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Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads

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This past May, 2017 while away attending a conference in Detroit, Michigan here in the U.S., I learned of the famous used bookstore, John K. King rare books store. And like any curious reader with a huge appetite for old books, particularly those centered on music, I slipped out from a rather sleepy session and strolled to the store. Walking a mile in really hot weather is not my cup of tea, particularly when the sidewalks were hot enough to cook on. As I approached the building I spotted the signage that announced what was giant warehouse with several floors. In entered, asked where the music section was and dived in to some dusty books waiting for attention. Among my discoveries was a first edition 1936 hard cover of “Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads, edited by Theodore C. Blegen and Martin B. Ruud.

The introduction to the book states: Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads, presenting the English and Norwegian texts of more than fifty emigrant songs and ballads, forms a unique contribution to folk literature and social history. Here is collected for the first time a group of songs born of the European folk movement to America during the nineteenth century.Many of the ballads are human stories of gripping interest. They cover a wide range of emotions, from pathos and nostalgia to anger and satire. Some are gay and humorous skits. The most popular of the ballads is the rollicking “Oleana.” Some of the others are: “Farewell to the Spinning Wheel,” “Sigrid’s Song,” “Let Us Away and over the Sea,” “El Dorado,” “A Pestilence is Loose in the Mountains,” “Brothers, the Day of Norway’s Freedom,” and “A Song Concerning the Emigration to America.” A general historical sketch precedes the ballads, and each song in turn is placed in its special setting by a brief preface. Music, harmonized for the piano, is provided for a dozen of the ballads.

As I read it, gently negotiating each brittle page, I’m reminded that Wisconsin was an intentional destination for Norwegian immigrants and by the time this book was published, some accounts indicate that 25% of Norwegians in America lived in Wisconsin. As time permits, I’ll do a bit of research on recordings that illumine works cited in the book and without hesitation, add them to the playlist for a future edition of Higher Ground. –Jonathan

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