Ballad singing

Ballads have the triple advantage that they

  1. tell dramatic stories,
  2. usually have a burden (omkväde, refrain) which everybody can join in, and
  3. can easily be accompanied on one or several strings.

The occurence of objects called “harps” in many ballads may serve as justification why you so often hear ballads at Nordic Harp Meetings. An example of this is the ballad of Svend Vonved (DgF 18): Most Danish versions start with Svend Vonved playing a harp (click here for all 74 stanzas as sung in the Faeroe islands).

There have been many debates about the origin of Scandinavian ballads, and some good studies were published quite recently in Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. Their evolution appears quite complex, having absorbed various impulses from continental ringdances, French court poetry, Italian religious legends, local oral narratives, and more. But what is commonly called “Scandinavian medieval ballads” (SMB) are, in fact, folk songs. All of them. Not a single one can be traced directly to a manuscript of the Middle Ages, although there are plenty of speculations about which folk songs may have evolved from older songs or poems which may have evolved from stories which may have been translated from other stories which ultimately were inspired by some actual historical event. They are often called “medieval” because they usually have aristocratic protagonists in what looks like a medieval setting, plus that it is assumed that Scandinavians started to sing them when the ballad genre reached Scandinavia from the continent some time around the 12th century. Some of the Danish + Norwegian + Swedish ballad lyrics were written down in the 16th century by aristocratic enthusiasts, but most tunes were not notated before the collectors of the 19th century, inspired by the poems of Ossian and national romanticism, went out to interview peasants about their song repertoire and wrote down what the peasants were singing.

The same basic ballad has often versions in many different countries and languages. Yrjänä Ermala points out that the story of the “Cruel Sister” (another “harp” ballad) is a good example of this: Listen for instance to the version of Ranarim and Malinky, blending the Swedish “De två Systrarna” and the Scottish “Cauld Wind and Rain”: They make a perfect blend! Other ones that might be worth trying are, for instance:

There are, of course, lots and lots of others, related or not, and all of these would be welcome! Please tell us if you are coming and willing to share a groovy story with the others.

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