still have to report for probation once a week.

You may watch his website (www.warrennelson.com) for messages from Warren and news and details of record release and other performances. And .. if you have messages to or about Warren that you’d like to post on his website, please send them to: fanpage@warrennelson.com.

Thank you for keeping the faith!

A singer without a place to render his songs. A showman (in recovery)…slave for-too-many-years to that old devil, alcohol (which can lead a man or woman to even darker paths, dead ends on unknown dimensions, locked in, locked out)…small-time ‘outlaw,’ (who has now done in his time, his debt to society) finding himself repentant, determined, alone and deep in the Washburn, Wisconsin woods…trying to re-string his old guitar…looking, hoping, praying for the memory of song to come back to him, new music to be written. Pling, plang, pluck…once upon a time…lyric…a word rhyming with ‘sad’…

Hard times. Brother Warren’s come upon hard times. A work-in-progress, momentarily. Trying to lift himself out from under it all. Wanting to believe that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “There are no second acts in American lives” was bar talk. That second acts do indeed exist in this land of the free, home of the brave, Middle western rock-a-bye lullaby cradle of creativity. Sing it loud and clear, Brother. Higher. Chorus! Chorus!

From my Warren Nelson Note File:

We talked about a lot of things Up North–from his history with Big Top Chautauqua, to regionalism, songwriting, fame, the new creative period he seems to be entering, and that new fishing lure he’s invented: The Lure of The Northwoods. We talked about `big dang deals,’ such as “Riding the Wind”.

“It’s a musical,” he says, “it’s a sit-down-read-the-story musical, combining original songs and storytelling with maybe 13 or 1400 historic photographs projected as slides. It’s the third show of this type. The first one was produced way back in 1976 for my hometown of Fairmont, Minnesota. At that time I was given the gift of time by my partner, then mate, Betty Ferris, who took me out of the bars and off the road and gave me time to `thunk stuff up.’ So I thunk up this idea. I wrote in my journal…`A thing: Combine songs, stories, photographs, history into a concert program’. So this is the third one.

Which, in essence, was the genesis of the whole Chautauqua idea.

“Up here it certainly was…Bayfield had to get one of these Big Dang Deals, so they commissioned it and Betty and I do what we do. We start researching these things, which is just–get in your History Suit, jump off the dock and start swimmin’ around in all this lake of stories. Which is probably the most enjoyable thing, you’re very familiar with, Norb, talking to the elders. Just sitting back and listening at how one thing leads to another. When you look at a photograph, there are songs in there. Things start to happen. And that’s why I think that people really catch on to them, you know. You’re not only hearing a song, but they’re illustrated…It’s time travelling. And the script is a combination of a few poems I throw in, and quotes and stories…

“As soon as you start to dig, one thing, like I said, leads to another and you find out some astounding, amazing things, which I guess are not so surprising here on the shores of Lake Superior–you know, Big Lake, Big Ideas, human ideas in the past. Once you start a program like this it sorta has a life of its own. It just leads you around. And all the crew members and all the people that you talk to, you know, leads you to another and another and their stories. You do this and then you end up meeting the most fantastically interesting people. There’s just a different way of talking. I’m writing in, I mean obviously the English language moves…but reading the journals of the lighthouse keepers is just magnificent language. It’s almost like old English. I mean it’s not, but it goes back. And so I certainly borrowed heavily from them…let’s see, there’s a verse in the song “Keeper of the Light”…mmm, let’s see

I’m the Keeper of the Light on Michigan Island,
the candle in the night for the steamboat trade

with an eye on the wick and a whistle to the ships

that are bound for the bay or runnin’ for a lee.

We lit the lamp at sunset, afraid the clocks would break

then anew it blew a hurricane, the tower began to shake.

It was damp in the lamp and freezing, the oil all congealed.

We were scrubbin’ with brine on the lantern glass to

remove the angry sea; our dock was driven to the boulders;

to talk, we had to shout. So splendid was Superior’s fury

twenty-five miles out.

“Now that was…those were mostly words I picked out of journals. And I put `em in order to make it work.. they’re probably from five pages, but I just…you know… Who talks about oil being `congealed’ anymore? I love those words you can bite into, that never get used.”

And though his name will probably never appear in any literary history of the state, consider any of his lyrics, and one is astonished by the poetry in the man. Long after the work of many of our Wisconsin writers has faded, I’m convinced there will remain this vibrant body of “Big Dang Deals” set in Wisconsin by a unique artist from Washburn. A treasure trove of stage presentations–words and music by Warren Nelson–which generations to come will easily and eagerly tap into. Works steeped in local history, humor, talk and song, perfectly capturing a Wisconsin culture, a time and place, reaching far beyond the Midwest as well.

But that was then.

This is now.

And by all indications, the master’s voice has returned. The music is coming back. The guitar had been re-strung, fine tuned, polished. And the woods around Warren’s Washburn, Wisconsin are singing from daylight to twilight time. Old friends may be lost, never to return. The tent may still stand, staked in Bayfield, but flaccid without the music and voice of Warren Nelson to billow the canvas high into to the heavens . Aye, this may be his greatest loss…the tent he worshipped and honored, a metaphor for man, the music he wrote, the musician he was/is…Made in the Midwest. The historical ‘chautauqua’ he re-created in our time to give us all a fresh breath, a new life.

But onward to recovery. The new man—wounds visible and public: this was me; but here I am born to sing again. Listen, folks. Please. On to the Second Act. New songs. New ventures. New productions. Can you hear me now?

Check his website: http://www.warrennelson.com/ or click the image below…

A bio update in his own hand, July 2010:

Warren Nelson has been a professional entertainer/songwriter/impresario for 43 years, born in Minnesota and living n Wisconsin since 1976. He has written 500 songs in his writing life. He is perhaps best known as the founder of Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, former host of Tent Show Radio, and as composer/writer of a dozen historically based music shows which have toured extensively around the Midwest for the past 20 years. “Big Dang Deals” he calls them. He has recorded 11 albums of original songs and has had two DVD’s released. He is currently working on his autobiography entitled: “Song And Chance Man- The Memory-wars of Me.”

Says Warren- “Like my great friend Norbert Blei I was born with the push to write. The sound of words has always been music to me. I love this outlaw poetry that Norb is floating over this crazy world. I’ve been plowing my song farm lately writing poems. My latest reading joys are the works of Stanley Kunitz, William Stafford, the Testaments of Francois Villon, and Native American writings. Have you read “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” by Kent Nerburn?

I pick up a different poet every morning from the bookshelves that rule my house.

I’m starting a churchless church call The Assembly Of Sod. My heaven is in the ground.”

For whatever reason, the American literary powers-that-be have always given short shrift to our songwriters, relegating them to a notch or two below ‘poets.’ But poets in truth they are.

I will end then with this POEM by Warren Nelson. A new true poem (appropriately enough, “The Band”) by a recovering songwriter who still knows and honors where the heart lies…just how healing it can be when the right chord is struck.

Take it to the open stage in those Washburn woods, Warren. SO GOOD to hear your earthy voice again. Bless you, Brother. –Norbert Blei

News Item, June 2 2010:

“Iran has barred private schools from teaching music, saying it clashes with the establishment’s Islamic values. “The use of musical instruments is against the principles of our value system,” said Ali Bagherzadeh, head of the private schools office in the Education Ministry. Teaching music in state schools is already prohibited, Bagherzadeh said. Iran’s 16,000 private schools have about 1.1 million students.”

Warren Nelson | The Band | click the image to enlarge…

The Band

by Warren Nelson

God plays the bones and needs a band
To keep the beat of human endeavors,
To mark time in the breath of every lung
In the living day.
Up and down the ecstasies,
Whole step whole step half step major scale
And the chromatic changes in the jazz of improvising
An afternoon.
Song is God-
In the beginning was the word-
And then the tune to carry
And the ring in to dance.
Song is God-
As wind through the clarinet’s pipe-
As the string vibrates eternity-
As the harp calls Angels to
Welcome the infants.
As we are instruments
Of God
Cooing the lullabies,
Crescendoing to life’s end-
The great symphony of the world.
And the longing to hear through brass and reed-
As we are the instruments
Holding the instruments in joy
And in the contrabass of sorrow.
Arrest the birds.
Put them to death.
And the purr of cats-
And the barking of dogs-
And the roar of King Lion-
And the whale’s long clarion sounding
In the bowls of the oceans
Muzzel the language of instrumental music
That is universal
Heard across the borders of
How about a whistler?
The music of humming?
The inner melody of the orchestra
Of the body.
The stirring marches of nations.
Get up off your knees Islam
And stop the chanting by law.
And stop the screaming whine of guns
And the torpedoes cymballing death.
And listen to the music
Of the spheres here and now.
Allah Allah
Sing Hallelujah!
The Hallelujah Chorus.
Let the sax take a solo.