Whose voice, whose gaze?

Gender, power, categories, and multi-vocal narratives in Scandinavian ballad tradition.

The Scandinavian popular ballads, with their origin in the middle Ages, are in many ways relevant in present-day society. They tell numerous stories of forced marriages, illegitimate pregnancies, rape, and other kinds of violence – but also of defiance, defence strategies and reversed roles. The Ballad universe is a hierarchic, mostly patriarchal world where ideas of honour and shame prevail, and where conflicts arise between the individuals’ wishes and the norms and rules of family and society. Violence is a prominent feature: combats for power between men, sexual violence exercised towards women, and honour-related violence that may be directed towards both women and men. However, protagonists may at times overthrow the balance of power by the use of cunning, physical power, or cross-dressing.

Ballads and other narrative songs have, over the centuries, moved across social boundaries as well as across the boundaries between oral/aural and literate musical culture. They have played an important role in everyday life, far into the 20th century; one function is the processing of the singers’ own experiences and comments on social norms. A great amount of individually shaped variants of the ballads from the 17th to the late 20th century are accessible. What does this material tell us about how different singers have approached and interpreted these narratives? How can we relate these narratives to changes within legislation, judicial praxis, and world views over time? What do the singers tell us? Whose gaze has decided the categorisation of these multi-vocal narratives? Which structures of power are, respectively, visible or invisible?

The study is conducted by Dr Ingrid Åkesson, The Centre for Folk Music and Jazz Research. Gender and power in the ballads are studied on the basis of theories on stubborn mental structures and on violence and masculinity. Recent historical research on legislation and judicial praxis concerning phenomena such as marriage, sexual violence and child murder gives a background for new questions about songs and performance in relation to historical reality. The study focuses on narrative motifs crossing the boundaries between ballad types; existing categories and the classifying (male) gaze that constructed these are regarded from new perspectives. Close reading and listening are combined with perspectives from ethnomusicology, folkloristics, history of ideas, gender theory and literature.