Various Artists’ Folk Music in Sweden series

CR_Musica_Sveciae_fempuffDuring the 1950s and 1960s there was a lot of field recording taking place in Sweden and the Swedish speaking parts of Finland. A generation of source singers and musicians were growing very old and the effort was directed at preserving as much of their music as possible.

Many of the recordings are hidden away in the vaults of Svenskt Visarkiv (a society dedicated to preserving songs), the Swedish Radio and other establishments, where they can be accessed for singers and musicians. But quite a few have resurfaced on various LPs and in radio programmes.

In the middle of the 1990s the Swedish National Radio together with Caprice, a record company owned by Rikskonserter, a government agency aimed at supporting live music, started a project with the aims to present a broad selection of these recordings, arranged thematically, on CD. Up to date 28 CDs have been released, sometimes in boxes with two or three CDs in each. The box with Yoiks is no longer available but the rest are reviewed briefly here.

Each CD/CD-box contains extensive notes on the music and the performers. These notes are translated into English in order to make the series accessible to people outside Sweden. All lyrics are also included, but they are not translated, with may be of inconvenience if you do not understand Swedish. Listening to 20 verses of a medieval ballad may be less than thrilling if you do not understand what being sung.

Most of the singing is unaccompanied, and as many of the singers are in their seventies there is the odd note out of tune. But remember, this is a document, not a commercial recording. With that in mind, for those of you who are not interested in reading about all of the great breadth of offerings, here is a guide for which reviews to read:

CDs which mainly presents songs: 1-2, 6, 8, 9-10, 12, 15, 19 and 20

Instrumental music, mainly fiddles: 5, 11, 16-17, 18 and 26-28

Instrumental music, other instruments: 7, 8 and 13

Mixtures of songs and instrumental music: 8, 14 and 24

Religious music: 24

Modern interpretations: 4 and 25

Collections: 3

If you will only buy one or two CDs of the series I would recommend No. 3 Traditional Folk Music and No. 25 Folk Music in Transition

No 1-2 The Medieval Ballad is a double-CD. 26 singers, most of them female, are present through a total of 57 tracks. Some ballads are given in alternate versions so the total number of ballads is about 40. The first CD is made up of singers living in Sweden, the other of singers from the Swedish-speaking parts of Finland. As Finland was a part of Sweden for about five centuries Swedish is a big language in that country and collectors have collected many folk songs there. Some of the most well known Swedish folk songs are in fact from Finland. The recordings were mostly made in the late 1950s, and with the majority of the singers born in the late 19th century what we get are men and women in their 50s, 60s and 70s singing songs they got from their parents and grandparents. I would not recommend it for continuous listening, but for anyone interested in medieval ballads it is a great treasure.

No. 3 Traditional Folk Music can be described in two ways. Either you can see it as a journey through Swedish folk music, or you can view it as a taster for the rest of the series. These 42 tracks are a broad overview of the offerings in therest of the collection. You get both different kinds of music, like yoiks, lullabies, polskas and religious songs, and different instruments, from the internationally-used fiddles and accordions to the Swedish instruments like cow horn, shepherd´s pipe and of course the keyed fiddle. Most of the tracks are recordings of source singers and musicians, but the CD ends with a selection of modern musicians, like Lena Willermark, Ale Möller and Hedningarna.

No. 4 Adventures in Jazz and Folk Lore is something completely different. In 1965 the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation made a radio programme to compete in ‘Triumph Varieté’. Since many Swedish jazz musicians already used Swedish folk tunes as the basis for tunes and arrangements SBC engaged four well established jazz band leaders to make jazz versions of tunes and songs. The arrangers got to choose from a number of recordings of source singers and musicians.

The result is wonderful. Swedish folk music seems to be made for jazz musicians to use as vehicles. The four arrangers, Bengt Hallberg, Jan Johansson (a piano genius who died much to young), Georg Riedel (nowadays mostly known as composer of a number of lovely songs for children) and Bengt-Arne Wallin (a very experimental arranger) have in many cases chosen to start their piece with the original recording, thus displaying their starting point to the listener. Then comes a great variety of jazz music, from the small quartet to a full jazz orchestra. And I cannot leave this one without mentioning Rune Gustafsson, a guitar player who lifts a few of the tracks to new heights.

If you like both jazz and folk this is a natural choice from the series. It shows Swedish 60s jazz at its very best. My only complaint is that it is one of the shortest records in the series, at 51minutes.

The fiddling tradition in Sweden is very strong. Each county, and sometimes even each village, has its own trademark, may it be a certain kind of drilling or certain rhythm measures. Dalarna, a county in the middle of Sweden, is especially known for its fiddlers, and the tradition was probably strongest around Lake Siljan, where each of the villages had its own legendary fiddlers.

The first half of No. 5 Folk Tunes from Orsa and Avdalen celebrates the tradition of Orsa, a village north of Lake Siljan. Gossa Anders Andersson plays 26 tunes from his home village. Andersson was born in 1876 and carries the tradition from legendary Blecka Andersson Olsson, born in 1832, and he plays the tunes as they were played in the 19th century. The recordings are from 1949 and the late 1950s, so Andersson was already an old man when they were made, and this shows a little, but he sounds remarkably well for his age. The other half is dedicated to the tradition of Alvdalen, a geographically large, but sparsely populated area in the west of Dalarna. Gyris Anders Andersson formed the tradition there in the mid 19th century, and the four fiddlers presented on the CD are the second and third generation after him. Once again the recordings date from a half century ago, and the fiddlers playing are rather old.

Folk Tunes from Orsa and Alvdalen is mostly to be treated as a historical document, the last chance to hear echoes of the legendary fiddlers from the mid 19th century. It could also serve well for someone looking for new tunes to play.

Rhymes and lullabies are as popular in Sweden as in many other countries. Many of them are still sung in Swedish pre-schools and primary schools. The typical Swedish lullaby is in a minor key, and as with the rhymes, it is often short. So short in fact that No 6 Rhymes & Lullabies contains 93 short songs performed by 32 source singers. The songs are easily accessible, often with just one verse. Of course there are a few songs that turn up in different versions, and at first many of the sounds are quite similar.

Sweden also has a deep tradition of squeezebox-playing. During the 20th century this tradition developed into an accordion-tradition, with the large concert accordion becoming very popular. But still melodeons and one-and two-row-accordions still exist within folk circles.

No. 7 Harmonica & Accordion reflects this more folksy tradition. It opens with eight tunes performed on harmonica, among them the popular ‘Weddingmarch’ from Jämtland, an often-performed tune. It carries on with 18 tunes on one-row accordion, the melodeon, and 13 on two- and three-row accordions. We get a few of the classic Swedish tunes, like ‘Kvasarvalsen’, which in the early 20th century was performed as a song, by fiddles or accordions and even by brass bands, and ‘Elvira Madigan’, a tune once used for a popular, long 19th century broad sheet ballad about the dancer of that same name.

For musicians of any nationality interested in accordion or melodeon music this CD gives a perfect opportunity to find new tunes for ones repertoire.

No. 8 Ancient Swedish Pastoral Music is dedicated to the music of the remote, less populated areas in the west and the north of Sweden. This is music made to communicate over long distances, like the calling singing, where a singer on a hilltop could be heard for miles. There are numerous examples of calling on the record. There are also examples of ‘lur’, a long wooden instrument made of birch bark, with the same blowing technique as a trumpet, but with no other means of altering the pitch than the strength of the blowing. Other instruments featured are cow horn and luct flute.

A word of warning though. This is a great record for people interested in playing this kind of music, others should stay away from it. It is nothing to put into your CD player just for amusement.

Between them Lena Larsson, Ulrika Lindholm and Svea Jansson, supplied more than 1 400 songs during the recordings in the 1950s and 1960s. Excerpts from these recording show up on No. 9-10 Lena, Ulrika & Svea with about 24 recordings each from them.

Lena Larsson (1882-1967) was from Gullo, an island in the Bohuslan archipelago in the west of Sweden, just south of the Norwegian border. She sang with a deep alto voice, with neither ornamentation nor any strong accent. Ulrika Lindholm (1886-1977) was from the mountains in the middle of Sweden, in Jamtland. She had a higher voice, singing with slight ornamentation, but still without any strong accent. Svea Jansson (1904-1980) was from Aland, the islands between Sweden and Finland. The Swedish speaking parts of Finland was always a nice hunting ground for the recorders of traditional singers. She has a slight Finnish accent and the strongest voice of the three, although it sometimes turns a little shrill.

Together they give an overview of Swedish folk song: the lullabies, the big ballads, drinking songs (and the odd song about temperance), actually examples of most kinds of songs. Everything is performed a capella, with the singers‚ own comments sometimes left on the record. A lovely collection for singers searching for traditional songs to sing.

Sweden is divided into 25 ‘landskap’ (provinces). Each one has its own folk music traditions. No. 11 Fiddlers from Five Provinces presents fiddlers from Skane in the south, Gotland, the big island in the Baltic Sea, Uppland, north of Stockholm, Gastrikland and Halsingland, the two provinces north of Uppland.

The fiddlers on this CD are men who became household names in the middle of the last century, fiddlers who broke through the barrier between folk music and the more popular music of the day. A few of them have almost become legends, like Eric Ost (Halsingland), one in a long family line of musicians, or Eric Sahlstrom (Uppland), the man who developed the chromatic keyed fiddle. Sahlstrom is the main reason for the revival of keyed fiddle-playing in the late 20th century, teaching people all over the country how to build their own instruments and how to play them.

Tornedalen is in the far north, just north of the Baltic Sea. It is the valley that surrounds the Torne River, the border between Sweden and Finland. In Tornedalen most people, regardless of which side of the river they live, speak Finnish. This is reflected on CD No. 12 Singing Tornedalen, where 16 of the 23 tracks are in Finnish; and with three yoiks included that leaves only four songs to be sung in Swedish.

The singing tradition in Tornedalen is very strong and has survived partly because of Laestadianism, a Christian movement that is very strict, almost puritan. For a true Laestadian a radio or a television set is something sinful, and thus singing is one of the few forms of entertainment that is accepted. The CD contains songs of many sorts with ballads and broadsides as well as songs of work and religion, showing that the strict religious measures are not used to censor what people sing.

In rural communities there was often a shortage of money, and therefore it was necessary to build you own instrument if you wanted to play yourself. Many of these instrument were very simple, but some have survived and have become popular within the traditional music. Some of the instruments showcased on No. 13 Nordic Folk Instruments are such simple instruments. We get examples of flutes and the lovely psalmodikon, a bowed single string instrument which was developed to help people learn the ‘proper’ tunes for the hymns sung in churches, thus killing a tradition of local variations.

But there are also some of the more complex instruments, like the Finnish kantele, a kind of hammered dulcimer, and the Norwegian langeleik, resembling an Appalachian dulcimer. And of course there are samples of popular folk instruments as the clarinet, the jew‚s harp, the harmonica, the guitar and the fiddle. The Swedish bagpipe, more like a Northumbrian pipe than a Scottish one, and the amusing clog fiddle are present, as the typical Swedish nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle). The record ends with some modern examples of groups, including Frifot (with Lena Willermark and Ale Möller) and Garmarna. Rather an exciting CD, most valuable to music teachers all over the world.

No 14 Folk Tunes from Jamtland was recorded in 14 days in 1951. It contains fiddles, clarinet and mouth music, but no songs. Many of the tunes are attributed to Lapp-Nils, a legendary fiddler who died in 1870. It is doubted if he really composed all the tunes he gets credit for, especially as many are to be found in other versions in other provinces of Sweden and in Norway, but his influence as a teacher and as a role model for other fiddlers can not be underestimated.

The CD gives us 47 tunes, most of them after Lapp-Nils. As with many Swedish folk records the polkas are in the majority but there are also a few wedding marches and the odd waltz included.

No. 15 Songs of Sailors & Navies is a little surprising in its choice of songs. There are only two shanties, both sung in English, and one work song of the navies present among the 24 tracks. Instead it concentrates on songs about sailors and navies, and songs written and sung by them. Most of the singers are men who themselves worked at sea or building railway lines. A good record, but if you do not understand Swedish some of the stories told over many verses will mean very little to you.

No. 16-17 Folk Tunes from Rattvik, Boda & Bingsjo and No. 18 Folk Tunes from Dala-Floda, Enviken & Ore are closely related to No. 5 Folk Tunes from Orsa and Avdalen since they also present music from Dalarna.

Rattvik, Boda and Bingsjo are villages west of the lake. Nowadays Bingsjo is famous for its folk music festival which each year gathers thousands of people. Though the villages are not very far apart, they belong to the same municipality; each has developed its own style. The tunes on the both CDs are mostly played on the fiddle, but there are a few examples of short songs as well. On a few occasions the age of the players show, but mostly the playing is nothing less than brilliant.

Dala-Floda, Enviken and Ore are villages situated south of the three mentioned above, Enviken belonging to the municipality of Falun, well known for its world music festival in July each year. Whereas No. 16-17 mainly shows soloists No. 18 is mostly dedicated to group playing. Both the tunes from Enviken and from Ore are performed by a quartet with three fiddles and a viola, which makes for a fuller, but not strictly traditional, sound. The tunes from Dala-Floda are performed more according to tradition, but even here with a trio on some of them.

Just as with no 5 these CDs are ideal for fiddlers interested in Swedish folk music and in broadening their repertoire. There are an astonishing 131 tunes on these three CDs. Where some of the CDs in the series of more of historical interest these stand up well if you are looking for something to listen to just for pleasure, especially the first half of No. 18.

No 19 Blood, Corpses & Tears (Chapbook songs) is a collection of what in Sweden is called skillingtryck, what in Britain was called broadside ballads, sheets with song lyrics. They first appeared in the 16th century and did not disappear in Sweden until the 1930s. The music was never printed, but there were instructions like ‘sung to the tune of·.’.

The CD gives us 17 of these skillingtryck. Some are still well known, sometimes sung in Swedish school, like Elvira Madigan, the true story of a female tightrope walker in the 19th century who eloped with an officer. There is also the one about the murder of Abraham Lincoln, in the song called ‘The king of Northern America’, and one about the tragic fate of the Titanic.

Most of the songs are un-accompanied, but we get a few with chord zither, a popular instrument in Sweden in older days, and two with street organ. Among all the old traditional singers on the CD we also find one submission from Lena Willermark and two from Roland von Malmborg, a singer who have carried on the old organ grinding tradition in Sweden.

Bohuslan is a province along the west coast, from Gothenburgh in the south to the Norweigian border in the north. No. 20 Folk Songs and Times from Bohuslan is dedicated to music from that province.

The first half gives us Martin Martinsson, a man born in 1913 with a broad and huge repertoire with everything from mouth music to the big ballads. There are 24 recordings with him on the CD, many of them less than a minute long. He sings with a strong voice in perfect pitch and with a clear diction, which makes you understand why he was so popular with collectors.

The other half consists mainly of fiddle tunes, played by soloists, a duo and a larger group of fiddlers. The fiddle music of Bohuslan is fairly straight, with few ornaments. It is closer to the British tradition than the fiddle music of Dalarna is, and it has a clear Norwegian influence, which is not too strange since Bohuslan belonged to Norway up to the 17th century. Lena Larsson, another fine singer from Bohusläan, is not presented on the record since many of her songs are on No. 9-10.

No. 21-23 Yiok is not available any longer, but are scheduled to be re-issued in the Fall of ’02.

No. 24 Chorales & Wedding Music from Runo is a bit different from the others. Runo is a small island, about 3 miles long a just a little more than a mile wide, belonging to Estonia. From the 13th century up to 1944 it had a Swedish-speaking population. In 1944, at the end of World War II, almost everyone, then about 300, fled to Sweden.

In 1938 one of the Swedish song collectors arrived on the island to record the musical traditions there. The recordings were made in the old church and in the vicarage. 48 of the recordings are on the CD, most of them Runo versions of items from the Swedish hymn book. The last 14 tracks are fiddle tunes.

The CD gives the feeling of the music of an old Swedish village, in the days before radio and television. You may call it a historical monument.

No 25 Folk Music in Transition is the most ambitious project in the series. It shows how folk tunes can be transformed into both classical and modern music. We get to follow a number of songs and tunes, from their original forms as recorded by source singers into musical adventures.

Sometimes an individual song is shown in many various guises. The best example is ‘O Tysta Ensamhet’ which starts off with two short solo recordings from Dalarna. Then we get it modeled as a religious song, accompanied by a piano, two versions with soprano voice and piano, in a more classical setting, a piece from an orchestral suite, a jazz version and then as a piece of modern classical music.

Others songs and tunes appear in two or three version, with Folk & Rackare, Hedningarna and Lena Willmark as contributing singers and musicians.

The latest, maybe the last, in the series is a triple CD, No. 26-28 Swedish Fiddlers from the Past, with unique recordings of some of the great musicians from the late 19th and early 20th century. The music was recorded on phonograph cylinder between 1913 and 1920. Some of the musicians were born as early as 1846.

As with other recordings made on the phonograph the sound quality is not what you call hi-fi, in spite of what modern technology can achieve, but these are recordings which value are not defined by the frequency range. For anyone with a specialist interest in Swedish instrumental folk music it is both of historical importance and a source for finding new tunes. 30 musicians and a total 141 tracks will last a long time for anyone.

Well, a summary of this project would be: A very ambitious project which helps to preserve the musical traditions from Sweden for future generations, and give them access to some of the treasures that are hidden in various vaults in Stockholm. But beware, do not try to taste it all in one go. Remember the old advice about how to eat an elephant. You do it bit by bit.

The Caprice Web-site is here.

Lars Nilsson

Lars Nilsson is in his 60s, is an OAP and lives in Mellerud in the west of Sweden. He has a lifelong obesession with music and has playing the guitar since his early teens, and has picked up a number of other instruments over the years. At the moment he plays with three different groups, specialized in British folk, acoustic pop and rock, and, Swedish fiddle music. Lars has also written a number of books, most of them for school use, but also a youth novel, a couple of books about London and a book about educational leadership. He joined the Green Man Review team in 1998.

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