Film Chronicles Stories of Maine's Swedish Immigrants. Listen to the interview with Dan Olson and Brenda Jepson from MPBN radio 4/15/11
116 Station Road
PO Box 33
New Sweden, ME, 04762
Carolyn Hildebrand email@example.com
280 Main Street
Stockholm, ME 04783
John & Rosemary Hede
1149 New Sweden Rd.
Woodland, ME 04736
Traditional Swedish dance music is usually a single melodic line with chords performed by at least a duo consisting of a guitar and either fiddle or accordion. Improvised or arranged combinations of fiddles and/or accordions can be adapted to fit any piece. Other instruments such as the harmonica or piano/keyboard are also sometimes used to play melody and/or chord progressions.
There are four types of Swedish dance tunes: the Schottis (also known as the Swedish Hop), the hambo (short for hambotakt), the waltz, and the polka (or polska). A typical performance combines all of these in no particular order. Within these types are commonly known groupings such as the "Jamtlandsk or Bride March" and the "Ganglat or Walking Tune." Many of these tunes will frequently alternate between major and minor keys and performers sometimes modulate to other keys within a tune.
Adella Johnson is a lifelong resident of New Sweden who was born into a musical family and began playing guitar after receiving a guitar for grammar school graduation. As a duo with her Mother Lillian, who until recent years played accordion, Adella has performed "probably hundreds" of times at various occasions including Midsommar Celebrations with the "Little Folk." She remembers growing up and eventually performing in an environment where "barn dances, cellar dances, and house party kind of things happened all the time." Local friends and relatives would gather informally, often at Lillian Johnson's house, and dance Swedish dances into the night. Adella remembers a huge kettle of coffee on the stove, because a regular pot just wasn't enough for the 20-50 people. She also wonders aloud at how "into her 70's Mom stood there for four hours with that heavy accordion hanging on her back. We all just loved it. It was such a fun time." And that "the women always put on a big feed of sweets and sandwiches."
The duo also performed at organized dances at VFW, American Legion, and Knights of Columbus halls and at Hunter's Breakfasts. They appeared on Loring Air Force Base Television in the late 1950's, and on a Swedish documentary aired in Sweden in the 1980's. They were even featured on Good Morning America with the "Little Folk" dancers in the 1970's.
Listening to homemade cassette recordings of Adella and Lillian reveals how they were indeed musically very "together." It's enjoyable to listen to and Adella recalls that it was the "togetherness of their rhythmic skip"--the rhythmic subtleties that must be performed in unison--that made them so popular with dancers over the years.
This active community dance tradition gradually faded away in the 1960's. Silas Gustafson, an accomplished accordionist who often performed with the Johnson's over the years, cites television for causing the change. He says "Pretty soon everyone had a t.v. and they stayed home all the time. And so the dances just died away." He adds that before the 1960's, "people visited a lot and they were mainly related second, third, or fourth cousins. Or at least everyone knew each other. Now you don't hardly know your neighbor."
Silas was born in Minnesota and married Anita Strid who was originally from New Sweden. They moved to New Sweden in the early 1950's. He grew up playing the guitar and accordion in a musical and "very Swedish" family. Like Adella, Silas recalls the frequent house dances as being "always a good time. The women would be talking, the men would have a beer, the kids would be running around outside in the dark playing together." With a laugh he remembers, "At the end of the night we'd go to get the little kids and they'd be sleeping cross-ways on the beds just so they could each have a space."
Silas also remembers that there was a kind of method for finding out where the dances would be on any given Saturday evening. It seems that, around the time folks were finishing up chores and dinner, anyone looking for the party would take a drive to see where the cars were parked. Silas says matter-of-factly, "Usually a ride around ‘the block' [a 15-20 mile loop formed by Rt. 161, Station Rd. and Rista Rd.] would turn up where a lot of the action happened," including the Johnson and Strid homes.
Adella and Silas both remember that drinking beer was a big part of the evening, but was always done outside or in the car, "kind of on the sly so the men felt like they were getting away with something," chuckles Silas. They both also remember that the musicians chose the dance tunes (hambo, waltz, etc.) and therefore set the pace for the evening. Family members didn't think twice about dancing with each other. Silas says "They'd just grab anyone and start dancing if they liked the tune."
Silas characterizes the evening as a time for joking around, telling stories, teasing, and even doing a little bragging. Although, he says, "Most of the guys who told funny stories told the same ones over and over again. But they still got a good laugh because there's not much new to tell when you don't go far from here." He remembers, "Many of the stories were about work; like somebody having trouble with some machinery and doing something foolish to try to fix it." One story he remembers was told more than once to tease Waldo Anderson. It seems that Waldo had been bragging about how good he could drive Silas' motorcycle, if Silas would let him. Finally Silas agreed to let Waldo drive. Sitting in Silas' driveway Waldo fired up the cycle and popped it into gear. "What happened next," Silas says, "is that Waldo took a very short ride into my garden and fell right over."
Clearly, New Sweden has a rich social and musical history revolving around dance parties. Adella, Silas, and other musicians agree that, if not for the Midsommar Celebration revival begun in the 1970's, this part of their music tradition would probably be inactive and would certainly be buried from public view. (See elsewhere in this report for detailed discussion of this revival.) Consequently, the Midsommar music and dancing, as well as other aspects of the celebration, take on a very nostalgic quality; It seems to be a time primarily for remembrance of family and tradition. In fact, many local families organize their reunions around the Midsommar Festival. Or people with roots in the area choose to visit at that time because they'll get to see old friends who have spread out across Maine, New England, and beyond.
Silas says he can understand why many young people don't take such an interest in what goes on at Midsommar. As dear as the music and local history is to him he admits, "It gets kind of boring. It's always the same music [as opposed to the Country and Western music he's played for years which is continually infused with new repertoire and "sounds"]. And it's the same stories every year about how the Swedes came here and all that." He laughs and says, "I think the older people all get together there to make sure the stories are being told right."
A relatively small number of people work hard to make the Midsommar Celebration happen. It appears that as a group they share an idea that it should signify a connection to the past by resembling the past. It is easy to see why such an event is so meaningful to many who are connected to this history. However, Silas comments do raise the point that there can be conflicts between preserving the past and somehow fostering the evolution of local tradition. New Sweden is not unique in finding itself in this modern-day cultural conundrum; As local identity has moved further and further from "Swedishness" (or any other local identity) into popular culture "Americaness," what choice is there but to preserve the past in a reified--some would say stagnant--state that is unlikely to attract many new and younger participants? Exploring possible avenues for solving this problem would be a challenging but especially practical way to follow-up on the current Discovery Research. For a variety of reasons discussed elsewhere in this report, the Swedish Colony would make an interesting and appropriate setting in which to try various regional, cross-cultural collaborative, educational, and public performance experiments.
As a testament to how well the preservation has succeeded thus far, many locals describe a similar reaction among Swedes who have traveled from Sweden to visit the Swedish-American Midsommar Celebration. "They say ‘You're more Swedish than us!' and that ‘This is more like Sweden than where I live in Sweden'," reports Rena Hultgren, manager of the New Sweden gift shop.
The "New Sweden Little Folk" dance group has a long history dating as far back as the 1950's when Monica Soderberg was the leader. After a lull in the late 1960's and early 1970's Karna Olsson, who had recently moved to the area with Paul Carlson, took over the group. Karna and Paul, along with David Anderson and others, initiated the revival of Midsommar at this time as well. (See report attachment for more details on this.) Adella and Lillian Johnson frequently provided the music for dancing. In the 1980's Nancy Holmquist-Roble, a New Sweden native and elementary teacher, began to lead the group. During the latter part of her tenure in the 1990's, Lillian and Adella began playing less and fiddler Steve Boody stepped into the picture.
Steve is from Massachusetts and, although he is not Swedish, his Irish fiddling background made for an easy transition to play the Swedish tunes. Currently the most active traditional musician in New Sweden, Steve is called on to play with the "Little Folk," at Midsommar Celebration, and at the Santa Lucia observance held at the grade school in December. He also plays at weddings, churches, nursing homes, and funerals. In regard to learning new material he says, "Luckily I read music from various books, because there's no other way to get new tunes locally." Steve also initiated the use of music during the processional carrying the decorated Maypole the quarter mile to its destination. He states, "A few years ago I learned some walking tunes and suggested that fiddles lead the way, just like they'd do in Sweden."
He has found various people to accompany him including Kate Scheidler who, until recently, lived in Stockholm, Maine. Kate is Scottish and Irish and also made the transition to play the Swedish repertoire. Even more of a transition was donning the traditional Swedish clothing at Midsommar. With her bright red hair and Irish accent, she laughingly says, "If I can be a Swede, anyone can."
Silas Gustafson says he still plays at Midsommar once in a while. But he avoids shouldering his thirty pound accordion. Instead he uses a modern electric keyboard set to sound like an accordion. He also programs rhythmic accompaniment so that he can sound like a multi-piece group all by himself.
On Sunday afternoon at the very end of the Midsommar Celebration program, Steve Boody starts to play the first few notes of a long-dance tune. Steve says, "Right away a few people hook-up and start prancing around. Pretty soon the whole group is up and holding hands in one long snakey dance that goes on for ten minutes."
Report on Discovery Research Fieldwork in the Swedish Colony by Matthew Shippee Contractor, Maine Arts Commission, Traditional Arts Division June, 2001. (413) 628-0159 firstname.lastname@example.org. This report was funded in part by a grant from The Maine Arts Commission, the New Century Community Program, and the National Endowment of the Arts, a federal agency. The New Century Community Program is a collaborative initiative of seven cultural organizations providing matching grants and technical assistance to Maine communities. Funded by the people of Maine, the program seeks to assist towns in developing their cultural and educational resources