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By David John Smith

Early in 2015, the head of the European Blues Center, Espen Fjelle, met with David John Smith in the basement of a coffee shop in Oslo, just a stones throw away from the main central train station. Espen spoke proudly about the Notodden Blues Festival, the European Blues Center, and the town and asked if Steven could come to the 2015 Notodden Blues Festival.

Steven had just had a successful run of the groundbreaking Lilyhammer series, in cooperation with Netflix and NRK. Streamed in over 140 countries worldwide, the series was the first non-English series available all over the globe. Now, Steven was back in the United States, working on new projects far from Norway, but Espen and Notodden hoped to change all that.

After a series of telephone calls and many emails, the word came down in the early summer of 2015 that Little Steven was coming to Notodden!

It was in early August that year Steven arrived at the Notodden Blues Festival, taking part in a wide range of activities throughout the week including the Official Opening, the Walk of Fame Ceremony down in town and otherwise attending many of the concerts held.

Little Steven and the Jaguar in Heddal

Photo Credit B.O. Holmberg

While visiting, Steven was taken to the Heddal School, the site of the traditional Band Camp that had been staged each year since 1989. The founder of the original Blues Seminar, Jon Jarle Haugen, had a vision to make the seminar into a full year blues curriculum – but it did not quite work out. Still, the Blues Seminar later became the Band Camp, and continued to thrive as a part of the annual Notodden Blues Festival for decades.

The following day in Notodden, Steven held a keynote speech at what is now the Blues Business Conference. It was at this conference that Steven proposed the idea of expanding the one-week band camp into a full-fledged Blues School, studying and playing the Blues with its cultural and musical impact in a broad perspective.

2016: Little Stevens Blues School

Then, in early 2016, the European Blues Center signed a cooperative agreement with Stevens non-profit Rock and Roll Forever Foundation (RRFF) and with its Founding Board Members Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Jackson Browne and Martin Scorsese. The RRFF Is dedicated to promoting the universal theme that music is the most accessible, effective and enduring method of establishing common ground communication between teachers and students.

“We hope to develop this unique school from a summer school in Norway to one that takes place all through Europe at different times of the year. It is all about talent development, playing in a band – and the Blues.”

The RRFF is located in all 50 US states, but this agreement with the European Blues Center and the Notodden Blues Festival was the first outside of the United States, and laid the way for the first year of the Little Stevens Blues School staged in 2016, a resounding success for young talents from the ages of 13 to 26.

This led to the formation of the Little Steven's Blues School, an extension of the Notodden Band Camp that has begun in 1989.

Little Steven with the first year Little Steven Blues School class

Photo Credit B.O Holmberg

2017: Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul Performance

The year 2017 was a historic one for Steven, as he announced the reunion of his legendary musical project – Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, and the release of his first album in nearly 20 years with Soulfire. In March of that year, Notodden Blues Festivals Jostein Forsberg proudly announced that Little Steven would be the main attraction at the 30th Notodden Blues Festival.

As Steven commented at the time,

“Notodden has a great story. They’ve had practically every great act playing there through the years. Now they celebrate 30 years and it’s going to be quite an honor for me to be playing there.”

With his band of 15 musicians, complete with a 5-piece horn section and all-girl backup singers, Little Steven and his Disciples of Soul performed to an overflow audience at the 30th Notodden Blues Festival. While in Notodden, Steven also found time to teach at Blues School, producing and guiding the students in the Juke Joint Studio, presiding over the opening of the festival, appearing with Little Stevens Blues School All Star Band on the national NRK broadcast on Saturday evening, and speaking at the Blues Business seminar.

He met with the people of the town all through the week, as well as officials from the city of Notodden and county of Telemark to lay future plans for culture and creative development.

Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul performing at the 2017 Notodden Blues Festival

Photo Credit: Per Ole Hagen

2018: Bluestown Rising Documentary

Since first coming to Notodden in 2015 Steven Van Zandt (Little Steven) had been positively over-whelmed by the towns industrial history, the strength of the cultural heritage and of course, the music.

In fact, as he was being driven back to the airport after his first festival that year, he leaned over to David (John Smith) and asked:

“Why didn´t you tell me about this place before?”

The next year Steven proposed the idea for a documentary about the festival and the town, and later commented:

When I first came to Notodden in 2015, I found a unique festival in a very special environment in the mountains of southern Norway. Now I realize that the history behind the festival and the industrial roots of Notodden is an important story waiting to be told.

And so development of the documentary Bluestown Rising went into swing with Steven Van Zandt as Executive Producer and Producer David John Smith, working closely with the Kongsberg-based production company Kings Mountain Productions.

Now in 2022, this has become a reality!

2018: University Blues Curriculum

Steven´s passions go far beyond music and film, and is committed to encouraging youth to learn through his activities and the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. A recent milestone for his foundation and the University College of Southeast Norway was the announcement of the establishment of a Blues Curriculum – the first in Norway, and possibly the world.

As Steven commented to the national broadcaster NRK:

“I am proud and pleased that the establishment of Little Stevens Blues School in Notodden has been a part of this process, and that we all Iook forward to expansion of both our blues school and the university curriculum.

This is an important step for the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation and as we expand into Europe promoting the universal theme that music is the most accessible, effective, and enduring method of establishing common ground communication between teachers and students. “

The University Blues Curriculum was kicked off at the 2018 Little Stevens Blues School.

2022 And Beyond

In the few years that Steven has worked with Notodden, the town has seen the creation of the Little Stevens Blues School, the initiation of a university-level Blues Curriculum, the reunion of Stevens legendary Disciples of Soul, performance at the Notodden Blues Festival, and the development of a documentary about the town and its cultural, industrial and musical heritage.

But still there is a lot left to be accomplished. As Little Steven says about his work here in Notodden:

“It is not about the past – it is about the future.“

This is only the beginning.

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