Before he became nationally famous, Lawrence Welk and his band made appearances around the Upper Midwest. But there were times when he couldn’t keep an engagement for some reason. So who did he call to fill in for him?

Arnold Christianson and his orchestra.

Arnold, from Driscoll, N.D., east of Bismarck, never achieved the national fame that Lawrence did, but he was a popular entertainer regionally, becoming known as “The Friendly Singer.”

His son Milan Christianson, rural Detroit Lakes, Minn., contributed information about his father to “Neighbors.” It includes what Arnold wrote about himself.

He was born in 1908 in Driscoll to a farm couple who emigrated from Norway in 1893.

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He taught himself to play the ukulele, then took up the banjo while he was hospitalized for farm accident-related blood poisoning. He finally settled on the guitar as his favorite instrument.

“I have always loved to sing,” Arnold wrote. So when he was a teen and staying with his sister in St. Paul for a while, he joined his brother in a male chorus.

He formed a band to play in the Driscoll-Wing, N.D., area in 1927-1928. In 1930, he put on a mock radio program at a PTA meeting, after which a woman suggested he try out for a regular radio program.

So in 1931, he auditioned for KFYR Radio in Bismarck, which signed him to play his guitar and sing for eight weeks on an evening program.

“On my second program,” Arnold wrote, “I sang by special request the Norwegian song ‘Kan Du Glemme Gamle Norge.’ This brought me many kind letters from all over. Some mentioned this was the first Norwegian they had heard since they left Norway 40 years earlier.

“All these letters got me to thinking, and I then included a Scandinavian song in each of my programs.

“I appeared over WDAY Radio in Fargo in 1931 and sang on KCGU at Mandan also in 1931. Starting in 1940, I appeared steady over KFYR until 1956 as ‘the Friendly Singer.’” He was paid $20 to $30 a week.

Arnold Christianson was a popular entertainer regionally who performed as "The Friendly Singer." Special to The Forum
Arnold Christianson was a popular entertainer regionally who performed as "The Friendly Singer." Special to The Forum

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Arnold’s father died in 1934, his mother in 1957.

Arnold published a collection of songs he’d unearthed, including “Silent Night” in the Sioux Indian language that his Native American friends in Fort Yates, N.D., translated for him.

“In 1938,” he wrote, “I was to have a program at a get-together in Mandan (N.D.). I rounded up eight men and we sang three or four Norsk songs. This was the start of the Nordic Chorus of Bismarck. We had over 40 members. We sang for many programs in North Dakota. We continued until the early 1950s.

“In 1967, I got them reorganized. This was a big success.”

Whether he was soloing or leading the chorus, he always included Norwegian songs.

“The phone calls and letters requesting Norwegian songs amazed the radio station as much as they did me,” he said, “and over the years I doubt if there were many of the old Scandinavian songs I didn’t sing.”

One day in 1934, Arnold sang “Til Det Lille Norske Hjem Der Op i Nord,” which in English is “The Little Norwegian Home up in the North.”

“The old-timers sat as though stunned,” a newspaper story about him said; “(their) eyes glazed, tears running down their cheeks as they ‘saw’ the hills of home in northern Norway.”

“I’ve sung that song at every convention since that time and had it published in sheet form with English translation,” he said.

Arnold Christianson "stunned" some of his fans in the crowd when he'd perform this song at conventions around North Dakota. Special to The Forum
Arnold Christianson "stunned" some of his fans in the crowd when he'd perform this song at conventions around North Dakota. Special to The Forum

In 1934, Arnold married Olga Pederson, who was born in Christine, N.D. They had four children.

Arnold and Olga lived in Mandan, Fargo and Bismarck.

In 1968 they visited Norway and Arnold was invited to sing, which of course he did.

In his later years, Arnold became a top salesman for the Electrolux Co. During this time he also played guitar and was a soloist for the El Zagel Plainsmen of Bismarck.

He was proud to consider music stars Chet Atkins, Myron Floren and Lawrence Welk his friends.

He performed in seven states, three Canadian provinces and overseas.

He received many honors, including recognition from the crown prince of Norway for his Norwegian music. He’s a member of the North Dakota Music Hall of Fame, Mandan.

A relative said that Arnold had a “strong belief in the teaching of Jesus Christ which grounded him in his love and compassion for all who he met, serving them and striving to bring joy to all who he entertained in person and on the radio and television.”

Arnold died in Bismarck in 1973 at age 64. But many people in many places still have fond memories of listening to “The Friendly Singer.”

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107, fax it to 701-241-5487 or email blind@forumcomm.com.