Documentation of ballads
The very earliest written records of ballads in Sweden are found in a few handwritten songbooks which belonged to aristocrats and royals. The earliest of these is Harald Olufsson’s songbook from the 1570’s. Together with several others, it is printed in the collection 1500-talens och 1600-talens visböcker published by Adolf Norén, Henrik Schück and others 1884-1925. Several such songbooks of the aristocracy are preserved in Denmark. Ballads were first noted down directly from singers during Sweden’s period as a great power in the 17th century, when an antiquarian interest emerged among those in power. In the spirit of the era, the ballads were viewed as remnants of an illustrious Nordic past. From the 18th century forth the ballads were spread as broadsides or chapbooks; simultaneously, new generations learned both texts and tunes of ballads by ear and memorised them. For several centuries the melodies were passed on by ear from one singer to another – and of course changed in the meantime. The texts also changed, as is common in oral culture: different singers could add or omit verses or motifs, strengthen certain motifs by repetition, choose different endings to a song on different occasions, and so on.
Song collecting begins
From the early 19th century, academics interested in folk life began to document traditional songs on a greater scale. In addition to ballads they collected lyrical songs, lullabies, song games and religious songs. Collections of songs were published – for instance Svenska folkvisor från forntiden, by Arvid August Afzelius and Erik Gustav Geijer 1814-1818. In time, these books found their way into many homes – and of course played a part in determining which versions of songs became the most widespread. Documentation work with pen and paper continued all the way to the 1940’s. More and more collectors also noted down the tunes. Sound recordings were successively made during the first decades of the 20th century, and we have many recordings of ballad singers from the 1940s to the 1980s. In the Swedish-speaking parts of Finland ballads were sung in living tradition for a large part of the 20th century, and a rich documentation of this is found both in writing and as sound recordings in the publication Sveriges Medeltida Ballader.