With their brief narrative style, old-fashioned language and unexpected melodic lines, ballads may seem fairly inaccessible to modern listeners. Why do modern, urban youngsters listen to long, ancient songs about knights, maidens and strange, supernatural beings? Many of them even take the time to learn to sing such songs, their unusual melodies ornamented with melismata, undefined intonation and uneven rhythms. The general interest in the Middle Ages may be one explanation; another may be that the songs tell stories that seem genuine to people today. The characters described in the ballads are not stereotype fairy-tale figures but human beings of flesh and blood with strong emotions. The end of the story is not a foregone conclusion; the songs seldom end with “they lived happily ever after”.
Nevertheless, they have fascinated people who become more closely acquainted with them. For one and a half centuries, they have inspired composers, artists and authors and aroused the curiosity of researchers. The ballads have been used and modernised in countless ways, but there is still considerable interest in performing them in the traditional manner.
Landstad, collector of folk songs
In the 1840s, a Norwegian vicar, Pastor M. B. Landstad, was collecting old folk songs in Telemark County. At that time Norway was still a young nation, trying to establish a national identity and in need of cultural elements that might express something essentially Norwegian. The ancient popular culture was well suited to this, and the old folk ballads could easily be used to link the present with what was considered to be Norway’s golden age in the late Middle Ages, when Norway had its own king and also encompassed Iceland, Greenland, the Orkney Islands and the Isle of Man.
Pastor Landstad was initially uncertain about whether the songs he heard were old folk poetry or merely corrupt versions of Danish books and broadside ballads. In 1845, however, when he met the 28-year-old serving girl Maren Ramskeid and heard her sing Draumkvedet (The Dream Lay), he was immediately fascinated, certain that he was hearing the remnants of a song whose roots went back to the very earliest period of Christianity in Norway in the 9th or 10th century.
Draumkvedet is a visionary song about heaven and hell, purgatory and judgement day, containing images that are clearly different from Lutheran Protestantism. When Draumkvedet was published in 1854 it aroused immediate interest, and in the 1890s Professor Moltke Moe reconstructed the song as he believed it must originally have been. Since then, Draumkvedet has been regarded as a Norwegian national epic, although subsequent researchers have not been willing to date it as far back as Landstad did. Some of them even believed that it may have originated as recently as the 17th century.
Unfortunately, Maren Ramskeid was never aware of the interest her song had aroused; she emigrated to America in 1852 and never returned.
The ballads are not as typically Norwegian as Pastor Landstad and his contemporaries wanted to believe. The Nordic ballad genre, in which the Norwegian ballads belong, are closely related to English and Scottish ballads, particularly the type that are known as Child ballads in the UK and the USA, named after Professor Francis James Child, who published the comprehensive work English and Scottish Popular Ballads from 1882 to 1898. The similarity is apparent in both phrasing and content. One ballad, which in Norwegian is entitled Harpa or Dei to søstre, is so similar to the Scottish ballad The Two Sisters that the singer can start on the Norwegian ballad and hop over to the Scottish one and back at any time without a break in the story. The Scottish Hind Etin is closely related to the song that in Norway is called Liti Kjersti og Bergekongen, while Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight is the same as Rullemann og Hilleborg in Norway.
The connection with French and German ballads is also clear, although not as directly or in such concrete terms as in the case of the Scottish ballad tradition.
We often call these folk songs medieval ballads, but that does not mean that we actually know them in their medieval form. In Denmark, original texts still exist from the 16th century, while the oldest Norwegian ballad manuscript is from 1612. Only a handful of songs have been proved to be from before 1840 and most of the tunes were written down at a far later date. Nevertheless, we believe that the ballads originated in the Middle Ages because the content of the songs is medieval. They tell of love and war in the time of the medieval knights, the religious content is pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism and the songs that describe historical events and characters tell of dramas that took place at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th centuries.
Maren Ramskeid told Pastor Landstad that she had learned Draumkvedet from her father, who had learned it from his father before him. The song had lived for many generations without being written down. When stories and songs survive in the oral tradition in this way, they will always change. Parts of the text are forgotten and reconstructed, old-fashioned features are modernised, new tunes are adapted to them and variations are created. There is no longer a genuine or correct form. The original creator and his work have disappeared in the mists of time, but a series of co-creators have kept the song alive. This does not necessarily mean that the work of art has been degraded. We have many examples of simple, unimpressive snippets of song growing into mighty epics in the oral tradition.
A ballad is a means of telling a story. The dramatic text is the most important thing and the melody and form are subordinate to the narrative. The melodic material may be extremely varied. Alongside ancient, recitative formula melodies, there may be melodies that sound fairly modern. In modern songs, the melodic line usually forms a rhythmic matrix into which the text of each phrase is squeezed. The opposite is the case in the ballads. The melody and rhythm have to adjust to the text, which means that there may be significant rhythmic and melodic variations from one phrase to the next.
Ballads tell stories
Ballad researchers have been most interested in the texts. They are usually divided into six groups according to their content. Ballads of the supernatural are songs that concern witchcraft and magic, the magic use of runes, divination, omens and magical transformations, but they are also about supernatural beings, fairies, elves, nixies, revenants and creatures of the mountains.
In fairy-tales, the hero is always superior, he cuts off the troll’s or dragon’s head and wins the hand of the princess. In the ballads, things are not so simple. Many of them tell tragic tales of love between humans and supernatural beings, where the humans usually emerge as the losing party, injured for life. The ballad Olav Liljekrans (the Scottish Clerk Colvill) tells of a young man who rides out to invite guests to his wedding. In the forest, he meets a flock of elves. The elfin queen asks him to dance with her, but he refuses because he is going to be married the next day. The elfin queen therefore casts a spell on him and he comes home dying. His death is concealed from his bride, but finally she discovers the truth and she dies too.
Legendary ballads are also ballads about the supernatural, but the supernatural elements are in accordance with the Christian faith. However, this is not Protestant Christianity; it is pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism, with saints, martyrs, miracles and visions. Draumkvedet belongs in this group, although it is really an atypical ballad. The strength of Draumkvedet lies in the strong visionary images, while the epic thread is thinner than in most other ballads.
Several ballads are based on old legends about saints. They may concern the Virgin Mary, Saint George and Saint Catherine, or the Nordic saints Olav and Halvard. There are also songs about forgotten local heroes and martyrs.
Historical ballads describe identifiable historical events. Most of them narrate events of national historical import, about kings and great men.
The Margaretavisa is about the six-year-old Princess Margareta, who died on a voyage to Scotland in 1290. King Alexander of Scotland had just died and the little Norwegian princess, his only grandchild, was on her way to Scotland to marry and secure the hereditary line.
The most popular of the Norwegian historical ballads is Falkvor Lommansson, which tells of the capture of a bride in 1288. The Swedish knight Falkvor kidnapped a bride and escaped with her to the Norwegian court in Bergen. The popularity of the ballad is most probably due to the fact that it tells the story of a romantic kidnapping, but the historical sources indicate that it may well have concerned a rape in connection with a political power struggle.
Ballads of chivalry are a group of realistic songs about contemporary life among the nobility – or rather the gentry – with a preference for dramatic events. Many of these ballads probably also stem from historical events, but in most cases there are no sources to verify their authenticity. That is why these ballads are placed in this group rather than in the historical one.
Love has always been a central theme for song-writers, and various forms of love are the main motif in these ballads. Although happy love is depicted in a few of the ballads, the tragic love songs are dominant. Nor are the ballads afraid of dealing with such difficult themes as rape, incest, infidelity and crimes of passion. One of Edvard Grieg’s lyrical pieces, Solfager og Ormekongen, is based on a ballad of this type.
“The King of the Dragons cam ariding
on his mare,
And the maiden was so young
Sunfair stood waiting and sunned
her golden hair.
I love to ride out in the meadows.”
(From Solfager og Ormekongen. Norway Sings – A Collection of Norwegian Folk Songs, Norsk Musikkforlag, 1940. Translated by Christopher Norman [Ragnar Christophersen])
Heroic ballads are a group comprising stories that are more like fairy-tales. The heroes are big and strong, they attack enemies and trolls, delighting in battle and fearless of death. The style of the songs is also highly visual, with monumental, colourful images.
These ballads share the enthusiasm of the sagas for excessive exaggeration and many of them are closely related to the youngest group of Icelandic sagas, known as the fornaldar sogur, which tell romantic, fantastic stories. This group is the most uniquely Nordic of all the ballads. While the other groups have parallels all over Europe, this group is found only in the Nordic region.
Ballads and epics about the hero Roland and his brave battle against the Moors exist in many European countries. The Norwegian ballad Roland og Magnus Kongjen tells the well-known story in heroic ballad style. At the Battle of Ronceveaux, Roland attacks the Moors, mowing them down like a reaper with a sharp scythe, while the steam from the blood of fallen soldiers casts shadows over the battlefield.
Jocular ballads are the last group. These ballads were highly popular among the common folk, but since their humour is often burlesque and crudely erotic they were often neglected by the researchers who wrote the ballads down in the 1800s, since they were not conducive to promoting national pride. Many of these songs make fun of gender roles, often by turning them upside down. Typical is the ballad Ungersvenn på tinget, which tells of a strong, aggressive woman who rapes a man. In the morning, he goes to court to try to have her punished, but is merely derided.
One group of jocular ballads concerns animals. In Kråkevisa, the humour consists of a description of an unreasonably large crow. The animal ballads have a naïve humour that still appeals to children.
Ballads have traditionally been performed solo, without any form of accompaniment. In the 1960s and 1970s, it became common practice to form groups of singers and several musicians playing folk instruments. In recent years it has also been more usual to perform ballads to the accompaniment of medieval instruments.
One of the most important contemporary folk singers is Agnes Buen Garnås (1946), who comes from a family with strong folk music traditions and has sung folk music since she was a child.
Kirsten Bråten Berg (1950, LtN 1/96) sings in the Setesdal tradition. Both Agnes Buen Garnås and Kirsten Bråten Berg have also made recordings with jazz musicians, the former with Jan Garbarek and the latter with Arild Andersen.
Tone Hulbækmo (1957, LtN 2/00), who comes from Østerdalen, began as a pure folk singer but has since developed her talents to cover a broader field. The Kalenda Maya group, of which she was a member, played medieval music and used the experience they had gained to make an album of Norwegian ballads.
Sinikka Langeland (1961, LtN 2/99) is one of the youngest generation of folk singers. Her mother is Finnish and she comes from a part of Norway where there were many Finnish immigrants. She plays the Finnish folk instrument, the kantele, but is most strongly linked to the Norwegian vocal tradition.
Strangely enough, most folk singers are women. Arve Moen Bergset (LtN 1/00) is one of the exceptions. He is one of the very youngest generation and recorded his first solo album as a child. Halvor Håkenes is another male member of the younger group.