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Hawaii songwriter’s prose proposed as Minnesota state poem

  • 2007 April 12 - Cordell Keith Haugen (1940-present), taken July 2006. ** Island Viking Music PO Box 1976 Honolulu, Hawai`i 96805 / (808) 951-4332 ** Keith & Carmen Haugen PO Box 1976, Honolulu, Hawai`i 96805 USA / (808) 951-4332 Ê(keith) / (carmen)

ST. PAUL, Minn. >> The island dweller who penned a poem decades ago that could find its way into Minnesota law hasn’t been shy about promoting “Minnesota Blue.”

Cordell Keith Haugen said he’s watching intently from his longtime home in Hawaii to see if Minnesota lawmakers honor his work by declaring it the official state poem. A bill introduced in the Legislature would bestow the honor. Some lawmakers question both the quality of the work and the need for a state poem.

Haugen, a songwriter and performer, told The Associated Press in a series of emails late last week that he didn’t explicitly press for the bill and was unaware until contacted by a reporter that one had been introduced. But Haugen said friends from his native Minnesota have promoted it on his behalf.

“I feel that the poem expresses the feelings of millions of us who were born in Minnesota, and like me, have moved away,” Haugen said. “We still have fond memories and much love for the state of our birth.”

Haugen, 72, was born in the city of Greenbush, in far northwestern Minnesota. After a stint in the Army, he lived in Japan and later returned stateside for college in Idaho. A career in journalism took him to Hawaii, where he fell into government work and later public relations. It was there where Haugen adopted a second career as a songwriter and performer at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

When he wrote “Minnesota Blue” in 1985, he was reminiscing about a boyhood amid the Norway Pines, crystal chandeliers of winter and sounds of wildlife howling into the starry night sky. Haugen said he set about to make people back home aware of it. That year he said he performed in an Independence Day concert in his old home town, passing out posters with the verse. He turned it into a song set to a tom-tom beat similar to the old Hamm’s beer jingle.

State officials also heard from Haugen. He mailed copies to every legislator, the governor and other leaders in the 1980s. About a decade ago, it went up on a state Web site with the disclaimer that it wasn’t the official state poem. After all, Minnesota didn’t have an official poem among its raft of duly recognized symbols — the state flower, drink, song, muffin and several others.

Last year when Haugen was in Minnesota he said he had breakfast with a lawmaker, state Rep. Bruce Anderson. The Buffalo Republican, who has constituents close to Haugen, went on to win a state Senate race later that fall. And on Wednesday, it was Anderson who introduced the bill and has called it “pretty neat.”

“I would be honored to have made this contribution to the state of my birth,” Haugen said in one e-mail.

That might be a long shot. Minnesota has a poet laureate thanks to a law pursued years ago by Minneapolis Rep. Phyllis Kahn. But Kahn, a Democrat, had a dour reaction to the proposed “Minnesota Blue” tribute.

She said it might be offensive to people here to give the honor to a piece written by someone who has lived most of his life elsewhere. And she had doubts about the ability of any poem to stand the test of time that comes with being an official state symbol.

“Having a poet laureate is good enough for me,” she said.

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