The sky seen from the picnic area at Kronohäktet, Långholmen. Documentation from Nordiska museet, 1975. Photographer: Nils Blix.

On the Term “Kåklåt” / clink tune

A search in the database of Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter shows that the term “kåklåtar” (clink songs) is used for the first time in 1972 when the LP Kåklåtar was launched. The Swedish word “kåklåt” is interesting as a compound of the slang word “kåk” (prison) and “låt”, a popular term for melody or song. In English, this might be rendered as a “clink tune”.

“Kåkstrykningen” [The pole-lashing] of Jacob Johan Anckarström (contemporary drawing). Before being executed for the murder of King Gustav III, Anckarström was lashed for three days on three of Stockholm’s squares. The term “kåkstrykning” meant “lashing at the shame pole”.

The term “kåkvisor” [clink songs] was used as early as 1956 by “Bang” (the journalist Barbro Alving) in the article “Alltid en krogsväng först för flickorna på lösen” [Always a pub crawl first for the light-footed girls] where she, in a series of articles entitled “Bang on Långholmen” portrays life in the women’s section of Långholmen prison.

The tone changes when women from Växjö sing clink songs that are not fit to print in a newspaper, stub out their cigarettes as though taking part in a house-wrecking party and leave a court trial as they bawled desperate threats.

Barbro Alving’s use of “kåkvisor” in 1956 is the only example in Dagens Nyheter’s archive from before 1970. Alving’s articles contain several examples of a vocabulary that signals “insiderness” and she made deliberate use of prison lingo to increase the authenticity of her reports. The prefix “kåk” has, in the internal prison lingo, long been used for phenomena connected with life in prisons. The term “kåklåt” spread beyond the walls after 1972. The great amount of attention given to the LP Kåklåtar helped, of course, to establish the term. Yet none of these terms are used on the Jailbird Singers LP from 1964. The title of the LP uses “tjyvballader” [“thief ballads”]. Cornelis Vreeswijk, who wrote some of the lyrics and the sleeve notes, discusses genre affiliations:

Listen to the first side of this record, and you will hear something called “Mördar-Anders”. It’s a song based on an English ballad from the 1700’s — “Sam Hall” — about a man who is about to be executed and says in fairly coarse terms what he thinks about it. This song is not suitable for children. This is how JAILBIRD SINGERS sound when they are in their acridly dramatic mood. Yet if you listen to “Där björkarna susa” [Where Birches Murmur], you will hear sweet voices with a delicate lyrical sound. And how about “Jungman Jansson” [Deckhand Jansson] in a modern, bold package? Most of the songs the lads sing are in Swedish. The presence of a few old Christian salvation songs might confuse you. But this is nothing other than gospels in Swedish. Tony Granqvist learned these songs — “Pärleporten, Ovan där, Barnatro” — when he was very young since his mum was a deeply religious woman. The part of the record which is in English also contains some religious music. Tony Granqvist sings “Precious Lord, take my hand” solo, and accompanies himself on piano and organ (with the organ added afterward). It was the pleasure of the undersigned to write the words to four of the songs, which Tony arranged. Three of the four are old Anglo-Saxon folk melodies and one is a genuine black blues, “En öl till” [One More Beer], with a New Orleans pedigree. Working with Jailbirds has been immensely stimulating. My friend Tom Paley has been kind enough to help with the recording of these four numbers. He is an American ballad singer, and the banjo and blues guitar you hear is played by him.

This is the first LP with JAILBIRD SINGERS and it is definitely what is called “something else”. You could call their music HOOTENANNY, but note that it has a sound of its own and is aimed at the Swedish listener. And if you have an ear for such, there is even a hint of some sort of a tendency. Just listen closely and enjoy! (Vreeswijk 1964)

Cornelis Vreeswijk underlines the great breadth of the repertoire, and that the presence of religious songs on the record might surprise. He points out that Tony Granqvist had learned these songs at home. Religious songs were, in fact, frequently to be heard in prisons — due, not least, to visits by non-conformist choirs. The three members of Jailbird Singers also sung in the Ebeneser church choir which regularly visited the prison. The term “kåklåtar” has, then, been popularised as a result of the attention paid to the LP with the same name. It is also reasonable to assume that Svenskt visarkiv’s collection activities have influenced both language usage and the genre’s contents.

Skrivet av Musikverket den 27 September, 2017
Kategorier: Music
Nyckelord: Kåklåtar


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