A Great American: Carl Franzen

You’ve seen him hovering around Java Jack’s or the grocery story for years; the older gent with a wisp of white hair and an omnipresent twinkle in both eyes that suggests he’s got the world by the tail. He is Carl Franzen, who will celebrate his 67th birthday in grand fashion next week, in a way that most musicians half his age have not attempted. But before all that he wants to talk about transcendentalism, existentialism, and his neighborhood park.

Fuller Park, that is, located on 48th & Harriet in Tangletown. When Franzen and his wife and young family moved across from the park in 1975, Fuller school was being demolished and a park was being dedicated. Only thing is, its namesake, Margaret Fuller, was an afterthought. No one knew who she was, but Franzen made it his business to know. And tell.

"Margaret Fuller was a great thinker," said Franzen, of the woman that Wikipedia characterizes as, "a journalist, critic and women’s rights activist associated with the American transcendental movement. She was the first full-time female book reviewer in journalism. Her book ‘Woman in the Nineteenth Century’ is considered the first major feminist work in the United States."

"She was with Emerson and Thoreau and was the editor of ‘The Dial,’ the first transcendental magazine," Franzen continues. "When they were dedicating the park, the park board didn’t know what Fuller they were talking about, be it the Fuller brush man or Fuller glue or what. I got pissed off, and at the dedication, I went in there and did my little 10-minute dissertation on the name and told them who she was."

Franzen’s dedication to the roots of Fuller speaks to his ongoing desire to forge community in South Minneapolis, the same kind he grew up with in small town Iowa. His first act was to form and coach The Margaret Fuller Soccer Club, which has blossomed into a full-fledged program at Fuller that has encompassed countless families across the city. All three of Franzen’s boys played soccer, and as soon as his soccer coaching days ended, he returned to his first love: making music.

"I went to L.A. when I was a young [songwriter], and all they said was, ‘Where are the hooks? Where are the hooks?’ I decided right then I wanted nothing to do with the music business," says Franzen, who makes his living as a freelance advertising copywriter. "But two weeks later, I wrote a song called ‘On The Road’ which Michael Johnson and John Denver recorded. Then soccer took over, and I stopped for a long while."

But the songwriting and piano-playing bug never left him. He now hosts a Sunday night songwriter’s showcase at Plum’s in St. Paul, and continues to mine his songwriting vein. Five years ago, he had an idea. A solo songwriter, Franzen decided he wanted to celebrate his birthday (March 1st) by playing seven open-mic nights in a row. He has done a similar tour every year since, and this year’s starts March 1st at Dunn Bros on Grand in St. Paul and ends March 7 at Java Jack’s (for the full schedule go to www.myspace.com/carlfranzen). He’ll be accompanied by some of the best up-and-coming musicians and songwriters in town, as well as his just-formed new band, B4 I Die.

Not exactly your typical senior citizen’s story.

"At first it was a challenge, now it’s a discovery," he says. "I live to learn. What can I do with other musicians? What can I do with the songs? I don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s part of the fun. I don’t dwell on the past too much. I mean, I can haul it in and tell a story, but it’s not what guides me. What guides me is what’s exciting, and what’s exciting right now."

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.