Monday, March 27, 2017

Scandinavian Ballads

Please welcome today my guest Ian Cumpstey.

Ian is the author of Lord Peter and Little Kersten, The Faraway North, and Warrior Lore.  All three books are collections of Scandinavian ballads.


ian cumpstey, norway, norwegian folk songs, norwegian balladsWhat is your musical background?

I have always been singing and playing music in one way or another, though how I have done this has not always been the same. I have tended to find at least one choir to sing in in most places I have lived, ever since I was young, and including when I was abroad in Sweden and France. But having said that, I am not part of a choir at the moment.

I learned to play some instruments when I was little – violin and clarinet – but I carelessly abandoned these when I was still young. I started playing the guitar shortly after that. I still play the guitar (I play fingerstyle and/or using open tunings to a large extent), and occasionally I also play other stringed instruments.

Since I returned to the UK about 5 years ago, I have become much more involved in a folkier music scene. I go out about once a week to play and sing with others in informal pub sessions and similar occasions. The kind of things we play are very diverse, but there is a lot of folk and blues ... and ballads. I do also write and perform my own songs.


faraway north, ballads of the north, ballads of ScandinaviaHow did you become interested in Scandinavia?

There are a few quite unrelated reasons ... one is through sport. I do a lot of orienteering, and I have been involved in this sport for many years. The sport originated in Scandinavia, it is still more-or-less dominated by Scandinavia at elite level (though maybe less now than 20 years ago), and there is a great influence of Scandinavia on the sport at all times. Sometimes this is obvious as we are always thinking about "what would the Swedes do?" as we try to improve, but sometimes it is on an unconscious level as several of the words we use in orienteering are very recent loan-words from Scandinavian languages, like orienteering, control, controller, gaffling, brick, galoppen etc.

And then I went to live in Sweden and stayed there for about eight years. That was because of work. At that time, I was working as an academic chemist, and when I finished my doctorate, I was able to find a two-year position in Lund in the south of Sweden where I was able to work on an interesting project in the area I wanted to get into with my chemistry research. When that was finished, I took another academic position in Stockholm and stayed there for nearly six more years.

So while I was living over there I became fairly immersed in the language and other aspects of Sweden.

What led you to the medieval music of Scandinavia in particular?

It's something that I got into in something of a roundabout way. Singing is much more a part of the culture in Sweden than it is in other places I have lived. And there are occasions when it is expected that everyone will sing. Whenever there is a sit-down dinner party, be it at the university (often), or birthdays, or weddings, or midsummer, or doubtless many other occasions, there will be singing. Not knowing the words is no excuse: guests will be provided with a songbook, and the songs will be sung. The Lucia holiday in December is another time when there is a lot of singing of winter songs, Lucia songs, and carols.

Scandinavian folk ballads, ian cumpstey, norwegian ballads, scandinavian folkloreWhen it comes to singing in Sweden, I should probably mention Allsång på Skansen, which is a huge weekly televised public sing-along in a park/outdoor museum in Stockholm. This is an extreme example of singing together in public, though I never went to it in person.

So when I was living in Sweden I was quite often singing songs in Swedish. This is when I first started thinking about translation. I started wondering about how much of these songs could be understood by someone who could speak English but not Swedish (some words can sound quite similar between the two languages, especially when sung).

The first things I had a go at translating were some of these songs that I was regularly singing and hearing, which include a lot of drinking songs, some things by early 20th century balladeer Taube, and some by the classic 18th century drinking song master Bellman. I also looked at St Staffan's song, which is one of the medieval ballads that is still sung as a Lucia song.

At the same time I was getting more into folk music and listening to ballads in English, and at some point I made the connection, and discovered this huge and rich number of surviving Scandinavian ballads.

Do you perform these pieces as a musician?

I do sing ballads at the sessions I go to locally. Mainly these are traditional English-language ballads, but I do sometimes sing ballads I have translated into English. I do sometimes perform songs in Swedish (not ballads though ... probably too long when people probably can't understand what the song is about). Some of these Swedish songs are modern. But there are also a few songs by Bellman that I like to sing, either in Swedish or in my English translation. Bellman was a Swedish songwriter active in the late 1700s. Many of his songs are drinking songs, but he also wrote about other aspects of life and love and death.


I saw on your blog that you speak and write Norwegian. Did you learn the language specifically for your work with these ballads?

I actually speak Swedish, though some understanding of Danish and Norwegian comes as a bonus. But yes it has nothing really to do with working with the ballads. I learned Swedish when I was living and working in Sweden.

The old language that the ballad texts are written down in is a little different from modern Swedish, though, and the spelling can be quite variable. So becoming familiar with a large number of ballads helps with the understanding of each individual one. The language can be a bit archaic in places, but it tends to be straightforward and direct, which makes translation easier.

Working with older Danish and especially older Norwegian ballad texts can be a little slower for me, especially as the Norwegian texts are written with unusual dialectal spellings. But even here, it is very helpful to be familiar with many ballad texts as the formulations used in the ballads pass essentially unchanged from ballad to ballad and across national boundaries (of course these boundaries have hardly been constant in Scandinavia over the past few hundred years).


I think you did the translations into English? How long does that typically take you for each ballad?

One important aspect of my approach to translating the ballads is the fact that they usually survive in many variants. This is not always the case, of course. I have translated ballads from only a single surviving variant, or where there are two variants where the differences are so minor as to be fairly inconsequential. But typically when translating a Swedish ballad there may be 4, 5, 6 versions of the text (and there may or may not also be versions of the same ballad in Danish and Norwegian). And these versions may seem more complete, or may be more fragmentary.

The first part is to read all these versions and to do a word-for-word translation without worrying too much about rhyme or metre.

I will then look at the different versions of the ballads, and see whether the English translation would benefit from combining different ballad fragments to make a cohesive whole. And then I will try to get the rhyme and metre to work as best as possible, while also maintaining the various repetitive patterns that are found in the ballad texts ...


What are some of the difficulties of translating lyrics into another language?

Two obvious aspects of the ballad texts are rhyme and metre. These are major defining characteristics of these ballads.

There are two main ways the ballads rhyme: as ABCB, and as AA. When these are sung, the four-line verses may (or may not) also be followed by a single chorus line (called the omkväde) that is repeated after each verse. The two-line verses may also have repeated omkväde lines; typically there will be an omkväde line after each verse line. These omkväde lines will not rhyme with the rest of the ballad, and will have little to do with the metre, and often seem to be more associated with the melody than with the rest of the ballad text.

The way the English and Scandinavian languages have come down to us means that some of the time, the rhymes come for free in translation. So if for example, you have lines ending in röd and död, these can become red and dead straight away. Sometimes you may get rhymes for free even when the spelling and pronunciation have diverged, so höga and öga become high and eye.

Alliteration is less obvious in these ballads than in older Scandinavian poetry. But one place where it does crop up is in some of the common repeated phrases. Just as in English-language ballads and folk songs there are various recurring motifs – a milk-white steed, a dapple-grey, a lily-white hand, and so on – similar motifs occur in the Scandinavian ballads. And these are sometimes alliterative. For example, there is böljande blå (the billowy blue), used for the sea, or gångare grå (palfrey grey), a very typical horse. For some of these I have managed to be alliterative in translation, but not all.

Actually, repetition is an important part of the ballad phenomenon. And it occurs in a number of different ways.

Quite often, a verse may be repeated (usually immediately), with minor variations. I suppose this can be a way of emphasising a point for the audience, as well as making a text easier to remember for a performer. For example,

In Lund's church in Skåne
Are preaching pastors three
The king himself will be there today
And there will the maiden be

In Lund's church in Skåne
Are preaching pastors ten
The king himself will be there today
With all his fierce court men


(from Peter Pallebosson in The Faraway North)


It is also quite common for very similar verses to occur in different ballads. For example,

They hoisted hight the silken sails
Upon the gilded masts
And never let those sails be struck
Till Aslack's land they passed


(from Heming and King Harald in Warrior Lore)

compared with

They hoisted high the silken sail
Up to the gilded spar
And it wasn't struck to the benches down
Till Trollbotten they saw


(from Åsmund Frægdegjevar in The Faraway North)

Again, this may make the audience more familiar with the subject matter of the ballad they are hearing. I try to incorporate all these kinds of repetition into my ballad translations as I think this repetition is a very important characteristic of the ballads.

As I mentioned, I have also tried to translate some other songs from Swedish, and sometimes this has been a lot more difficult or less satisfying. This could partly be due to the songs using more "poetic" language than the "direct" language typical of the ballads. Or sometimes due to more complex rhyming patterns, which are of course more difficult to maintain. Or perhaps due to the fact that usually there is a little flexibility in ballad texts due to the existence of more than one "original" version, whereas this is not the case for a typical song.

How many other people are doing similar work as you, in preserving these ballads and this music?

Occasionally I do see people doing similar things. I'm always surprised! The other week I was playing at my local open mic night, and a band came on and did one of the medieval Danish ballads (in Danish). That was a surprise.

Around the time of great ballad activity in the 1800s, when Child was compiling his collection of English and Scottish ballads, and the Scandinavian ballad giants were publishing their collections, a number of translations were made into English, mainly from Danish. Some further translation work as been done since then, but less.

Watch for the second half of Ian's interview tomorrow.  If you'd like to learn more about him or his books:




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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Barbaric Yawp 4: No Artist is an Island

In a weekend of music and poetry (and large dogs), I hosted Books and Brews with Laura Vosika yesterday which included listening to and playing Irish music, got mauled with affection by a large dog, attended a fantastic concert of medieval music by the Rose Ensemble, which included a theorbo (think lute on steroids), got loved half to death by a large dog, scratched a large dog's head and chin while playing piano (believe me, when a 100 pound dog is determined to be loved and you're determined to play piano, you do figure out how to do both), took a large dog for a long walk (well, for us, medium--about 2-1/2 miles), and tonight attended Barbaric Yawp, the monthly poetry open mic at Underground Music Café.

It was a small group tonight, in contrast to last month's extremely large turnout.  Among other pieces were Alan's very poignant piece about a father's funeral, Mike's performance piece of Mr. Himmler's Neighborhood, Cassie's series of poems about the very distinct personalities of the chickens she once had out in the Northwest, and Eric Tu's very entertaining poem about modern dating--with a girl and her phone.  Among standout lines: I want to espresso my feelings to you...I like you a latte!

I read two of my own pieces.  One was an exercise I wrote in anapestic meter which is (to my musician's mind) an anti-waltz: weak weak STRONG weak weak STRONG.  (Do not confuse this with week week strong, which is a very different thing.)  The other was a triolet, a form I enjoy and that, for some reason I find easy to write.  It is, in simplest terms, a form of AB a A ab AB.  In other words, there are only two rhyme schemes, the first line is repeated in the middle of the poem and the first two lines are repeated at the end of the poem.

Being in a medieval and Irish frame of mind this weekend, I also read a W.B. Yeats poem and a short medieval poem.

No Second Troy
W.B. Yeats


WHY should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?



This poem, like many he wrote, refers to Maude Gonne.  This one in particular refers to her revolutionary activities.  Despite his love--obsession?--for her, this particular piece does not cast her in an entirely favorable light.  I wrote briefly about Yeats and Maude a couple of days ago.  That piece doesn't even scratch the surface.  It's a subject I'll talk about in more depth another time

In a subject I'll also get into more in another post, this piece is an example of the way the arts intertwine and weave in and out with other artists, other pieces.  Poems, movies, myths, stories, statues, songs, art, dance, opera, and more, reference one another and play off one another and use one another as inspiration, as we each see in another's work something that inspires us.

My own Blue Bells Chronicles was inspired partially by Margaret J. Anderson's In the Keep of Time, partially by the old folk song Blue Bells of Scotland, partially by my own life as a trombonist and in orchestral music, and partially just by that mysterious unknown quantity of inspiration, of a flash of an image that came from who knows where, of a man so arrogant as to gamble his livelihood--in this case his trombone.

In turn, my neighbors grew beautiful wild flowers in their stretch of yard right where I always walk above-mentioned large dog which inspired me to take a photograph, which inspired my friend Cara Pabst Moran to paint a picture based off my photograph.  She also painted a castle, presumably somewhat inspired by my books, which she sent to me and which now hangs in my living room. 

Just in case you're wondering if the dog is totally superfluous to this post or if she inspires art, too--yes, she inspired a poem I read several times on the Vehicle of Expression, which I call my Larger Than Average Triolet for a Larger than Average Friend.

In Pictures at an Exhibition, Mussorgsky was influenced by...well, by pictures...pictures at an exhibition!  From the drawings and paintings, came a fantastic piece of music.  (I may have mentioned that Shawn likes the Russian composers--they write the best trombone parts!)

So, too, with No Second Troy.  Yeats's poem itself references Helen and Troy, and in turn, the poem was referenced years later by Sinead O' Connor in Troy--although, just as my photograph was my own take on my neighbor's garden, and Cara's painting was her own take on my photograph, Sinead's song is a very far from Yeats's poem which is hardly the original story of Troy. 

This is the beauty and fun of art and interacting with artists--and why it's so important for us not to be isolated artists in ivory towers.


I also read a poem that dates back to the early 14th century.  The original is:

Miri it is while sumer i-last
With foulës song;
Oc now neghëth windës blast
And weder strong.
Ei, ei, what this night is long,
And Ich with wel michel wrong
Sorwe and murne and fast


(Oh, my poor spell check is going crazy with that!  I think I need to give it a glass of wine.  A very large one.  Or a Prozac.)

And it is not just a poem, as I found it in my research, but also a piece of music:



I did not subject my audience to my efforts at pronouncing middle English, but hunted down a version tweaked into modern English:

Merry it is while summer lasts,
With birds in song;
But now there threaten windy blasts
And tempests strong.
Ah, but the night is long,
And I, being done such wrong,
Sorrow and mourn and fast


It is fascinating to watch this play between arts and artists, and a testament to why we should not let ourselves become isolated artists in ivory towers, but get out there and meet others and exchange ideas, melodies, forms, styles.  Brendan Carrol's book Tempo Rubato: Stolen Time talks about this--as we watch Mozart, pulled into our present time, experience jazz, and see how quickly his style changes as he listens to, loves, and is influenced by, others.

Circling back to previous thoughts, because I mentioned the relation of the Yeats poem to Maude Gonne, I ended up chatting with Greg after the open mic.  Someone who own a three inch thick book on Maude Gonne!  We had a very interesting conversation as a result and I learned about his association with a group that focuses on poetry as therapy and healing, and many other things.  I learned how his own poetry has influenced and been influenced--and so the cycle continues.  And I will likely learn and be influenced by the doors that conversation opened--which stemmed from Yeats writing a poem--which stemmed from Maude's activities and personality and charm and from an ancient story of Helen of Troy.

In The Blue Bells Chronicles, Shawn is heavily influenced by knowing Niall and Christina.  They are in turn influenced by him.

We are not islands--not as artists, not as people.  I learn from and am inspired by those at open mics and in my writers group.


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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Books and Brews: a trip to Ireland with Tom Dahill and Ginny Johnson

Listen to today's program by clicking HERE.


Today's program was a lot of fun!  Tom Dahill and Ginny Johnson joined us and we started the day with Irish music, Irish beer with expertise from Michael Agnew, Minnesota's first beer cicerone, and stories of Ireland.

books and brews, tom dahill, ginny johnson, michael agnew, a perfect pint


As usual, the time flew by and we got nowhere near covering all the things I had planned to talk about, so I'll talk about some of them here, along with a recap of the show this morning and the music and beer sampled.

Irish music, folk music, folk songs,
Tom Dahill grew up in St. Paul and has been playing Irish music for forty years now, since he went to Boston at age 20 and found that his audience wanted to hear Irish tunes instead of the music he had written.  Over the next four decades, he found himself learning from a number of great traditional musicians, and traveling around the country and more than a hundred times to Ireland, to play.  He is a master of a number of instruments, including the fiddle, guitar, and uillean pipes.

He and Ginny have been playing together for 11 years now and they started the program by playing The Lark in the Morning.  In the second segment, I pulled out my flute and the three of us played The Maid Behind the Bar. 


tom dahill, danny who?, danny boy, irish songs
Tom talked about his book Danny Who? and where the title came from, which is of course from the song Oh Danny Boy.  After being asked numerous times to play Danny Boy, Tom one night asked, Danny who?  Ah, yes, as musicians, sometimes we get tired of playing the same songs over and over!  I personally hate Danny Boy probably mostly because of how often it's played.  Unfortunately, the hour flew by and I didn't get a chance to ask Tom or Ginny what pieces they like best.  Farewell to Liverpool, Shule Aroon, and The Foggy Dew are among my favorites.  At the end of the post you'll find a list of the pieces used as bumper music on today's show.


Tom read two excerpts from his book, that fit well with our discussion of both the many tragedies of history and the Irish humor.  His first selection was about his radio program at a station on a reservation in Wisconsin, and how many of his listeners related to much of the Irish experience of oppression and discrimination.  His second selection was a humorous account of men dressed as babies being raced around town in prams in some sort of drinking game that ranged across the town!  I would love to have had time to hear quite a bit more!  It's available at amazon.  You can click on the image to the left to go straight to it.


I ran through a nutshell version of a thousand years of Irish history--Viking raids, famine, English rule, famine, flight of the earls, confederate wars, rebellion, Oliver Cromwell, discriminatory laws, the banning of Gaelic and wearing green, more famine.

michael agnew, a perfect pint, irish stout, guinness
Michael brought a selection of Irish beers for us to try:
  1. Smithwick's, an Irish red ale-style beer originally from
  2. Kilkenny, Ireland.  (There's a song about Kilkenny, Ireland.)

  3. O' Hara's Irish Stout

  4. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout

  5. Lift Bridge Irish Coffee Stout (which comes from Stillwater, not Ireland!)
I liked the Smithwick's and Lift Bridge the best.  Listen to the program to hear Michael speak about the qualities of each!

If you liked the bumper music, the pieces in order were taken from YouTube.  You can find the full versions here:

The Minstrel Boy
Flight of the Earls
The Foggy Dew
Leaving of Liverpool

Next month, on April 29, my guest will be Andrew Coons, poet and writer from Savage, Minnesota.

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