Negotiation in song?

Gender, power, honour, and present-day relevance in Scandinavian ballad tradition.

A project connected to Voices from the Outside.

The Scandinavian popular ballads, with their origin in the middle Ages, tell numerous stories of forced marriages, illegitimate pregnancies, rape, and honour-related violence – but also of defiance, defence strategies and reversed roles. In other words, many old songs have great relevance in present-day society. Ballads have long belonged to mainstream scholarship, but these issues have seldom been studied from the perspective of the subaltern, and gender theory has only recently been applied to the material. In existing typology and classification, the general pattern of male domination and female subordination is implicit and does not cause reflection.

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. Many ballad narratives point to ideas of honour and shame, and a world where women – and sometimes men – are violently abused if they breach the norms of family and society. The boundary between seduction and rape might be unclear, but the consequences are similar; pregnancy often leads to death. In the jocular songs, we may ask who is laughing at whom. The great amount of individually shaped variants of the ballads creates a possible point of departure for the study of how different singers have approached and interpreted these narratives over a couple of centuries.

Dr Ingrid Åkesson, Svenskt visarkiv, conducts this study, which adds another aspect to the project Voices from the outside, based on concepts of marginalisation within the mainstream areas of society as well as of scholarship. As in the other sub-studies, songs and singing practice are regarded as possible, unused, source material for social history and history of ideas, and as a point of departure for a discussion of the relationship between history and traditional/popular fiction. New aspects of classification are introduced, based on current research on song cultures as multi-vocal, and consisting of clusters of motifs across ballad types and languages. Close reading and listening are combined with perspectives from ethnomusicology, folkloristics, history of ideas, and gender theory.