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Old-Time and Traditional Favorites
by Philip Nusbaum

Traditional Music is one of the symbols that bind Norwegian Americans to each other and to past generations, from the fjords and valleys of Norway to the farms and cities of Minnesota. But music is also more tangible than a symbol. Playing, singing, dancing, and listening to it has been a source of pleasure and inspiration for Norwegian Americans since early settlement days. In addition to being an important ingredient in ethnic events, music has been part of home life, casual socializing, and civic and social functions for more than a century.
        The selections presented here are examples of this music,) recorded in the field in 1987 and 1988. Most belong to the category of old-time music, in which waltzes, reinlenders (schottisches), and polkas are the most prominent tune types; we have also included one old-time song. One tune represents the bygdedans tradition of Norwegian regional dance music. Rounding out the mix is one piece of religious music played on the psalmodikon, a one-stringed, fretted instrument developed to accompany hymn singing. (1) This recording does not represent all forms of traditional Norwegian and Norwegian-American music, such as lullabies, seasonal songs, and choral arrangements. Nor does it include contributions from ensembles such as male choruses or the popular traveling bands of the 1930s and 1940s. (2) The narrower focus allows this recording to explore in more depth the astonishing variety of personal styles within the traditions represented.

Minnesota's Norwegian Americans

        Like many other American ethnic groups, Norwegians emigrated to America for economic reasons. The history of nineteenth-century Norway is dotted with reports of economic hardships brought on by an increased population coupled with limited opportunities for agricultural expansion. In 1825 the first Norwegian people reached America, settling in northern New York State and later, seeking reasonably priced good land, pushing west to Illinois. By the 1830s, Norwegians began settling in Wisconsin where, within two decades, they had established several communities. (3)
        Many of the immigrants from this early period moved to America as families. When the children grew up, they often faced the same problem that had confronted their parents in Norway: not enough land. Seeking land of their own, these Wisconsin farmers became the first Norwegians to settle permanently in Minnesota Territory. Beginning in the 1850s, they migrated to the southeastern area, the present-day counties of Fillmore, Houston, Goodhue,, Freeborn,, Mower, Dodge, and parts of Olmsted, Rice, Faribault, Steele, and Waseca. Later settlement continued westward to Blue Earth, Watonwan, and Brown counties. After 1865 more chose west-central Minnesota. By 1871 they began to move into the Red River valley, which eventually became the region of Minnesota with the highest percentage of Norwegian settlement.(4)
        Immigrants from the same district in Norway often settled together in rural areas, and their descendants retained the culture of the home districts as late as the 1930s. Such was the case around Spring Grove Township in Houston County, originally known as "Norwegian Ridge," and Wang Township in Renville County. (5)
        The 1880s, however, witnessed the beginnings of change in Norwegian-American culture in Minnesota. Unlike earlier Norwegian immigrants, settlers of this and later eras migrated to pursue commercial, business, and industrial opportunities. No longer did they necessarily migrate in family groups. Many left cities in Norway to seek their fortunes in Minnesota, intending to return to their homeland with the money they had saved. (6)
        Later settlements, urban and rural, tended to at tract immigrants from many places in Norway. In addition, the factors that caused communities in Norway to be relatively isolated from each other did not exist in Minnesota. The terrain was not so rough in America and travel was not so difficult. As a result, immigrant Norwegians encountered more people from different regions of their homeland as well as the cultures of other ethnic groups.
        This wider exposure led those who wished to preserve the distinctive regional cultures of the Norwegian countryside to take concrete action. To that end they began forming bygdelags, societies of people from the same Norwegian area or group of areas. (7) Surrounded by Americans of other backgrounds, Norwegians realized the differences among the heritages of the home districts were small when compared to the differences between Norwegians and other ethnic groups. As Norwegian historian Lars Reinton put it, "Norway is a country of many' nations which naturally draw together when they get outside the country." (8) In America, sharing a Norwegian background gradually became more important than the heritage of any one district. This ethnic awareness survived the increasing use of English, which by the end of World War I had become the language spoken most frequently in Minnesota's Norwegian households.
        In the late 1980s awareness of the culture of home districts coexists with the more general Norwegian identity. At bygdelag meetings, for example, those participants who are able speak their distinct dialects, and exhibits and musical performances present aspects of specific regional culture. Other special events celebrate the pan-Norwegian background. People from all districts gather annually for Syttende Mai (May 17) festivities, commemorating Norwegian Constitution Day, popularly thought of as independence day. The social and educational activities of institutions such as the Sons of Norway, founded in 1895 as a fraternal benefit society, also draw together people of diverse Norwegian heritages.
        Aside from special occasions, Norwegian-American culture is reflected in the ways older people naturally speak a Norwegian- inflected version of English and in the way third-generation Norwegian Americans playfully use Norwegian dialect for humorous effect. 9) The culture manifests itself when people prepare Norwegian delicacies, such as krumkake or lefse, for family occasions. It is demonstrated through participation in activities of the Lutheran church and in the fondness for art forms such as rosemaling and Hardanger lace and in the preference for the Norwegian style of oldtime music. In Minnesota the awareness of the home districts, the gradual emergence of the Norwegian-American culture of the Upper Midwest, and contact with surrounding ethnic groups-- Germans, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, and "Americans"-- all shaped the development of Norwegian traditional music.


1. For more on the psalmodikon, see Ardith K. Melloh, "Grandfather's Songbooks, or the Psalmodikon in America, " Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly 32 (October 1981): 265-88.

2. In the early 1960s ethnomusicologist Johannes Riedel tape recorded Alma Lien of Northfield singing songs in the Norwegian language. By the late 1980s most of this singing was performed in choral groups sponsored by religious or university organizations. Members of other European ethnic groups in Minnesota,) such as the Germans, Czechs, Poles, and Slovenians, have likewise retained dance music to a greater extent than songs in their native language.

3. Carlton Qualey, "The Fox River Norwegian Settlement, 513, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 27 (July 1934): 134; Hjalmar Rued Holand, Norwegians in America: The Last Migration, trans. Helmer M. Blegen (Sioux Falls, So. Dak.: Center for Western Studies, Augustana College, 1978), 32, 40.

4. Carlton C. Qualey and Jon A. Gjerde, "The Norwegians,, " in They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State's Ethnic Groups, ed. June D. Holmquist (St. Paul: Minnesota Histori- cal Society Press, 1981), 220-28.

5. Qualey and Gjerde, "The Norwegians," 232; Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge, ed., History of Houston County, Minnesota (Winona: H. C. Cooper, Jr., and Co., 1919), 173; Carol L. Heen, "An Investigation of Social Customs In Southwestern Minnesota and Their Impact on Present and Future Music and Education" (Master's paper, University of Minnesota, 1972), i, 28.

6. Qualey and Gjerde, "The Norwegians," 231-33.

7. Odd S. Lovoll, A Folk Epic: The Bygdelag in America (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975), 1-4, 15. In 1899 in Minneapolis immigrants from Valdres founded the first of what grew to be a network of about fifty lags nationwide. The number of bygdelags grew most rapidly in the period from just before World War I into the 1920s.

8. Lovoll, A Folk Epic, 4.

9. On the power of dialect to establish a person's regional identity, see Einar 1. Haugen, The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1969), 358. This also applies to people who speak English with a Norwegian accent.

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