Scandinavian Ballads Part Two

Welcome back to Ian Cumpstey for Part Two of his interview, which started yesterday with (not surprisingly, cause that's the way we roll) PART ONE!


Ian Cumpstey, scandinavian folklore, books on scandinavia
For those ballads that have no music, how do you feel about the words being set to new melodies? Does it at least keep the ballad alive or does it destroy the historical integrity of knowing what kind of melodies were really used and leave us with a mistaken idea of what they experienced? Or somewhere in the middle?

I think this is a good thing.

It seems to be clear that in the past these ballads were a very popular form of entertainment. The fact that so many of them spread with minor variations throughout Scandinavia through word of mouth speaks for how much people enjoyed listening to them, and also singing them. So if a modern-day performer is able to bring a ballad to life for a new audience through singing a traditional text to a melody that was not associated with it, but that nevertheless seems to work for that performance, then for me that is only good.

After all, for some ballads, several melodies are known, and also it's a quite "legitimate" and "within the tradition" thing to do to sing one ballad to the tune of another. In many cases, the melodies that are known were written down years (sometimes centuries) after the first texts for those same ballads. Possibly the first ballad text collectors were less interested in the melodies, perhaps the melodies were well known, or perhaps even then the melody was somewhat flexible.

The style that ballads are performed in can also vary immensely, and this will have a great impact on people's appreciation of a performance. Modern renditions are almost always accompanied by instrumental arrangements varying in style from acoustic fingerstyle guitar to heavy metal and anywhere in between (or beyond). When the Scandinavian ballad text collectors were working in the 19th century, the ballad singers were usually unaccompanied and solo. But it seems likely that in their heyday ballads could have been accompanied, and/or that more than one singer could have been involved in singing the omkväde (chorus) lines.

But yes, melodies for many of the ballads were written down eventually, and many are accessible online, so it is certainly good to use these melodies where they are available. It is probably impossible for us to know or recreate exactly how a ballad would have been performed. But it was certainly in a way that kept the ballad genre alive for a long time.


Looking briefly at your blog, you tell the stories told in some of these ballads. What are some themes you commonly see in the stories?

Scandinavian folklore, Scandinavian history, Scandinavian ballads
I think many people who have heard some traditional ballads tend to get fixed on the idea that in ballad stories everyone dies. That's interesting, because although that does happen a lot, the number of ballads where the baddies get what's coming to them and the goodies live happily ever after is also high. Perhaps people think about the "everyone dies" motif as characterising ballads just because this type of story is perhaps less common in other forms of storytelling.

Anyway, the ballads cover a wide range of subjects, and they are often grouped by subject into ballads about knights, legends (about saints), history, warriors adventures and trolls, the supernatural, and comic songs. Of course, as with many attempts to classify things, the lines between these categories are often pretty blurred. I will explain a little bit about some of these ballad categories in more detail.

What the supernatural ballads have in common is that they feature supernatural creatures of Scandinavian folklore. These may be mermaids or elves, or less well-known creatures like the neck (näcken in Swedish) is a water spirit who is always an expert musician; we may see creatures like a dwarf king, or a mountain king (who lives underground inside a mountain), or a forest-maid, or a "hill-farmer" (haugebonde in Norwegian, an underground creature on a farm). In the ballads, these supernatural beings almost always have intentions that will have bad consequences for the heroes or heroines of the ballads. Sometimes the supernatural creatures will prevail, and everyone will die. But sometimes they can be overcome, and everyone can live on happily.

fascinating stories, old stories, folklore, lord peter and little kerstin
There is perhaps a notable omission from the list of Scandinavian folkloric creatures that appear in the supernatural ballads ... the troll! Well trolls are actually common in ballads, but they usually appear in the so-called "warrior ballad" class. The ballad trolls are often oversized monsters, and there are often descriptions of their grotesque appearance. These trolls will almost always get what's coming to them, either through being defeated in battle or generally being stupid, or by being turned to stone by the sight of sunlight or of a cross. And then our hero may relieve the troll of whatever gold he or she may have accumulate, and whatever maidens he or she may have stolen away. But the nature of the troll is not always the same. Sometimes, it seems that people are being called "troll" as an insult (even then). And sometimes, it seems that a troll who chooses to convert to Christianity will cease to be a troll.

Ballads in the "knight" category are often love stories. These are often very tragic tales of the type: the wrong boy and girl fall in love, everyone tries to stop them, there is fighting and many people are killed, then everyone else dies of sorrow. But again, there are also some more upbeat stories of how lovers will go through a series of tests and come out together on the other side.


Would you say these are common themes for Scandinavia, for medieval times, or themes that are still common in our music today?

heroes of old, scandinavian legends
Some aspects of ballads can be found in fairytales, which often originate in Scandinavia or Germany. The adventure or troll ballads in which a hero defeats a troll and rescues a maiden or frees a town from suffering are fairly typical of this. The supernatural creatures that appear in some ballads are also typical of Scandinavian folklore and also appear in some fairytales.

The ballads themselves seem to be a medieval phenomenon that spread throughout Europe. Some of the ballads that tell tales of courtly life could be seen as counterparts to similar stories about King Arthur, Charlemagne, or Robin Hood. Some of the Scandinavian ballads tell stories about fairly generic heroes or heroines, or stories about people about who little else is known. But there are also ballads about some of the most famous characters in medieval Scandinavia. For example, King Diderick of Bern and his warriors were very well known legendary figures who featured in many stories, and also some ballads. Holger the Dane and Sven Felding were Danish national heroes, and again stories about these men were common also outside ballads.

Some of the darker themes that are common in ballads may also be seen in other aspects of the arts in Scandinavia. I don't know how unique "Nordic Noir" is to Sacndinavia, but it is certainly marketed well as a unique and important aspect of culture of that part of the world. If Ingvar Bergman's films can be seen as a forerunner to modern Nordic Noir, then it could be relevant that he took some of his ideas from the medieval ballads. For example, the film The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan) is based on the ballad Per Tyresson's Daughters in Vänge (Per Tyressons Döttrar in Vänge).

Storytelling songs like ballads are not so common in the mainstream music of today. Traditional English language ballads became popular during the 1960s folk music revival. And similarly in Scandinavia, folk rock bands began to record versions of the traditional Scandinavian ballads, but experimenting with new sounds and electrified instruments. Several Scandinavian ballads are now very popular hits for heavier folk metal bands. Meanwhile, some people, like famously Bob Dylan or Townes Van Zandt or many others, have been basically taking the idea (and sometimes the melody) of a traditional ballad, but writing new songs telling stories about contemporary events or fictions set in more modern times. Having said that, while all this is going on, it is also relatively niche.

Thank you, Ian!  If you'd like to learn more about Ian or his books:




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