United in Song: Forming a Swedish-American Identity through Choral Clubs and Singing Societies
Exhibit on view May–September 2016
Exhibit curated by Rebecca Knapper, student worker
Immigration, Assimilation, and the Singing Tradition
During the 1840s to 1930s, approximately 1.3 million Swedes immigrated to America. Upon arriving, the immigrants sought out their fellow countrymen and formed new communities. They established towns, schools, social clubs, benevolent societies, and printing houses with other Swedish immigrants to serve the needs of their new community. Singing served as a way to socialize with fellow immigrants, keep using the Swedish language, and honor the traditions of their homeland.
Swedish immigrants were divided when faced with the pressures of cultural assimilation in their new country. Some urged the removal of the Swedish language in all forms (teaching, reading, writing, and speaking). Others, determined to preserve their heritage, formed singing groups, the Swedish language press, and other Swedish-American organizations. Research suggests a plural cultural identity might have formed among the Swedish immigrants, with them maintaining aspects of their unique cultural identity within the larger American society.
By looking at the music of immigrant groups, we can see the emotional dimension surrounding the question of assimilation. As one scholar put it, music “touch[es] directly on a group’s most deeply-held values, reinforce[s] a feeling of belonging, and define[s] the communities for others and themselves.” Music serves as not only a means of communication, but as a tool to strengthen social bonds and express group sentiment.
During their long journey across the Atlantic and after settling in the new land, Swedish emigrants told their tale through emigrant visor or emigrant songs. Singing was the immigrants’ refuge on their journey. It was a welcome distraction from poor conditions, seasickness, and the danger of travel.
These songs were written using simple melodies anyone could sing. The lyrics often told the story of leaving their homeland and entering a new country. The pressure of cultural assimilation can be heard in these pieces through borrowed melodies and integration of English words into Swedish lyrics.
En svensk yankee
A Swedish Yankee tells his tale of arriving in America and not understanding the simple English words “yes” and “no.” After traveling the country and working in many different states, he begins to know the land and language and feels like a true Yankee in body and soul. Notice the English words peppered throughout this mostly Swedish song.
Choral Clubs and Singing Societies
As a Swedish-American identity was forming in the new homeland, Swedish choral clubs and singing societies were growing in number and membership. The first Swedish singing club, Svenska Quartettesångarne (Swedish Quartet Singers), organized in Boston in 1846.
Choirs, choruses, and clubs formed across the country, particularly in areas with large Swedish immigrant populations like Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Singers gathered throughout the year to compete and perform concerts for the public. Most of the clubs sang nationalistic and romantic songs about loyalty and memories of their homeland.
As clubs and societies spread, there was a move to unify. The first united organization, United Scandinavian Singers of America, was founded in 1886. Years later, the group reorganized under the new name American Union of Swedish Singer.
"Those old songs mean more to us here in America, I think, than they do to those we left behind, because they do not miss those things for which we have longings. The songs of the homeland hold us Swedish-born Americans together; they are a tie to the old home over there. We never forget the old familiar things of childhood and our songs; especially the ones about homeland scenes and customs seem to help us over that nostalgic feeling we have at times. We prize these songs, and no one here objects. Our singing concerts and conventions are so dear to us, and yet so popular, because we always render good music.” —Swedish immigrant, Portland, Oregon
The lyrics of these songs often reflected the mixed feelings of the immigrants over leaving their beloved homeland. Songs both urged people to leave and warned of the consequences. Songs often represented a homesickness for the old country, particularly emphasizing the immigrant’s connection to their homeland’s beautiful landscape.
Farväl, O moder Svea (Farewell, O Mother Sweden)
Farewell, O Mother Sweden, now I am leaving you,
And I thank you from my heart for having fostered me.
The bread you gave so little [of that] it hardly sufficed,
Though to many others you have given more than enough of that.
Still I love you, Sweden, my dear fatherland,
And would rather not trade you for the prairie sand of the west,
But when it comes to bread, [my] hesitation is gone,
We must like in the forest leave our [beloved] nest.
Vi sålde våra hemman (We Sold Our Homesteads)
Originated in 1854 in Värmland, Sweden
We sold our farms and then went away…
But we will ne’er see again our dear fatherland
We departed from Sweden feeling somewhat daring
We knew not the fate that awaited us conger
The tears of deep regret began to flow freely.
Heartache and longing grew in every breast.
Now all spoke only of Sweden and of our former home
American Union of Swedish Singers
The American Union of Swedish Singers (A.U.S.S.) was founded on November 30, 1892 in Chicago, Illinois. Two important clubs in the Union's founding were the Svithoid Singing Club of Chicago, IL and the Svea Male Chorus of Moline, IL. They outlined their purpose in the first article of their constitution: “The purpose of this organization shall be to work for unity and cooperation among all Swedish male choruses and male quartets in America. The Society shall arrange singing festivals every other year to make Swedish song and music known and appreciated among the people of our land.”
The first A.U.S.S. concerts were offered at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago during the three official days deemed “The Swedes’ Days.” These days were devoted to songs, art, and other exhibitions that gave the Fair a Swedish flare.
“The Swedes’ need to sing is innate. And therefore it is no wonder that the Swedish singing organizations were founded in America as soon as immigration here began to assume greater proportions.” —Dr. Victor Nilsson, American Union of Swedish Singers member
The A.U.S.S. singer’s cap resembles the Swedish student cap (studentmössa), perhaps adopted as a marker of their Swedish identity.
Swedish-American Singing Groups Today
The A.U.S.S. is still active today with 24 choruses and about 500 members. They host a convention every four years and regional divisions host conventions bi-annually. Today, the songs of most choruses are about half Swedish and half English. News from the A.U.S.S. can be found in their monthly newsletter, Musiktidning, which began publication in 1905 and is still being published today. The Swenson Center is currently digitizing this journal and newsletter, which can be viewed at http://bit.ly/AUSSdigitalproject.
The Swedish singing tradition also carries on through the five choirs at Augustana College. Some have Swedish inspired names like Jenny Lind, Kammerkör, and Wennerberg. The Augustana Choir pays homage to the school’s Swedish-American heritage through occasionally singing in Swedish, touring Sweden, and closing concerts with Tryggare kan ingen vara (Children of the Heavenly Father) sung partially in Swedish and partially in English.
I/O:61 American Union of Swedish Singers records
I/O:58 Upsala College (East Orange, N.J.) records
“Succèsturnén genom Sverige 1920 : en rikt illustrerad skildring utarbetad för the Swedish Choral Club of Chicago,” Erik Westman. Chicago: Charles S. Peterson, 1920
“Mitt barndomshem,” J.A. Hultman. Worcester, Mass.: J.A. Hultman & Son Co., c1916
“Emigrantvisor,” Monica Lantz, Bengt R. Jonsson. Stockholm, LT, 1981.
“Swedish music past and present,” Dick Litell. Stockholm, Musikrevy, 196
“The sacred and secular music of the Swedish settlers of the Midwest, 1841-1917,” Carl Leonard Nelson. 1950
Performance May 14, 2016
The curator arranged for a performance of some Swedish-American choral music.
Performers: Michelle Crouch, Samuel Dunklau, Andrew Gilson, Thomas Hagarman, Jamie Hochmuth, Rachel Jennings, Rebecca Knapper, Anne Mitchell, Sara Naftzger, Jared Pector, Rebecca Strandberg
Emigrantvalsen / Helge Lindberg
Nog Swider mitt hjerta / Anonymous
En svensk yankee / Anonymous
Sjungen Herranom en ny visa / Gustav Stolpe
Esaias 54:10 / J. van Boom and Edla Lund
Swedish-American Art Songs
Norrläningen hemlängtan / Hanna Brooman
Min hembygd / Hulda and J.A. Hultman
Mitt barndomshem / J.A. Hultman
Längtan till fosterjorden / Ebba Ruhnborg and J.A. Hultman
Pieces from the American Union of Swedish Singers Song Album
Hälsning till hemlandet / Kromer
Vårt land / J.A. Josephson