The Hardanger Fiddle: An Emblem of Norwegian Identity in the U.S.

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The Hardanger Fiddle: An Emblem of Norwegian Identity in the U.S. by Julane Lund

Hardanger fiddle (hardingfele) made by Otto Rindlisbacher in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, sometime between 1930 and 1970. Spruce, maple, and ebony with motherof-pearl inlay. Length, 25.25 inches; width, 7.75 inches. Vesterheim 1976.036.001—Gift of Lois Rindlisbacher Albrecht.


t would be difficult to find a greater symbol for Norwegian identity than the Hardanger fiddle. Often called the national instrument of Norway, it has represented a romanticized ideal among Norwegians living in the United States. The fiddle stands apart from the conventional violin due to the drone strings that are located below the typical four violin strings. These sympathetic strings are not stroked with a bow, but rather they sound due to the vibrations of the instrument as the upper strings are played. The sympathetic strings number from two to five depending on the instrument. The Hardanger fiddle has structural differences too, including a shorter neck and a higher arching of the top. As a result of the higher arching, the f-holes on the Hardanger fiddle have a more pronounced opening than those of the regular violin, and they tend to be longer as well. The Hardanger fiddle is also often ornately decorated with mother-of-pearl and bone inlay, as well as rosing, which is a floral decoration painted in black. Although this beautiful instrument has commonly been regarded as a symbol of Norwegian nationality, it has not been made or played in all parts of Norway. Musical traditions within Norway vary greatly depending on the region. The first Hardanger fiddles were made in the Hardanger valley of Norway. However, through the years the Hardanger fiddle grew in popularity so much that fiddlers in areas surrounding Hardanger began to play it as well. Many great fiddlers from southern regions in Norway, including Hallingdal, Telemark, Setesdal and other areas came to play the instrument. 32

During the 1800s, fiddlers were not the only people interested in the Hardanger fiddle. Folk culture enthusiasts and composers transcribed the tunes of fiddlers. Composers especially were on a search for elements to include in national romantic music and they often included motifs from Hardanger fiddle tunes in their compositions. The fiddle came to be seen as a strong symbol of Norwegian national identity. One composer, Ole Bull (1810-1880), who was bestknown as an internationally acclaimed violinist, took a keen interest in learning to play the instrument. This was integral to the evolution in attitude among Norwegians towards the Hardanger fiddle because Ole Bull was one of the greatest celebrities of his time. Bull met with many fiddlers to learn their music. He even invited Torgeir Augundsson, a Hardanger fiddler from Telemark, who was affectionately known as Myllarguten (The Miller Boy), to join him on the concert stage. Bull learned techniques from Myllarguten and incorporated them into his own compositions and improvisations. Due to Ole Bull’s involvement, Myllarguten became famous within Norway, and the Hardanger fiddle was thrust into the international spotlight. Bull also inspired Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), the great Norwegian composer who was famous for capturing Norwayin his romantic compositions, many of which included folk melodies that had typically been played on the Hardanger fiddle. Ole Bull performed in many countries throughout Europe as well as quite extensively within the United States. By the time that Bull had toured in the U.S., thousands of Vesterheim

Norwegians had immigrated there, and they wanted to hear music that reminded them of their homeland. Bull did not disappoint them. He included improvisatory parts to his compositions in which he imitated the songs of birds and sounds of nature from his homeland. He also included music of the Hardanger fiddle in one form or another. Bull eventually became a part of the Norwegian-American community. After futile attempts to get subsidies for an artistic project in Bergen, he gave up hope in the Norwegian authorities and put nearly all of his energy into starting a colony in Pennsylvania that would eventually become known as Oleana. Due to his celebrity status, he convinced large numbers of Norwegians to join him. Unfortunately, the land that Bull bought was difficult to farm, and this, along with other aspects of the venture, made his enterprise a failure. His colony became the butt of jokes, and songs were sung about Ole Bull’s great mistake. In Norway, Ole Bull’s colony is still remembered today in humorous folk songs. In the United States, a park bearing Ole Bull’s name exists in the precise location of the Norwegian settlement. At Ole Bull State Park in Potter County, Pennsylvania, it is still possible to see the remnants of the foundation of Bull’s “castle” (more of a cabin, actually). Most of the settlers migrated to the Midwest after only a year of living in Pennsylvania and Bull grew to have strong ties to Madison, Wisconsin, after marrying an American woman from there. Bull’s son from a previous marriage, Alexander, played the violin and the Hardanger fiddle, and he went on to live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Although Bull’s colony was a failure, many Norwegians both in Norway and within the United States became acquainted with the sounds of the Hardanger fiddle, due to his influence as one of the greatest musicians of his time. However, Ole Bull was not the only musician playing the Hardanger fiddle in the United States. During the same time period that Bull was performing, and long afterward, many of the very best Hardanger fiddlers were immigrating to the U.S. along with thousands of other Norwegians. Most of these fiddlers were from rural areas in Norway, and unlike Bull, they were not classically trained violinists. One highly regarded fiddler who emigrated from Setesdal, Norway, was Eivind Aakhus (1854-1937). In 1878 he moved to Fisher, Minnesota, and he toured extensively in America to great acclaim. He was known as the “king” of Norwegian fiddlers in the U.S. and he focused on playing bygdedans (old country settlement tunes) from Norway. Bygdedans include tune types like the gangar (in 2/4 time) and the springar (in an asymmetrical 3/4 time). While the springar was popular in Telemark and in other regions, it had not become popular in Setesdal, so Eivind and other fiddlers from Setesdal who traveled to the U.S. often learned the springar in order to please friends who had emigrated from other areas of Norway. Eivind’s son, Daniel Aakhus, also became a great fiddler. However, probably because the Hardanger fiddle was seen as such a strong symbol of Norwegian national identity, Daniel preferred playing the regular violin. It was common for some second-generation Norwegians in the U.S. to cast off Norwegian traditions in favor of what they saw as being more American. Even so, whether he realized it or not, the music that Daniel played was very much a blend of Norwegian and Vol. 7, No. 2 2009

John R. Larsen, Ole Bull, 1882. Oil on canvas. Height, 84.75 inches; width 51.25 inches.

Vesterheim 1985.055.001—Gift of Normennenes Singing Society

American musical styles. Daniel, his wife, and his children often toured, playing Norwegian-American old-time music throughout many areas of the U.S. Daniel composed tunes, some of which have since become well known by fiddlers in the Midwest, including “Dan’s Old-Time Waltz.” Norwegian-American old-time music generally consists of waltzes, schottisches (reinlendars), hopwaltzes (hoppvals), mazurkas (masurka), and polkas, along with tune types that Norwegians learned after immigrating to America. While many people have referred to this musical style as gammeldans (old dance music), it tends to differ in many respects stylistically from the gammeldans that was and is played in Norway. The style of the Norwegian-American music parallels the history of the Norwegians in the U.S. For example, while particular regional styles remained separate within Norway, they became blended in the U.S. among Norwegian Americans. Also, in many cases Norwegian-American oldtime music can tend to have a more syncopated feel to it. Sometimes very old tunes that became forgotten in Norway were carried on in the U.S., while in other cases Norwegians in America composed their own melodies that never became known in Norway. The Upper Midwest was full of NorwegianAmericans who wanted to dance to this style of music in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the Hardanger fiddle and the violin were both used for it. Within northwestern Minnesota, and particularly the Fisher area, there was a great center of Norwegian-American music. In particular, Hardanger fiddling was popular because, along with Eivind Aakhus, many people from Setesdal settled there. Knute Sorenson came from Setesdal in 1841. Knute was a fiddler, and he enlisted in the Union Army during the time 33

of the American Civil War. During his service he learned tunes from American servicemen. He passed on what he knew of Norwegian music—as well as the fiddle music that he learned from Americans—to his son, Sam Sorenson (1871-1947). Sam was born in Glenwood, Minnesota, and he became very active playing the regular violin as well as the Hardanger fiddle. He was a fiddler at the Setesdalslag meetings, and he was well respected as a musician. He learned several of his tunes from a well-known fiddler named Knut Sjaaheim. Knut Sjaaheim (1849-circa 1911) was from Vestre Slidre, Valdres, Norway. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1870, and lived in Valders, Wisconsin, but later moved to Door County, Wisconsin, and then to Bemidji, Minnesota. Eivind Aakhus ranked Sjaaheim as one of the best players on either side of the Atlantic. Ole Bull heard Sjaaheim play once in Chicago, and he was so excited about the music that Bull gave him one hundred dollars. Sam Sorenson, along with many other Hardanger fiddlers, was greatly influenced by Sjaaheim. Sam passed on his knowledge of fiddling to his daughters as well as to his nephew, Harold Sorenson (b. July 3, 1917), who lived in Fisher. Sam often visited Harold’s parents, and he would frequently stay a few weeks at a time. This gave Harold ample opportunity to hear Sam play. Harold learned his technique in playing from Sam, as well as the majority of tunes that Sam knew. Like his uncle, Harold also had a great interest in Norwegian-American old-time music and he learned tunes from Gilbert Sanden, a violinist, originally from Telemark, who settled in Mekinock, North Dakota. As Harold emulated Sam’s style of playing through the years, it finally became possible for Harold to have a Hardanger fiddle of his own. Harold bought Sam’s old fiddle from him, when Sam was given Eivind Aakhus’s fiddle by Daniel Aakhus after Eivind’s death. Even at that time there was a history behind the instrument. Eivind’s fiddle was named Sigri, and Eivind had bought it from Lars Fykerud (1860-1902), perhaps the most famous Hardanger fiddler from Norway, who toured successfully in America and lived briefly in Wisconsin. Lars, like many other highly celebrated Hardanger fiddlers, made quite a lot of money from touring in the U.S. However, while others returned to Norway as wealthy men, Lars wasn’t good at managing money and he usually came home with empty pockets. While Lars Fykerud lived in the U.S., he stayed with his brother, Hans, who had a tavern in Stoughton, Wisconsin. Hans Fykerud (1862-1942) also played the Hardanger fiddle and often he or his brother would stand in the doorway of the tavern to draw customers in. There was an opera house in Stoughton where big fiddle competitions were held. This opera house is now refurbished to look much as it did during the time that the Fykeruds lived in Stoughton. Sadly, Lars came down with tuberculosis and he wanted to go back to Norway. Since he didn’t have any money, his friends sold his bunad (Norwegian national costume) to pay for his ticket home. He died in Norway, but not before sharing melodies that he named after his experiences in America. His tunes are still being played in Norway today. Hans continued to live in Stoughton, among many other fiddlers, and he won top awards for his fiddling at competitions in the U.S. Stoughton, along with northwestern Minnesota, was a center for Hardanger fiddle playing. Hardanger fiddle 34

competitions were held there because there were so many fiddlers in southern Wisconsin. Among these were the Smedal brothers, all of whom played the Hardanger fiddle. Eilev (1889-1938), Greggar (1874-1919), Gunnleik (1878-1948), Harald (1876-1936), and Olav (1870-1941) all immigrated to the U.S. from Flatdal, Telemark. Harald immigrated to Stoughton and married there in 1897. He and his wife lived on a farm south of McFarland. Harald certainly didn’t have to search far for other fiddlers to play with, especially considering that there were so many in his family! It seems that often the interest in fiddling runs in families. Knut and Gunnar Helland, brothers known for their family dynasty of Hardanger fiddle making, also immigrated to the United States. Knut Helland (1880-1919) came to Wisconsin in 1903 and Gunnar Helland (born 1885) came later, leaving another brother, John Helland (also a splendid fiddle maker) in Norway. Gunnar and Knut lived in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, where they set up the Helland Brothers Music Store, located on 22 Spring Street. At the store they sold both Hardanger fiddles and violins that they made. Knut eventually became the president of an association that was dedicated to the Hardanger fiddle in the U.S., but he died suddenly at a young age. After Knut’s death, Gunnar moved the shop to Fargo, North Dakota, where he made his last Hardanger fiddle in 1939, and his last conventional violin in 1976. The organization that Knut Helland had presided over was the Hardanger Fiolinist Forbundet af Amerika (The Hardanger Violinist Association of America), which was formed in 1914. The association, which grew to have 100 members, was responsible for competitions, as well as being a way for fiddlers to network with one another. Some of the competitions that the association hosted brought over 8,000 attendees. Competitions and meetings brought fiddlers together so that they could share tunes, traditions, and stories. Although most of the members of this organization were Norwegians who had serious ties to the Hardanger fiddle,

Hardanger fiddle (hardingfele) made by the Helland Brothers, 1906. Spruce and ebony with mother-of-pearl inlay. Length, 24 inches; width, 8 inches. Vesterheim 1981.090.001— Gift of Rev. Christian Hovde.


Left, Gunnar Helland, standing, a well-known Hardanger fiddle maker who had a store in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. The man seated next to him is Bjørgulv Bjørnaraa, who was at one time the president of the old Hardanger Fiolinist Forening. Bjørnaraa was also a dancer (to Hardanger fiddle music) and he was a great supporter of the playing of the instrument in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Lew Holt. Used with permission.

Right, interior of the Helland Brothers store in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Lew Holt. Used with permission.

even non-Norwegians were influenced by the fiddlers who made up the Hardanger Violinist Association of America. Otto Rindlisbacher (1895-1975), of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, was a musician of Swiss descent, yet he could speak Norwegian and he could play the Hardanger fiddle at least in a rudimentary way. He learned about Norwegian music from neighbors and friends, and he jokingly referred to himself as “Okse fra Telemark” (Okse from Telemark). Otto toured with Thorstein Skarning’s Scandinavian-American Band for six years, playing chromatic button accordion. Besides playing the accordion and the Hardanger fiddle, Otto had an immense collection of folk instruments, many of which are now housed at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Otto taught himself to read and write music in order to notate tunes that he learned from various sources. He was particularly interested in music that had been played in Wisconsin lumber camps. Since a large number of Norwegian men had worked in lumber camps to gain money prior to moving their families from Norway, many of the tunes played in the lumber camps had ties to Norwegian immigrants. Otto transcribed and memorized these melodies and he helped pass them on to Norwegian-American fiddlers. Otto helped to keep a tradition alive that otherwise was slowly starting to fade. Older Hardanger fiddlers were passing away without having taught younger generations the music that they had known. The number of members of the Hardanger Violin Association of America was dwindling and, by the start of World War II, the organization was disbanded. What made the Hardanger fiddle popular to first-generation immigrants was precisely what made it unpopular to many second-generation Norwegian Americans: The fiddle itself was a strong symbol of Norwegian national identity. However, there were also other reasons for the decline in Hardanger fiddle playing. Bygdedans music, which differed to a great extent among various areas within Norway, could not easily be shared or understood by Norwegians who had emigrated from different regions. The Hardanger fiddle, although played less often, continued to be utilized in the United States, but it was played not for bygdedans, but rather for Norwegian-American old-time music. Vol. 7, No. 2 2009

When Norwegian Hardanger fiddlers traveled to the United States after the Hardanger Violinists Association of America had disbanded, they were certainly influenced by the new style of playing that they heard from the remaining Norwegian-American fiddlers. However, fiddlers from Norway at this point often held biases about gammeldans and Norwegian-American old-time music. These biases had originated out of a strong desire to keep bygdedans from dying out in the old country. Playing other forms of music on the Hardanger fiddle was seen as a threat to the survival of bygdedans, and for good reason. However, the NorwegianAmerican style was so joyful and fun to play that even the best Norwegian fiddlers sometimes changed their minds about it. One fiddler who changed his mind was Anund Roheim (1913-1999). Roheim first came to the U.S. in the early 1950s from Telemark. At this point he was at the peak of his career as a fiddler, having won many Norwegian national awards. He started out in America going on tour within NorwegianAmerican regions and attracted thousands. According to his brother, Jørgen, at the time that he immigrated to the U.S., Anund felt strongly about preserving bygdedans music, and he really didn’t want to play gammeldans or Norwegian-American old-time. However, after living in the United States for some years, he had an accident in which he lost the tips of two fingers on his left hand. He didn’t think that he would be able to perform again, but his wife, Anna, a Norwegian American, convinced him to play Norwegian-American old-time music in order to strengthen his fingers. Anund didn’t have any hope about playing bygdedans music again, but because he considered the old-time music simpler than bygdedans music, he worked at it. With patience and determination, along with several surgeries, Anund Roheim regained his ability to play the Hardanger fiddle. However, by the time he was able to play bygdedans music again, he had grown to enjoy the Norwegian-American oldtime music, and he often went on tours playing that style with his wife and other Norwegian-American musicians, including pianist Gunder Sorenson, the brother of Harold Sorenson. Anund continued to play both bygdedans and NorwegianAmerican old-time music on the Hardanger fiddle in the 35

This playable violin cane was made and used by Otto Rindlisbacher. Height, 35 .9 inches; width, 6.4 inches. Vesterheim 1982.070.010—Gift of Lois Rindlisbacher Albrecht.

Otto Rindlisbacher. Photo courtesy of Lew Holt. Used with permission.

United States, but there were not many others who did so during that era. (One notable contemporary of Anund’s was Archie Teigan, of Brainerd, Minnesota.) It became apparent to a number of Norwegian Americans that the tradition of playing bygdedans music on the Hardanger fiddle had virtually died out, and that, as time went on, the Hardanger fiddle itself was also being played less and less. By 1970 there were only about 20 known Hardanger fiddlers in America, and twothirds of those were over the age of 70. By the 1980s, as a result of declining numbers of Norwegian Americans playing the Hardanger fiddle, three individuals of Norwegian heritage began to discuss the problem. Carl Narvestad, his friend Thorwald Quale, and Andrea Een all lived in Minnesota and felt passionately about the Hardanger fiddle. Een was a young violinist who had just bought a Hardanger fiddle and Narvestad and Quale had childhood memories of Hardanger fiddle playing and dancing in the Midwest. They organized efforts to start a new Hardanger fiddle association that would revitalize the tradition of playing the Hardanger fiddle in the United States. In 1983, the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America (HFAA) was formed. Within its first year, the HFAA had 162 members from throughout the United States, Canada, and Norway. Anund Roheim was among many who helped to promote the association before his death in 1999. The organization continues to grow due both to the recruitment work of Andrea Een, who now teaches Hardanger fiddle at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and to the efforts of American Hardanger fiddle teacher Loretta Kelley and many others. The association has annual meetings where workshops and dances are held, and they bring Hardanger fiddlers from Norway

to teach regional styles of bygdedans playing. The association produces a quarterly journal called the Sound Post, which is the most complete media resource in English about the Hardanger fiddle. Much information about the instrument and the association can be found on the HFAA website: Although the HFAA currently offers help to anyone wanting to learn more about the Hardanger fiddle, the playing of this instrument was nearly lost in the United States because many Norwegian Americans wanted to assimilate and leave symbols of Norwegian nationality behind. However, the way the Hardanger fiddle has been perceived changed through time. Currently, the instrument is viewed as something of a curiosity by many Americans, but the intrigue surrounding it has led to an ever-growing number of individuals who are taking up the challenge of playing it. Today, many of the finest players of the Hardanger fiddle in the United States are not necessarily Norwegian by heritage. At the same time, to those with Norwegian roots, the Hardanger fiddle is seen, not as a symbol of national identity but of ethnic identity. It has become an important link to help Norwegian Americans better understand where their families came from. Sources Beetham, Julane Amy. Norwegian-American Old-time Fiddling in the Heartland: Interpretation of a Creolized Tradition. Master’s thesis, Telemark University College, Norway, 2005. Haugen, Einar and Camilla Cai. Ole Bull: Norway’s Romantic Musician and Cosmopolitan Patriot. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1993. Hoeschen, Kevin Francis. The Norwegian Hardanger Violin in the Upper Midwest: Documentation and Interpretation of an Immigrant Music Tradition. Master’s thesis, University of Minnesota, 1989. Hodne, Bjarne. Norsk Nasjonalkultur, En kulturpolitisk oversikt. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1995. Holt, Lew. “Marvin Helland and the Helland Dynasty of Fiddlemakers.” Sound Post Vol. 25, No. 3 (Summer 2008): 9-21. Roheim, Jørgen. Felespelar Anund Jorgensen Roheim, Hans liv og virke. Porsgrunn: Grenen DA, 2002. Versto, Astrid and Halvard Kaasa. Hardingfela, Det norske nasjonalinstrumentet. Oslo: Grondahl og Dreyers Forlag AS, 1997. Website for the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America. “About the HFAA: Our History.”

About the Author Julane Lund (formerly Beetham) tours internationally as a professional fiddler and singer, performing Norwegian-American music on both the conventional violin and the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. She has two degrees in traditional music from Telemark University College in Norway, and she has taught music appreciation at Indiana State University. A member of the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America, Julane has written articles about Norwegian-American fiddling for academic journals and music magazines in Norway and the U.S., and she won first place at the Traditional Arts Indiana state fiddling championship while playing a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. Visit her website at: 36