A Unitarian Universalist since 1971, folk singer Dan Berggren believes God is a ‘verb, not a noun.’
By Ethan Kaproski, SMARTACUS Creative Group
With deep roots in the Adirondacks, Dan Berggren is a folk singer whose music tells stories of people, places and mountains. His songs celebrate nature and fundamental themes of caring and love.
Born in Brooklyn, Berggren developed an affinity for the pipe organ, harmony, and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach while singing in the boys’ choir of Grace Episcopal Church. Each summer, his family would head to the farm in the small Adirondack town of Minerva where his mother was born and raised. When Berggren was 12, his family moved to Minerva to live there year-round, but he maintained his passion for music and performing.
“I discovered how satisfying it is to practice hard to give a great performance that gives great pleasure to others and to me,” he says.
Among Berggren’s favorites in his youth: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, as well as other rock, folk and soul musicians. Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers was a major influence and Berggren says he continues to be inspired by his work to this day.
Now living in Ballston Spa, Berggren feels he has become a better musician throughout his career. He credits that to “practice, learning from mistakes, and knowing more ways to approach a musical idea, topic, or story. That’s why my most recent album, This Planet We Call Home, was the most fun to make.”
That’s usually the case, he finds. “You accumulate more experience and knowledge with each successive accomplishment.”
Keys to Success
Berggren attributes his success to his discipline and practicing the fundamentals of his craft. Also essential: “Being flexible and knowing when to bend or even break fundamental rules.”
Most musicians have a most memorable concert or favorite point in their careers. Berggren, who has performed in all kinds of venues and all sorts of places from South Africa to Texas, recounts several.
“I’ve had memorable moments with orchestras in concert halls, with thousands of people singing along on my songs at outdoor folk festivals, with only a few people gathered at weddings and funerals, with strangers in Africa, Europe, the British Isles, and with audiences at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs…”
“It can be the people in the audience, the acoustics of the room, the purpose of the event, or playing just the right song at just the right time.”
Open Mic at Caffé Lena
A moment that particularly stands out for Berggren is his first open mic in 1985 at Caffé Lena which, as all Saratogians know, is the oldest continuing coffee house in North America. In those days, performers auditioned for Lena Spencer, the late owner and founder of the venue.
“Lena liked my 15 minutes on her stage and so she invited me back to do a show in November. I’ve been performing there every year since.” His latest show in early March sold out so quickly another was scheduled.
What Berggren says he likes most about being a musician is “getting people who have come to my concerts to join in and sing along on the choruses of songs. There is a wonderful energy in the room when that happens, and it lifts the audience’s spirit and mine…singing does something to a person that is both physical and emotional.”
Berggren hopes his music will have an impact on others.
“Some songs may make you laugh, think about people you love, or direct you to questions that need to be asked and answered by each listener. Music and literature can deal with many aspects of love or hate or apathy. I want my music to send you in the direction of love.”
God is a ‘Verb, not a Noun’
It’s not surprising that Berggren found his way to Unitarian Universalism, a discovery he made as a senior at St. Lawrence University, where an introductory course in philosophy and world religions inspired him to visit various churches. On Easter Sunday 1971, he walked into the gray marble church of the UU Congregation of Canton and found a faith that resonated.
“Within the framework of the Seven Principles, UUism allows and expects each person to create their own image or definition of God,” he says. “This has led to my thinking of God as a verb or force, rather than a noun.”
Berggren’s wife Nancy also attended St. Lawence and later became a UU. Together they helped to found the UU Congregation of Northern Chautauqua in Fredonia in 1982. When they moved to Saratoga in 2004, they immediately became active UU Saratoga members, joining the choir and taking on volunteer roles in such areas as religious education and social justice. In a typical year, Dan will perform or serve as a guest speaker a dozen times at UU congregations and UU Saratoga always is at the top of his list.
Dan and Nancy have passed on their UU identity to later generations. Their daughter, Jenny, joined the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oakland, California, while their granddaughters Annea and Sonja annually attend Chalice Camp, the Oakland congregation’s pathbreaking summer program in religious education.