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date: 15 October 2019

Archives and Applied Ethnomusicology

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter attempts to discuss music collecting and archival work as applied ethnomusicology. Collections are always the result of selection, conscious or unconscious, in which certain phenomena or objects are considered more worthy of preservation than others. Collecting and archiving can be described as a cultural heritage process, in which functions and meanings of the collected material change. Archives and collection work not only reflect and preserve music traditions, they also serve as re-creator of the traditions they preserve. The chapter describes the starting point for the early collecting work from the late 1700s, with emphasis on the Swedish Folk Music Commission’s work during the 1900s. Through the collections the national archives display and define the citizens’ cultural identity. Archives can be seen as statements that point out “our” music and culture, and indirectly, what is not.

Keywords: archive, collecting, cultural heritage, folk music, Sweden, Swedish Folk Music Commission

Can documentation and archiving be regarded as applied ethnomusicology? That, of course, depends on what we mean, both by applied ethnomusicology and by archiving. From my perspective, applied ethnomusicology is primarily about ethnomusicological studies and research activities reaching outside the academic world and in direct interaction with the community—often with an intention to influence and change political and social structures and conditions. Archives thus can be seen as identity projects with the aim to create continuity.1 Target groups may be groupings of various kinds and at various levels, from nations to different interest groups in society. From that perspective it can be argued that archives and museums are about democratic and human rights—the rights to your own history and your cultural identity. In the research project Music, Media, Multiculture, music was used as the starting point to understand and explain how social and cultural diversity is constructed and organized in modern societies.2 The project departed from the idea that music has a twofold significance from this perspective, partly as that which needs to be explained and partly as that which explains. When viewed from this angle, people’s increasing desire to invest time, energy, and money on music and dance can be understood as a consequence of the fact that these activities are in themselves the goal, aesthetically, emotionally, and socially, while at the same time being the means by which various types of messages are given shape and communicated, both individually and collectively. The music archives’ documentation is an active act about selection, often with a goal beyond the musical material. The archival mission also oscillates between two poles, which in principle are constant but where the emphasis has varied over time. On the one hand, the archive is a place for orderly storage—where cultural heritage is given a secure preservation and is available for research and historiography. On the other hand, the archive plays an active part in cultural life as a source and inspiration for musicians but also as an instrument for cultural policy—as a creator of cultural heritage.

The music collecting and archiving, in earlier times as well as today, have almost always to some extent been related to both poles. But the approaches have varied, (p. 672) often dependent on ideology. The work of the early collectors often had an educational aim—to ensure that the public users, the musicians, or other target groups used and appreciated, in the collectors’ eyes, the most valuable music. During other periods, the objectives are better described as Volksbildung—to increase knowledge about history and musical traditions. In some cases the goal was purely about cultural heritage “to preserve for future generations.” We can also observe how the collection’s significance, meaning, and value have varied over time.

It is reasonable to argue that collection works, publication of archive material, and research in the folk music area are a form of applied ethnomusicology, since the goal was not only to preserve for the future but also to interact with the music community. There is, however, an interesting distinction between the collecting work that had nationalistic aims and, for instance, the work within comparative musicology that was performed in the circles of the Berlin School by scholars as Erich von Hornbostel, Otto Abraham, and Curt Sachs. When it comes to archival work, the comparative musicology had preservation for study and comparative analysis as the main goal. So there is an important difference between the national folk music archives, which had and still often has a nationalistic agenda, and comparative musicology, which most often did not. But obviously there have been ideological motives even behind the work of the Berlin School.

And What about Folk Music?

What is folk music? The question never seems to be definitively answered. And one can, of course, ask whether it is really necessary to discuss the concept of “folk music” in almost every major study on the subject. It seems as if folk music researchers consider it an obligation to take a stand on the question. The concept of folk music, however, is very complex, and its meanings vary over time and space. A general tendency in the Swedish context is that the meaning in recent years has come to emphasize music rather than folk—that is, folk music is in many situations seen as a family of musical styles. In earlier times, however, the emphasis was rather on folk, that is, the music’s strong connection to the culture in which it emerged. The American ethnomusiclogist Mark Slobin notes in Folk Music: A Very Short Introduction that his book

[. . .] will not offer anything like a definition of “folk music,” relying instead on the principle of “we know it when we hear it.” Understandings of the term have varied so vividly over space and time that no single summary sentence can pin it down.3

Slobin’s principle—that we know what folk music is, based on sound and previous understanding, indicates that folk music in a global perspective has increasingly evolved into a family of musical styles and that the link to cultural contexts has become less important.

Archives and collection work not only reflect and preserve music traditions, they also serve as an active part and re-creator of the traditions they preserve. This article (p. 673) describes the starting point for the early collecting work from the late 1700s onward. The emphasis is in the description of work of the Swedish Folkmusikkommissionen (the Folk Music Commission; FMK) during the first half of the twentieth century. The Commission created Sweden’s largest collections of folk tunes but has also had a great impact on the definition of the music, in terms of repertoire, instruments, and what is today perceived as folk music.4

One important aim of the various national collecting projects in European countries during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was to create a sense of unity and continuity—to demonstrate that each nation was culturally specific. The familiar recipe reads “one country, one people, one language, one culture.” An important function of archives is to provide the raw materials for a constant, ongoing reconstruction of history, and this reconstruction always reflects the collectors’ and users’ ideas and values. All interpretations of the past are impregnated by, and filtered through, the ideologies of their own time.


The keeping and preservation of official documents has deep roots in history. The word archive comes from the Late Latin term archivum, which means a place where one receives and retains public records and documents. The Latin word can be traced back to the Greek arkheion (ἀρχεῖον), which means “place of public administration.” The term “archive” appears in English and in other European languages, during the 1600s. One of the most well-known historical archives is the clay tablets of the ancient city-state of Ebla, a town located in present-day Syria. Ebla had its political heyday around 2400–2250 bc. It ended when the town was conquered and destroyed by King Naram-Sin of Akkad. A second golden age occurred about 1850–1600 bc.

In 1974 a find of 40 tablets was made during excavations by Italian archaeologists. The next year another 1,000 were discovered, and some months later more than 15,000 tablets, written in an old Semitic language, were found. Nearly 20,000 tablets or fragments were recovered from Ebla. This is the most comprehensive mass of information of the political and socioeconomic situation in a society during the third millennium bc, with no comparison.

The Ebla find has been described as the discovery of the century, and thanks to its archives, the history of not only Syria but of the entire region can be written. When the Italian archaeologist Giovanni Pettinato deciphered and translated the text, it was obvious that it was really the great city-state of Ebla that had been found and that the tablets were about 4,500 years old.

Most of the Ebla documents are written on big slabs of clay almost a foot square. There are texts that, when transliterated, fill almost more than fifty pages of thirty lines each.5

According to Pettinato, the information on the tablets concerned the administration of Ebla, the organization of the state, diplomatic contacts with other city-states, (p. 674) agricultural business, and trade. There are also word-books and documents about education and science, but very few literary texts. We know little about the organization of the archive and the tablets, since the wooden shelves that they were stored upon had been destroyed over the centuries. But there is evidence that at least some systematic criteria existed and that the content was important for the shelving, and that the tablets were marked in such a way that they could easily be found.6

It is important to notice that “archive” has multiple meanings. On the one hand, it addresses the building—the archive—and on the other, it refers to the content and the archiving activities. It is difficult to find a clear and unanimous definition, and we probably have to live with this double meaning.7

Public archives are matters of power and control over records and documents that confirm the existence of the state and its decisions. The preservation and organization of written documents is a symbolic act and a kind of legitimation and verification that ensures continuity of power; it is something to refer to when political assessors are approaching. To create archives is to exercise power—to bring signs, texts, and symbols to a limited space and to control it.8

The discussion above addresses the archives of national agencies and organizations, and it is in this sense that we usually mean the word. What then are the differences between this kind of archive and music archives (or other cultural heritage archives)? One important difference is of course the purpose. Music archives usually have multiple purposes—to preserve documents (in the same way as an organization’s archive), but also to serve as a resource for musicians, scholars, and others. Music archives often use substantial resources to publish their collections through different channels. Another difference is that the collections of music archives often have different origins—as, for instance, donations and deposits from many sources—while the organization’s archive documents for the most part consist of records and documents generated through the activities of the organization. This can, of course, also be the case for the collections in music archives, for instance when the collections are the result of the work of collectors and researchers employed by the archive institution. But the main difference, in my opinion, is the music archives’ clear ambition to make their collections available to outsiders, while the archives of, for example, national agencies are not kept for these purposes in the first place. In this article, it is primarily the availability aspect of music repositories that is being dealt with, and the effects that the choices made in the processes of collecting and publishing may have on the community in which the archive is functioning.

The first music archives of greater importance in Europe were connected to the church and the monasteries and later also to the music activities at the courts. Notation of Gregorian chant can be traced back to the eighth century. An essential development—which has had decisive importance for the development of the folkloristic and later ethnomusicological archives—is the interest for folk culture that emerged in the late eighteenth century.

Following the Napoleonic wars, a strong desire for vindication grew in many countries, as it did in Sweden after the loss of Finland in 1809, and several of the country’s intellectuals turned to Sweden’s “glorious past” to find comfort. With renewed intensity, ancient monuments and other testimonies of the ancient Swedish significance came in focus. The Icelandic sagas, graves, megalithic graves, stone circles, and inscriptions (p. 675) became the subject of renewed interest. The view of the “folk” as unspoiled and pristine had been put forward by the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. According to him, man is basically good, while evil had its roots in cultural development. New ways of living had made the Europeans too civilized, if not contrived. It was among the peasants in the countryside that one could still find the original human nature.

The interest in the “folk” spread rapidly across Europe and the collection of folk epics started in many countries. The models were found in older poetry, such as the Icelandic Edda and Homer’s works. The Edda became a model for Elias Lönnrot’s collection work and the creation of the Finnish national epic Kalevala. Prior to that, James MacPherson issued Ossian’s songs (1760) in an attempt to present a Scottish historical national epic. MacPherson gathered his material from the Scottish Highlands, where the most original Gaelic folk culture was thought to have survived. In a sense, one can see a Nordic ideal in Ossian songs. The setting was a barren and windswept landscape with deserted moors and misty mountains, not far from an idealized Norse world, and the songs were supposed to have existed in oral tradition since the third century. The author was, according to MacPherson, the Gaelic bard Ossian. In England, the work received much attention: suddenly, the British had their own Homer. However, on closer inspection, it turned out that MacPherson had produced much of the material himself, although the ballads probably were partly modeled on Scottish folk songs.9

Although Macpherson’s work was questionable, he was a typical representative of the craze for the “folk” that spread in Europe. Perhaps the most influential proponents of the 1800s were the German folk memory researchers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and their publications of German folk tales. In 1812–1815 they released Kinder-und Hausmärchen, which includes many well-known fairy tales, including Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty. The collections became immensely popular and were translated into many languages. The Grimm brothers stressed that these tales originated in the folk tradition and that they had no known author. In this way they expressed the people’s “pure” culture. The anonymization of the author became a kind of ideal and the collective creation process normative. There was also a kind of faith that the selection process of storytellers and singers was a type of filter. The individual can write poetry and compose, but it is the people who select what should be preserved. One can see this as a canonization process on a practical level, whereby the individual creation only survives if it reflects people’s collective aesthetics.

The works of Macpherson, Lönnrot, the Grimm brothers and others became the foundation of European folk culture archives. The goal was to portray their own nation’s history, and it is fair to say that they are part of a kind of contest. The Swedish ethnomusiclogist Owe Ronström has described these ways to connect music expression, culture, and nature as the creation of cultural “manuscripts”—to canonize the description form in itself. It was envisioned, says Ronström:

[. . .] a powerful, collective and spontaneous process of creation, sprung from a strange and magical union between nature and culture, place, and way of life. It’s the folk, the race, the nation itself that is the author, “Das Volk dichtet.” “Every epic has to write itself,” said the famous folktale scholar Jacob Grimm.10

(p. 676) The archives became the arena where folk culture’s manuscript could be performed. The nations could be presented as natural, ethnic, local, regional, and national imagined communities. Therefore, it became necessary to search for, collect, and publish expressions of these naturally given communities, and among the most important symbols were folk tales and folk music.

The Nation in a Cabinet and the Collection of the Music of Mankind: Two Fundamental Perspectives

The key issue that determines whether you can consider a cultural heritage archive as a form of applied ethnomusicology is connected to the archive’s mission. The archives created as part of the national projects had as one of their major aims to present the nation as uniform and, not least, as distinctively different in relevant areas in relation to other nations. This is a pronounced applied mission. Other archives, where the collections themselves and the comparative perspective are the focus, might also have expectations of creating better conditions, for example, for culture research, but this is, in my eyes, not primarily an effort to change or influence contemporary culture or the view of a national history. Below I will present two examples: the large collection of Latvian dainas and the establishing of the phonogram archive in Berlin. It might be interesting to note that both these collections have been inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.11

The major collecting projects that came about in the nineteenth century, as described earlier, were based on emerging nationalism in Europe. The (re-)creation of national epics, such as Kalevala, Ossian’s songs, and so on, had the more or less explicit purpose of strengthening the nation as a unit—providing its residents access to a shared history with national symbols, legends, heroes, and martyrs.

At the Italian Parliament’s first meeting in 1861, the politician Massimo d’Azeglio noted “L’Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli italiani” (We have created Italy. Now we must make Italians). This quote nicely sums up the national projects. The nation-state is not given by God, it is a created entity, which emerged in the 1800s, partly as a vehicle for a new class of bourgeoisie against the old elites, partly as a means to deliver the millions of soldiers that the new modern warfare demanded. The music archives’ role was to collect, organize, and present the nation’s building blocks.

“The Nation in a cabinet”—that is the way the Swedish cultural historian Anders Hammarlund has described the Latvian folklorist Krišjānis Barons’s (1835–1923) work.12 Barons was born in the village of Strutele in Kurland. He studied mathematics and astronomy at Dorpat University in Tartu in present-day Estonia, and after his studies he worked as a tutor and newspaper editor. In the 1870s Barons began a grand collection and systematization project based on Latvian folk poetry. Barons was particularly interested in the dainas, traditional four-line poem stanzas. He took summer walks in the countryside, where he was looking for people who knew dainas. He also engaged friends, colleagues, and students in the gathering.

(p. 677) It seemed as if the wells of folk memories, that for a long time have been regarded dried up and dehydrated, began to spring fresh and wonderful. From all parts of Latvia came letters with ancient wisdoms and memories from former times, among which the folk songs occupied a very special place.13

Archives and Applied EthnomusicologyClick to view larger

Figure 19.1a Krišjānis Barons’ cabinet on display in the National Library in Riga.

Photo: Dan Lundberg.

Archives and Applied EthnomusicologyClick to view larger

Figure 19.1b One of Barons’ original cigarette paper boxes.

Photo: Aldis Putelis.

To be able to more easily compare the stanzas, he created a system in which he organized them by topics, motives, and variants. He also studied the forms of the dainas carefully, but it was not what he was primarily interested in. It was the content that fascinated Barons—the Latvianness—and his goal was a complete mapping of the content. Barons had a cabinet built to store his dainas (Figure 19.1a and b). According to Barons, the Latvian and Lithuanian folk poems showed similarities to the Homeric verses—to (p. 678) an original unity of poetry, music and dance. In his view, the people’s language and its poetry are the highest expressions of a nation’s identity, and they are simultaneously the most important tools for identity maintenance.

Barons was obviously influenced by Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried von Herder, but he was also inspired by a scientific, positivistic approach, which led him to regard and treat cultural expressions as natural phenomena. In this view the social community is an organism that should be grown in accordance with its “natural” predisposition.14

Barons moved to Riga in 1893, where he published the first part of Latvju dainas (Latvian dainas). The work was completed in 1915. The Latvju dainas consists of six volumes with 217,996 folk lyrics. In the early 1920s, the Ministry of Education ordered that a selection from the Dainas Collection be included in the Latvian school curriculum, and Barons’s cabinet was placed in the Latvian National Museum. The cabinet was moved to the newly built National Library in Riga 2014. In 1983 an exact replica of the cabinet was placed in Barons’s apartment in Riga, which by then had become a museum, a tribute to a collector and systematist who, through popular culture, seemed to be able to reach the Latvian people’s soul—the essence of the Latvian. These measures gave historical legitimacy to the new independent Latvia.

On the museum’s website the collector’s character and deed is described reverently:

He was surrounded by the love of his near people at the end of his life giving them back his quietness and experience. The world of Dainas had changed the life of the (p. 679) Dainas collector. Even when he was very tired the native wisdom of the folk gave him satisfaction, clarity and indicated the right order of the eternal things.

By selecting what should be preserved in museums and archives, we distinguish the valuable from what we consider to be of little importance. With the dainas, Barons built a national and cultural Latvian identity. One of the functions of cultural heritage is to mark out specific features and difference—and the choice falls naturally on phenomena that we have but others lack. The collection and compilation of dainas is perhaps one of the clearest examples of this. In a time of confusion and disorientation—Latvia was under Russian rule as part of a long history with various supremacies—the search for a Latvian identity began. Barons dainas gave the Latvians a specific and independent cultural history that distinguished them from Swedes, Poles, Russians, and other influential neighbors. Barons’s work gained renewed importance after Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union.

The Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv is a completely different type of archive—not only regarding the material, as the core of the collection is sound recordings, but also regarding the collection methods and ideology. It is fair to say that the birth of the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv was a direct result of the technological achievements of the late 1800s—above all the phonograph, patented in 1877. It is often said that the invention of the phonograph was the very start of comparative musicology, which then led to the development of ethnomusicology as a university subject. And clearly, the collecting of ethnic music received a new breakthrough with the phonograph.

The ability to record sound marked the start of a more scientific approach to music collecting. Through the analysis of the recordings, more accurately based transcriptions could be carried out. The phonograph also enabled scientific criticism of the published material—you could check the result of the transcripts. Many music forms had earlier been very difficult to transcribe. But now complex polyphony and improvisation could be caught with the help of the phonograph. The American ethnologist Jesse Walter Fewkes made the first music ethnological phonograph recordings. During the years 1889–1890, he recorded music of Passamaquoddy and Zuni peoples of North America. In 1892 Hungarian collector Bela Vikar used phonograph for folk music collecting in Hungary. In the following years there were many recording projects of folk music in Europe (see Figure 19.2).

Archives and Applied EthnomusicologyClick to view larger

Figure 19.2 Wax cylinders from Karl Tirén’s yoik collection in Svenskt visarkiv, 1913–1915.

Photo: Eric Hammarström.

The Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv was established by Professor Carl Stumpf (1848–1936) at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Berlin. The starting point was the recording of a Thai theater performance at the Berlin Zoo in September 1900. Stumpf’s main areas of interest were acoustics and music psychology, but together with other colleagues (and perhaps primarily Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Otto Abraham, who by this time were Stumpf’s assistants), he developed what came to be known as the “Berlin School” and its methods of comparative musicology. After Stumpf’s recordings of the Thai musicians, other recordings with visiting musicians, including a Japanese theater company in November 1901, were made. The Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv was officially founded in 1905 with Hornbostel as the director. Hornbostel managed to ensure that German ethnological expeditions to other countries (p. 680) were provided with recording equipment, and the collections grew rapidly. The phonograph recording activities lasted until World War II. After Stumpf’s retirement in 1922, the archive was taken over by the state and was attached to the Hochschule für Musik. Twelve years later the archive became attached to the Museum für Völkerkunde, with Marius Schneider as manager, and moved to Berlin-Dahlem.

Right from the start the archive had developed good contacts with scholars in different parts of the world, and the technical knowledge that existed in Berlin was a reason for them to send material to the archive. As early as 1905, the American anthropologist Franz Boas sent cylinders with Indian music to the Berlin archive for scientific processing, and in the coming years many researchers did the same. By 1954 the collections had grown to over 16,000 cylinders from different parts of the world. But until 1914 the greater part of the collection originated from the former German colonies in Africa and the Pacific.15

The main concern of Stumpf, Hornbostel, and other members of the Archive was to collect as many examples of traditional music as possible in order to create and follow theories about the origin and evaluation of music in general. Thus, on the basis of the great number of recordings on wax cylinders from all over the world, a new university came in to being: Comparative musicology or “ethnomusicology,” as it is called today.16

The goal of the archive thus was primarily to investigate and compare music from different ethnic groups and cultures, often with an evolutionary perspective. A central idea was that the study of various aspects of music, like rhythm or tonality, could reveal principles of the functioning of the human mind. The research could teach us about our own music’s (p. 681) development in history. The Berlin School’s researchers also stressed the importance of field recordings and the need for thorough knowledge in order to understand the music culture.

It is always the best if the scientist learns the songs or instrumental pieces so well that he can perform them for the natives to get their approval. One should choose a critic with musical talent (who is considered knowledgeable also by his countrymen) and insure that the approval is not given by courtesy or disinterest.17

The Berlin School, with its scientific approach, in many ways turned the study of music into a laboratory science, where the sounding object’s physical characteristics and psychological effects were in focus; at the same time, there was a great respect for the musicians and an interest in music practice and its social functions. Comparative musicology’s quest for human universals is basically a reflection of Johann Gottfried von Herder’s ideas about how the cultural diversity of species forms a kind of whole. The evolutionists’ basic idea is a vision that we all are branches of the same tree of humanity. But the new cultural sciences developed in the epoch of imperialism, and one can also see a different tendency, that is, the notion of a hierarchy of cultures in a Darwinian sense.18 In such a system (often ethnocentric) the cultures represent different stages of development, from the primitive to the highly civilized, and the “primitive” may then serve as an example of lower stages of human “progress.”

Rationales for Archiving Today

In the article “ ‘For My Own Research Purposes?’ Examining Ethnomusicology Field Methods for a Sustainable Music,” Janet Topp Fargion discusses backgrounds and rationales for ethnomusicological collection of music through audio recordings. Fargion assumes that the strongest motive is preservation, but that collection is also linked to an aim of the continuation of traditions.

The idea of archives is inextricably linked with the concept of preservation, a word, if not a concept shied away from in today’s ethnomusicology: we no longer do ethnomusicology to “preserve” music, to keep it from extinction. Aware of the range of activities actually engaged in by today’s ethnomusicology archives, I suggest a much broader definition of preservation, namely, do describe it as the facilitation of the continuation of tradition.19

Topp Fargion is right that for the ethnomusicological archives, preservation also includes facilitation of the use of the music—but my question here is of a different kind. Which traditions’ continuation is facilitated, and which traditions never get the chance because they are not being collected at all? Archiving always involves choices—when some objects are chosen to represent or to continue certain traditions. This is, of course, at the expense of others. Those that are not collected therefore will fall by the wayside and eventually disappear.

(p. 682) The collection and documentation of folk music and music-making has most often not been governed by democratic principles of equal rights, but by utopian visions of individuals and organizations, and sometimes by state and national interests and needs. The lack of minority or immigrant cultural expressions and traditions, for instance, within archives and museums is normally not the result of malice or racism—but that might be a consequence. Instead, it is more often the effect of the museums’ and archives’ role in the creation of official versions of our common history, and the value placed on what is determined to be worthy of being collected and archived, and what can be discarded.

From an ideological perspective, there are many good arguments for music archiving.

Music is history. All music, new or old, carries with it traces of earlier times. This is an important reason to work with music in archives, museums, and libraries.

Music is identity. It can be argued that archives and museums are both democratic institutions and a human right. By depriving people of the access to archives, you deprive them of the possibility of a continuous cultural/national identity.

Music is human interaction and communication. Music making is an activity that can be charged with many, and widely differing, types of messages, opinions, and meanings. With music as a cultural icon, people not only can enhance the self-esteem of their group, but also can demonstrate to others who they are or what they sympathize with.

Many of today’s more important music archives have long histories with aims and ambitions that have varied over time. The goals have had to be reformulated to adapt to new issues and needs in society. An important question to ask is what position the national archives should take in today’s multicultural contexts. Which music should be collected? Whose history should be written?

The Concept of Folk Music

That a scientific discipline devotes considerable effort toward precise definitions of key concepts and activities in its own fields of expertise is, of course, neither surprising nor uncommon. One finds endless discussions in other aesthetic disciplines about what can really be regarded as dance, theater, or art. This approach is, in itself, interesting and shows thoroughness within traditional music research and a willingness to problematize its own field. But it also reveals that the concept is loosely defined and difficult to use. Part of the problem, of course, is found on the semantic level; the term’s meaning can vary, and continues to vary over time. Major changes have occurred within the folk music scene and in the use of folk music during the last 100 years. Musical forms that earlier had clear roots in the rituals of peasant cultures have, over the years, undergone shifts in both class and geography. We can use various terms in describing this process: aestheticization, institutionalization, professionalization, or symbolization. In other words, the complex meaning of the concept of folk music is characterized by its delocalization from older meeting spaces (such as community halls and the open spaces at crossroads) to concert stages, recording studios, music education institutions, and (p. 683) various media. Folk music has always had a strong connection to place—it is nestled in the very name, in the romantic sense of the word “folk.” But today we see how music styles are disconnected from their original context and gain new uses, functions, and meanings in new contexts. And music is perhaps the aesthetic expression that can most easily travel across cultural and political boundaries. This has perhaps always been the case, but it seems clearer now than ever in an increasingly globalized media world.20 Nevertheless, different understandings of the concept of folk music, from different time periods, persist, continuing to compete over its meaning.

It is clear that the discussion about meaning, in part, has to do with these major changes. But it is also clear that the discussion has its origins in the complex ideological points of departure that characterize the concepts’ emergence. Folk music, as a contrasting designation—the other music—that which is not church or court music, which belonged to “high culture” or the culture of the emerging bourgeoisie of the late eighteenth century. In this positioning lies a clear judgment as well: that folk music does not belong to the dominant cultural stratum.21 From having involved a majority of the people, folk music was turned into a subculture.

The Cultural Heritage Process and the Archives

In the article “Theorizing Heritage,” the American folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt- Gimblett discussed cultural heritage as a value-adding process:

Heritage adds value to existing assets that have either ceased to be viable (subsistence lifestyles, obsolete technologies, abandoned mines, the evidence of past disasters) or that never were economically productive because an area is too hot, too cold, too wet or too remote. Heritage organizations ensure that places and practices in danger of disappearing because they are no longer occupied or functioning or valued will survive. It does this by adding value of pastness, exhibition, difference, and where possible indigeneity.22

In several publications, the Swedish ethnologist Stefan Bohman has developed ideas around cultural heritage in what he calls “the cultural heritage process,” a mechanism in which phenomena are selected and given special status as symbols of a culture. Bohman’s model is concerned with museums and the conscious or unconscious selections that result in museum collections; perhaps more important, his model addresses the consequences that these choices have for our understanding of the collections and for their cultural value. But Bohman’s argument is also applicable to archives and other memory institutions. In the cultural heritage process, not only does the status of the collected objects change, but also the way we understand them. In Historia, museer och nationalism (History, museums and nationalism), Bohman presents a model that also has been explained and further developed by the Finnish folklorist Johanna Björkholm (p. 684) in her dissertation thesis Immateriellt kulturarv som begrepp och process (Intangible cultural heritage as concept and process).23 Bohman’s model assumes that cultural heritage is dependent on active staging and maintenance, which means that objects and phenomena are identified and re-created in accordance with the prevailing ideals of society. Therefore, they will also be reinterpreted in line with changes in the surrounding culture.

Based on Stefan Bohman’s ideas, I will discuss the cultural heritage process in relation to the collecting and archiving of folk music. Bohman’s model departs, as I stated earlier, from the museum’s activities and has a clear focus on the construction of new symbolic values for the items collected and exhibited. This kind of value shift does, of course, also take place in the archive context, but a very important difference is that many music archives, especially folk music archives, have as one of their primary goals to be a resource for the music scene. For today’s creative folk musicians, archives play a very important role as a source or stock of musical material. The musicians use the archives to find tunes as well as inspiration. In this way the archive turns out to be an important, and sometimes the only, link to previous music traditions. The archive becomes a keyhole for tradition, and archivists’ and researchers’ work can thus be seen as a kind of gatekeeping.

To describe archives from a theoretical cultural heritage perspective I have identified four steps of the process: identificationclassificationstandardization–symbolization.24 In the description below, I speak mainly about instrumental music, but examples might as well have been vocal genres.


The first step includes identification of the music form. This may sound simple, but music forms are constantly changing, and in many cases are more “blurred at the edges” than they might appear at first glance. Questions about origin, instrumentation, and playing technique are relevant in the identification of a music form. This leads to discrimination and reduction. Loosely related or “impure” forms are often removed.

Key issues:

  • What is the music form? And what is not?

  • In what ways does it differ from other genres/musics?


The next step is to organize various musical expressions within the identified music practice. This may involve the identifying of sub-styles and hierarchies. Here authenticity, even though this is a very much debated concept, is often used as a criterion. The history and origin of a musical form may be the basis for this step in the process.

Key issues:

  • Are there different forms?

  • Is there a hierarchy (values)?

(p. 685) Standardization

A consequence of the identification and classification in the establishing of an archive or a collection is that the identified music form often becomes more homogenized. Publications and other resources, such as books, phonograms, theoretical tools, and standardized repertoire, together with the designation of “rights and wrongs” in the performing style, can also promote a standardized musical behavior. The selected repertoire and perhaps also playing techniques and styles will dominate, at the expense of others. Diverse and ambiguous sub-styles of the music form can be altered in order to fit the model.

Key issue:

  • Purification; to remove the “wrong” repertoire, interpretations, and expressions.


An unavoidable result of any institutionalization in archives, as well as in museums, is symbolization. The symbolic value of a chosen music form can represent a culture, nation, or style. Symbolization often leads to new forms and uses of the music. This can also be followed by a re-diversification “on the other side,” that is, when material from the archive is used in new contexts.

Key issues:

  • Development of a musical canon

  • Creation of a musical “grammar,”

Swedish Folk Music as Cultural Heritage

To exemplify the cultural heritage process and how the archives’ and the collectors’ work affects the music community, I have chosen to describe the Swedish Folk Music Commission’s work during the first half of the twentieth century.

When Professor Jan Ling wrote the textbook Svensk folkmusik. Bondens musik i helg och söcken (Swedish folk music. The peasants’ music in festivities and daily life) in 1964, he saw Swedish folk music from a fairly strict historical perspective. Folk music was still a living tradition, but the number of practitioners was steadily declining. And it was reasonable to expect that the genre in the near future was in danger of complete disappearance. What he did not know was that his book would be highly significant for the strong revival of Swedish folk music that emerged in the 1970s. In the “folk music vogue”25 that washed over the country, scholars and collectors such as Ling became important inspirations and guides for young musicians who grew up in new environments, often with very little connection to rural society. Archival (p. 686) materials were then—which is still the case—often the only sources of older folk music forms.

Since the 1970s, folk music has developed into a genre that can be said to stand side by side with other recognized art forms. Folk music has been established in education, courses and programs in folk music are given at most Swedish universities, and folk musician education is offered at Swedish music conservatories. Today, the number of professional folk musicians is greater than ever. The importance of archives for this development can hardly be overstated—archives are essential for repertoire, but also a filter. The collections of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are keyholes to the music history and usually the only way to find repertoire.

In the article “Sweden” in the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, the ideological and filtering effect of the archives is emphasized:

Swedish folk music is a composite of many heterogeneous styles and genres, accumulated for centuries. These traditions, genres, forms, and styles seem homogeneous in comparison to today’s musical diversity. Their homogeneity is, however, a result of powerful processes of ideological filtering-processes that have seriously reduced the heterogeneity of rural musical traditions.26

The Swedish term folkmusik (folk music) usually denotes music of the rural classes in old peasant society, while populärmusik (popular music) normally refers to modern music.

As a result of the interchange between these two concepts, there emerged an urban folklore, which, around 1920, was embodied in gammaldans old-time dance-music. Since about the 1970s, the term folklig musik (vernacular music) has served as an umbrella term for folk music, gammaldans, and some other forms of popular music. In the 1990s, the terms ethnic music and world music were introduced, most often for modernized forms of non-Swedish folk and popular music.27

Since the 1980s, new forms of ensemble music have been developed with inspiration from other European folk ensembles, primarily Irish and Hungarian.

The Folk Music Commission

In the early 1900s, the ideas that encouraged the pioneers of folk music collection at the end of the 1700s was revitalized in Sweden. One might speak of a second or maybe even third wave of the interest in recording and collecting folk culture. Also at this time, interest in the older folk music was primarily rooted in intellectual and academic circles. An appeal in the Nordic Museum’s publication Fataburen, in the summer of 1908, was signed by the Swedish prince Eugene, as well as some of the most significant intellectual leaders of that time: Karl Silverstope, member of the ministry of justice and President (p. 687) of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music; Anders Zorn, internationally well-known painter; Nils Andersson judge; Lars Johan Zetterqvist, concert master; Richard Steffen, rector; Bernhard Salin, director of the Nordic Museum; and Nils Keyland, assistant at the Nordic Museum. The aim was to generate interest in the newly formed FMK, a body that would promote the collecting of important elements of a rapidly disappearing cultural heritage and preserve it for future generations. The Commission had been formed the previous year and in a call-to-action that was sent out it was written::

It is a known fact that the Swedish folk music for decades been undergoing decline, that our genuine old songs and ballads, which by connoisseurs are said to be among the most beautiful in the world, are about to disappear, and are supplanted by songs that lack almost all musical value. Degeneration is quick. In the younger generations these beautiful melodies are already forgotten. Without our intervention they would now no longer be able to survive in tradition.28

It is stated that the interest is in “genuine old songs and ballads,” and later in the text the commission declares that there is a particular need for contributions as “transcriptions of folk songs and old hymns, herding tunes, walking tunes, wedding songs, long dances, polskas, old waltzes etc.”29 Apparently, the interest is largely focused on instrumental music. This is partly new. In the childhood of the collection of folk culture, the interest was more focused on vocal music and lyrics. The change of focus can be explained ideologically but also by the simple fact that the driving enthusiasts had a special interest in instrumental folk music.

When the Commission was founded at the Nordic Museum at the “First Meeting for Swedish Folk Knowledge,” Nils Andersson, who was the Commission’s strong man and the driving force behind the petition, gave a speech that resulted in the following statement from the assembled:

The first meeting of the Swedish folk knowledge states that the assembly considers that it is, from a scientific, ethnographic and nationally musical interest, highly desirable that in the near future, records of folk-like melodies may with utmost passion be conducted. The meeting finds it equally desirable, that in the near future a large central collection of Swedish folk melodies may be established. The meeting agrees to the principles for music collecting that were presented by the speaker.30

Nils Andersson succeeded in his ambitions, and FMK was formed with the aim to be “a central collection of Swedish folk songs.” Its mission was to collect and store selected repertoires of Swedish folk music. The main task was to implement the survey of Swedish folk music, region by region, which resulted in the 24 volumes of Svenska låtar (Swedish tunes) (see Figure 19.3).31 The work was led initially by Nils Andersson and was then taken over by Nils’s companion, Olof Andersson. The latter had been engaged to assist with fair copies and field transcriptions, but after Nils’s death in 1921 the collecting was conducted entirely by Olof Andersson. In 1940 the last of the 24 volumes of Svenska låtar was published, and the Folk Music Commission’s work was completed.32

Archives and Applied EthnomusicologyClick to view larger

Figure 19.3 Polska from Ore, Dalarna, in the FMK collection. Transcribed by Nils Andersson, 1906.

In Svenskt visarkiv.

(p. 688) But what ideas about folk music were discussed in the circles around FMK? What was good music and what was bad—and what music was worth collecting? There are no clear indications within FMK’s own materials, but when Nils Andersson suggested at the meeting at the Nordic Museum that the collecting of folk melodies should intensified, he had a particular repertoire in mind. Nils Andersson draws a clear line between what should be collected and preserved, and what should, in fact, preferably be forgotten. But the line does not run between folk music and some other genre. He seems to rather consider which music is good, and which music is bad, within the folk music genre itself. He calls for the collecting of walking tunes (gånglåtar), polskas, herding music, and so on. But he also makes it clear that polkas, polkettas, mazurkas, and Viennese waltzes should not be collected, despite the fact that he undoubtedly sees that these were a large part of that time’s contemporary folk culture. My understanding is that FMK’s work had an enormous influence on what has come to be the core of the genre, and therefore also its meaning—and without the committee explicitly stating the meaning of the concept folk music. Today, we can also conclude that the collecting work had practical repercussions. The work within FMK had as a goal to collect, but also to keep the music alive—publications were intended to follow. And the publication of Svenska låtar (Swedish tunes) meant a fundamental canonization of Swedish folk music—perhaps to a greater degree than the collectors themselves imagined. By means of what was selected, one decided what would be preserved and, therefore, what (p. 689) would be played by coming generations of musicians. In this way, one can say that FMK defined Swedish folk music through its selections and its work.

The Discussions

The meaning of the concept of folk music has, as mentioned earlier, been discussed by many Swedish ethnomusicologists. As a starting point, I would like to talk about some of the more influential proposals of definitions made over the last 30 years by Swedish scholars. But I would also like to refer to discussions found within the framework of academic theses about Swedish folk music in more recent years.33

To begin the discussion on the effects of today’s use of the concept, I will highlight four proposed definitions that have been often used and discussed: Ling (1979), Ronström (1989), Ramsten (1992), and Lundberg and Ternhag (1996).34 But first I will reveal that I will be using quotations from these authors, perhaps a little unfairly, in order to deliberately polarize the concept of folk music.35

I begin with two definitions, which address the concept’s ideological meaning: Jan Ling and then Owe Ronström, who uses and deepens Ling’s ideas, 10 years later.

In his classic article, “Folkmusik—en brygd” (Folk Music—a Brew) (1979), Ling grounds his definition on the aspect of power. The concept of folk music was recognized and established by an acknowledged cultural elite at the end of the 1700s, and this has had an almost distancing effect. Ling writes that folk music is an “ideological concept, coined by the bourgeoisie of the eighteen and nineteen hundreds as a designation for ‘the others,’ the people’s music, which they observe, study, and attempt to incorporate within their culture.” Ling states that the prerequisite for the development of folk music as a concept concerns the social changes that took place during the eighteenth century.

In my view, there are two main aspects of Ling’s observation: (1) that folk music is the culture of “the other,” and (2) that the designation of folk music was a way to gain control by making the music part of the designator’s own cultural identity. In both cases, it is about positions of power. It is the new bourgeois class that defines and chooses. “The people” in this sense, are passive practitioners of the cultural expressions that are attributed to them. From the viewpoint of those in power, the folk do not choose their culture, while the bourgeoisie, to some extent, choose their means of expression.

Owe Ronström, in Nationell musik? Bondemusik? Om folkmusikbegreppet (1989) (National Music? Peasant Music? On the Concept of Folk Music), builds on Ling’s ideas and further develops what the concept of folk music can be thought to stand for—in theory and in practice. In the end, he comes up with a sort of sociolinguistic definition of the term. According to Ronström, folk music is “. . . that which we call folk music. The people who use the word often decide what it will mean. Musicians, researchers, politicians, and audiences are all involved in an ongoing tug of war about which direction, and how far the meaning can be stretched.”36 Ronström observes, unlike Ling, the participants within the music community, from different social classes and with various roles. They actively take part in the power (p. 690) struggle over the meaning of the concept of folk music. It is basically Ling’s line of thinking, but shifted to a more modern platform. In the research project Music, Media, Multiculture, Ronström’s thoughts were developed around the model “doers—knowers—makers,” three roles in a kind of discursive and performative power struggle.37

Ling and Ronström view folk music from its importance as an ideological marker. Folk music is defined, or rather singled out, as “the other.” But the designation of subculture also means that folk music ends up in a defined relationship to the majority’s culture and becomes, indirectly, a part of it. “Outsider-ness” becomes “insider-ness” as well—folk music “is incorporated” into the culture of the majority, as Ling expresses it.

A different way to approach the concept of folk music is to consider the music itself. Folk music has, since the 1700s, been defined through its function. But in its modern context it hardly differs from other aesthetic music forms—folk music stands side by side with jazz and art music on the concert stage.

Two definitions that deal with folk music as a genre, or musical style, include Märta Ramsten’s in her dissertation, Återklang. Svensk folkmusik i förändring 1950–1980 (Echoes: Swedish folk music in transition, 1950–1980) (1992), and four years later, my own and Gunnar Ternhag’s definition in the textbook Folkmusik i Sverige (Folk music in Sweden).

Ramsten views folk music as “. . . a music genre, in other words, an established repertoire and a conventional way of performing this repertoire. This performance, of course, varies during different time periods, but which, even today, is highly dependent on nineteenth-century folk music collectors’ approach to the material.”38 Ramsten connects it to an established repertoire that is performed in a generally accepted way—folk music as musical material played in a specific style. In addition, Ramsten links this to the work of collecting and the collectors’ ideological frameworks. Lundberg and Ternhag (1996) take the discussion a step further. Folk music is “a family of styles. And as a style, folk music has certain characteristic traits that one can find in the use of tonal language, rhythmic patterns, or sound—or in a combination of these.”39 In this definition, the authors let go of the connection between collecting and an established repertoire—the music’s attributes are determined solely by its style/sound or musical codes. The folk music genre, in this version, could be dominated by totally newly composed music that sounds like folk music.

Schematically described, one could say that the four definitions of folk music are overlapping, yet still represent a line of development; from the view of folk music as an ideologically constructed category, to the approach that folk music is an established form for creating music where the practitioners themselves influence the style’s musical codes through their musical practice. It is tempting to see these as extremes within a spectrum of possible definitions, but the paths of thinking definitely complement one another. There is no obstacle to experiencing folk music as a musical code, while at the same time recognizing its strong links to national ideologies. It is clear that folk music can represent both ideology and style—and perhaps this is already captured in Ramsten’s definition. The definitions themselves, in actuality, represent various levels of meaning within the folk music concept. Through their differences, they also describe folk music’s relocations. The historically oriented definitions are, on the one hand, closely tied to folk (p. 691) music’s social contexts; folk music is folk music because it is connected to a social class and to a diffuse and loosely defined past. The definitions that pertain to today’s use of folk music instead refer to musical codes; folk music is characterized by a type of instrumentation, playing technique, type of repertoire, and so on.

Everyday Meaning and the Practitioner’s Perspective

One can, of course, ask oneself whether or not the above definitions are included in some sort of “everyday meaning” of the concept of folk music. If one should ask “the man on the street,” that person would hardly be answering that folk music is an ideologically constructed category, or that it is defined based on a sustained drone effect or modal melodic structures. In our daily use of the concept, we are more likely influenced by the ideas of folk music’s social connections to rituals, as well as the daily work within a rural community—“the peasants’ music in festivities and daily life.”40

While teaching “Swedish folk music” in various situations, I have often discussed the everyday meaning of “folk music” with the students in order to see which criteria one can agree upon, without analyzing the concept more deeply. It is interesting that it is actually pretty easy to come to an overall agreement on some sort of meaning of the concept. The following key criteria almost always come up:

  • Oral tradition

  • Passed on across generational borders

  • Tied to rituals

  • Rural music

  • From the past.

All of these criteria point to music’s social context and connection to older rural society. It is quite seldom that the criteria of musical styles come up during such a discussion.

During the fall of 2008, I taught the first-year students of the folk music department at The Royal College of Music in Stockholm. On this occasion I also asked if any of the students considered themselves to be a spelman (Swedish folk musician or folk fiddler, considered to be embedded in a specific playing tradition). Of the group’s 11 students, there was only one who thought of himself as a spelman. One can ask oneself why? Except for the three students who studied singing, all of the others were, more or less, established practitioners and instrumentalists within folk music. These are knowledgeable musicians who should have identified themselves as spelmän/spelkvinnor (male/female folk musicians)—otherwise, who else would identify themselves as such? Historically, it would have been a bigger problem for them to call themselves “musicians,” a title that, at least in earlier times, would have brought to mind an educated, professional, and experienced music (p. 692) practitioner in art music. But, according to this student group at the music academy, which I believe is relatively representative, it is less pretentious to call oneself a (folk) musician than a spelman.

“I will never be a spelman.” said one.

“I would never be able to play so faithfully in one style. To be a spelman involves adherence to a bunch of impossible requirements.”

This is a complete turn-around of the meaning and value given to the terms “musician” and spelman. I believe that this is, in part, an important effect stemming from FMK’s efforts to connect the music to place and local culture, and not least, to raise the status of the individual, instrumental musician within folk culture—the spelman. In order to put some light on this change, we can compare it to the reaction of the folk music collector Karl Sporr, who became very upset when he was called a spelman. In an article in the newspaper Falukuriren in 1940, he pointed out that he wanted to be called “a violinist and music researcher, and not a spelman.” The background was that when Sporr received the Hazelius Medal for his contributions to folk music, he refused to accept it, as the Nordic Museum had presented him with the title spelman.

The Folk Music Commission’s Folk Music

In order to discuss FMK’s ideas about what folk music is, or rather what good folk music is, I have chosen to start with Nils Andersson’s lecture, “About Swedish Folk Music,” which he held in various locations in the region of Skåne during the late winter of 1909.41 Nils Andersson’s lectures were often presented in the press in a summarized or abstract form, and these were later commented upon by the Finnish musicologist and collector Professor Otto Andersson, in an article in 1958.42 Among other things, Otto Andersson remarks on the fact that the summaries are very much alike and have, for the most part, the same form. Otto Andersson draws the conclusion that Nils wrote these abstracts himself and sent them to the newspapers, or gave them to some newspaper reporter. It is certainly possible that this is true, as Nils Andersson was very eager to get his message out, and a clever way to do it, of course, was to “do the job” for the journalists. It was easy to just take the completed summary to the newspaper. But, one can also consider that the newspapers got their news from one another. Otto Andersson comments on four lectures from around the same time: in Trelleborg on February 8, in Lund on March 2, in Ängelholm on March 11, and in Kristianstad on April 1. In my example, I will be using the abstract that was published in the daily newspaper Sydsvenska Dagbladet Snällposten on March 5, 1909.

Nils Andersson’s lecture presents a clear statement about several aspects of the nature of folk music, its function, and value. In many ways, Nils Andersson’s evaluation goes (p. 693) back to Johann Gottfried von Herder’s ideas about folk culture as a sort of expression of the collective folk soul (Volksgeist)—even though he does not use that term.

Folk Music’s Essence and Origin

Nils Andersson begins by claiming that there are two types of folk music, instrumental and vocal—a fundamental and, understandably, elemental observation that is interesting only in light of the fact that he never returns to the topic of vocal music in the lecture. He comments further:

  • Embedded in the term “folk music” is that it belongs to the peasantry.

    • It has not merely been preserved within tradition, but has originated there as well.

  • [Folk music] is… among the finest and best expressions of a people’s temperament and character.

  • . . . as well as a reflection of the people’s way of perceiving the environment in which they live.

    • Each country has, thus, its own particular folk music.

    • And in Sweden, it can be said that each province has its own folk music.

  • Of the folk music of all countries, Sweden’s is of the highest rank.

Nils Andersson’s thoughts about the essence and origin of folk music fall in line with the Romantic era’s ideas of folk music’s connection to the soul of the people. The basis for this is the late eighteenth-century ideas of nation, race ideology, and the idealization of the simple, wild, or the uncultured. A consistent view was that everything, or rather every culture, had its own character—a soul. Humans had, of course, their souls, but people as a whole, as well as nature, had a soul. These ideas can be seen as a reaction against the Enlightenment’s espousal of reason and rationalism. The new Romantic currents instead emphasized the importance of the soul of the arts and the emotions. Music was given a double role as both an expression for, and the bearer of, the soul of the people.

Philosopher and historian Johann Gottfried von Herder is often cited as the author of the concept of “folk.” Through Herder, the term “folk” began to be used in a way that can be likened to today’s use of “culture.” People are, at the same time, individuals, and representatives of a collective. In the latter role, a person expresses a kind of folk character. Herder’s view of the folk as a collective unit was relative. He meant that all cultures are different, that human nature is not uniform, but that we all have different capabilities within our respective basic characters that express the soul of the folk. At the same time, the various different folk souls are expressions for one and the same God.43 It is interesting that Nils Andersson maintains that Swedish folk music is foremost among all countries. We Swedes are hardly known for emphasizing that our own culture, celebrating ourselves, is better than the culture of others.44 Nils Andersson’s (p. 694) choice of accenting Swedish folk music’s superiority can understandably be his belief that it really is outstanding, but also may be an expression of a kind of alienation—a sort of distancing himself from folk culture. It is easier to highlight Swedish folk music if one is not actually a part of the folk culture, but only its promoter.

The Bearers of Tradition

Archives and Applied EthnomusicologyClick to view larger

Figure 19.4 The music collector Nils Andersson in the home of the fiddler Ante Sundin.

Photo from Svenskt visarkiv.

“The bearers of folk music were the old fiddlers who, as a rule, were highly regarded.” One of the most distinctive features of Nils Andersson’s approach and presentation of folk music material is that he places the fiddler (spelman) in the center (see Figure 19.4). In the publication Svenska låtar (Swedish tunes), the presentation of the spelman receives a central place. The folk musician functions also as a principal category for the tunes, something that Nils Andersson was criticized for by contemporary colleagues from various quarters. In earlier collections, anonymity of authors functioned just the opposite way—as a sort of lofty ideal. The collective, creative process of folk culture stood in the center. The Serbian collector Vuk Karadžić, who gathered epics and ballads in parts of the (p. 695) Balkans in the beginning of the 1800s, wrote: “Everyone denies their involvement, even the actual poet, and they say that they heard it from someone else.”45 It is a sort of faith in the process, that people—audience, storytellers, and singers—act as a kind of filter or selection mechanism. The individual can write poetry and compose music, but it is the folk who actively choose what will be preserved. One can, in fact, see this as a kind of process of canonization on an everyday level. FMK’s approach of accenting the importance of the musician can instead be seen as a new and modern way of presenting the folk music and its practitioners. Then, of course, one can wonder if Nils Andersson was correct when he claims that musicians “as a rule, were highly regarded.”


One reason for the formation of FMK was that folk music was considered to be dying out fast. Through the work of collecting, at least parts of the quickly disappearing cultural heritage could be saved for coming generations.

This is reflected in newspaper summaries of Nils Andersson’s lectures, where he notes that

[t]‌he real folk music in Sweden is almost extinct.

What now goes by the name is extremely trite and burlesque, and infinitely inferior to the genuine, old folk music.

Popular music is a particular threat in this scenario. It is interesting in that it seems that poplar music gradually evolved into folk music’s leading opponent during the 1800s. It becomes increasingly clear that art music, in many ways, is allied with collectors—folk music was used by many classical composers as source material for the composition of national music during the Romantic period. Popular music, instead, stood directly in the firing line, and the most pronounced object of hate was the accordion. Nils Andersson asserts in the lecture that the threats include:

  • Accordion

  • One attributes this [folk music’s death] commonly to the accordion.

  • . . . the old folk music cannot be played on the regular accordion, since it does not have the notes found in these [folk music’s] scales.

  • It would be fortuitous if one could eradicate the accordion.

  • Musical sense and, perhaps even, emotional life [has] become superficial and diluted.

  • Contributing factors are:

  • Popularity of quartet songs,

  • And even more so, brass music.

  • One reason for the extinction of folk music has also been pietism.

(p. 696) The German instrument maker, Friedrich Buschmann, constructed the first accordion in 1822. He named his invention Handäoline. The instrument had a diatonic tonal range and each button, connected to two lamella, produced different tones depending on if it was pressed on the intake or the output of air. In 1829, Austrian Cyrill Demian took out a patent on his Akkordion, a development variation of Buschmann’s instrument. Through industrial production that enabled relatively low prices, the accordion spread rapidly over Europe and North America. The accordion fit well to the new repertoire of dance music that was spreading throughout these regions at the time, around the turn of the century. The accordion belongs to the family of instruments called free-reed and includes, for example, harmonica (mouth harp) and pump organ, and is related to Asian instruments such as the mouth organ (for example, the Chinese sheng), which has existed in southeastern regions of Asia for at least two thousand years. It is believed that the idea for the accordion was modeled on these Asian mouth organs. But the accordion also has much in common with European bagpipes, mostly in the construction that includes a bellows, and base and melody functions.

By the middle of the 1800s, there were different kinds of accordions with various names. The accordion was also called by many local, vernacular names such as hand klaver, knäorgel, piglock, and drängkammarorgel (hand keyboard, knee organ, maid charmer, workman’s organ)that witness to the fact of the importance of the accordion among Sweden’s lower classes. The accordion’s rapid spread also put its mark on folk music. In many ways, one can say that the accordion represents an important shift in musical thinking. In the older stratum, the music was built with only the melody in mind. The most important components in the music were melody and rhythm—one used to say that music was “linear.” But, in that one can begin to harmonize and put chords to the melody, there arises a new way of thinking about music. Music gains a vertical dimension. The accordion’s huge popularity meant that much of the older music was adapted to a harmonic way of thinking. And it was exactly that which upset Nils Andersson and other folk music enthusiasts. They felt that the accordion simplified the older music and made the intricate melodies coarser. But the accordion also stood for the new era—industrialization and urbanization. In this way and in many people’s eyes, it became a symbol of the culture’s superficiality—something that must be fought against if folk music was to be preserved.

The accordion, along with the harmonica, was manufactured industrially during the latter part of the 1800s and spread quickly across Europe. Together with modern brass orchestras and string ensembles, accordion players began to gradually take over more and more of the dance music function, previously held by violin and clarinet musicians.46 Local instrument traditions were also regarded as threatened—as for instance the Swedish nyckelharpa and older types of wind instruments belonging to the herding traditions.

But it was not only the changing trends that threatened folk music. It had more enemies. During the latter years of the nineteenth century, a religious revivalist movement campaigned against alcohol, dancing, and other worldly pleasures of indulgence—a crusade that also affected music making, which was closely associated with contexts in which immorality and sin could be expected to occur.47

(p. 697) The Identification of the “Authentic” Folk Music

In FMK’s archive there are many examples of clarifications on what is valuable or what is reprehensible from a collecting perspective. In a letter to Professor Tobias Norlind in 1912, Nils Andersson explains that his collections consist “of truly ancient fiddle tunes and therefore, do not bother with the likes of polkett, mazurka, Viennese waltz, galop, etc.”

In the commentary in Sydsvenskan, Nils Andersson describes the oldest and the “most peculiar” material as the most important.

  • Among the oldest and most peculiar were

    • Those so-called herding tunes, which the herders played on animal horns or birch-bark trumpets (näverlurar).

    • Walking tunes were those played while walking [and] wedding processions.

  • Dance music comprised, however, a considerable part of folk music.

    • The foremost here being polskas.

    • While the names of these indicate foreign origin, it is not the music that matters, but only a certain kind of dance.

    • Of old, some of these melodies have been played for a long dance.

Folk music’s value was dependent on its ability to symbolize a national character, and to be authentic, distinctive, and not least, very old. In addition, it must differ from the folk culture of other countries. Swedish music must have something different from that of the Danish or Finnish. Thus we see the worthiness that Nils Andersson puts on the most peculiar songs. Nils Andersson saw a very special value in the herding music, thanks to its archaic sound, but also because it is distinctly Swedish.

The End Goal

FMK’s aim was to preserve folk music. But, above all, the Commission wanted to make the music available through the publication of Svenska låtar (Swedish tunes). In his lecture, Nils Andersson points out two goals for FMK’s activity:

  • . . . that the rich treasure, that our folk music contains and which, at the last moment was captured, could again become alive and be assimilated by our people and used for cultivating and enriching spiritual life.

  • And even our composers would have a very rewarding goldmine from which they could take motifs and ideas.

(p. 698) The work of collecting carried out in the 1800s had, in many cases, the aim to publish songs and tunes so that they could be sung and played. But the intended audience was not the musicians and singers of the rural society. An example is Richard Dybeck’s efforts to implement folk culture in a theatrical setting. One form of this was the so-called evening entertainments, which he arranged in Stockholm. He combined different folk traditions in scenes that he named, for example, “festive pieces,” “dance rhapsodies,” “lyrical folksongs,” and “scenes from the herding woods” (where cattle grazed). The pieces were arranged with a wide variety of instrumental groups, choirs, orchestras, and soloists. An important detail is that, as stated before, the performances never made use of peasant musicians or singers. Dybeck let professional musicians, singers, and college music students take the roles. Dybeck’s efforts show how important it was for him to find a balance between what was aesthetically acceptable to the bourgeois audiences of Stockholm, and the “authentic” folk music as it was performed in the farming communities—in church, for dancing, or in the summer pastures. FMK had a very different target group in mind—those musicians who were interested in finding good repertoire from their own regions. And this came to be. The publication Svenska låtar functioned as a priceless source for the organized fiddle groups. But FMK also wanted to make the collections available to composers and researchers.

New Perspectives on Folk Music

It is clear that, according to FMK, the threats to folk music do not come from art music, but from popular culture and new music trends coming from continental Europe, spread across Europe through new media. In his lectures, Nils Andersson points out that young people are misled into forgetting the old melodies by new, foreign, trendy melodies and instruments. For him, classical music and its composers were rather allies in the fight for the preservation of folk music. This was, of course, not unique for FMK but, in fact, was a common feature of the Romantic era. The fear that the youth would be misled by foreign influences was ongoing in many later events during the twentieth century.48

On the basis of Nils Andersson’s lectures and FMK’s other writings, one can construct a of hierarchy of values that coincides well with the Romantic era’s ideals about national culture.49 The scale stretches between poles that can be designated in different ways:

  • Good–Bad

  • Old–New

  • Authentic–Modern

  • Natural–Artificial

  • Rural–Urban

  • Minor key–Major key

  • Polska dance–Polka

  • March–Foxtrot

Archives and Applied EthnomusicologyClick to view larger

Figure 19.5 The ladder is an illustration the value scale of FMK. At the bottom we find the music that represents modernity and international influences. At the top we find pastoral music that stands for the good old peasant society.

Illustration: Lena Drake

(p. 699) With the help of Nils Andersson’s lectures, we can construct FMK’s value scale (see Figure 19.5)

FMK’s Impact and the Cultural Heritage Process

Nils Andersson’s lecture is a sermon—a proclamation of the folk music gospel. He took his arguments about the folk culture that springs from the collective soul and which mirrors nature from ideologies of the Romantic era. And he had a burning passion for this work.

(p. 700) Nils Andersson did not work with some explicit definition of folk music, but in his arguments, one can catch a glimpse of the same conceptual content as in the “everyday meaning” that I described earlier. Nils Andersson’s folk music is rural music, from older times that have a clear connection to function—rituals, work in the woods and at the summer pasture. Folk music’s lifeblood is the old farming community, which was passed down from generation to generation. Consequently, folk music was threatened by modernity, internationalization, and fast-paced changes.

For Nils Andersson, it seems that it was not necessary for him to define folk music—it was self-evident. Even so, one can say that he and FMK, through their work more than any other, shaped the concept. Through the clear focus on instrumental music, from certain geographical regions, a focus on certain types of tunes, and sanctioning of certain instruments, FMK has, in tangible ways, narrowed down the concept.

Through their extensive and diligent work, FMK created a clear and distinct repertoire for future generations—a canon for Swedish folk music that is still in use.

FMK’s work can be described by the four steps of the cultural heritage process.


The Folk Music Commission concluded that certain styles and dance types would be preserved, so identification is perhaps the most obvious part, and it was the Commission’s very starting point. Here is an outspoken appreciation of the older layers of folk music and this, combined with a clear desire to preserve the most distinctive musical forms in Swedish folk music, with the aim that Swedish music should be conceived as different from other countries’ folk music. One consequence of this was that melodies collected close to the Norwegian border sometimes sounded too Norwegian. A collected material of this type was in some cases sent to Norwegian collectors.50 The hunt for elderly and distinctive forms of music directed the collecting work toward shepherd music and dance music with roots in the eighteenth-century folk culture.


This step is especially evident in the presentation of the material in the publication Svenska låtar, where the folk musicians’ repertoires were consistently presented by melody type. Another result of FMK’s work is that the polska melodies were grouped into three main types, based on the notated rhythm. The publication in Svenska låtar also creates a clear geographical division of the Swedish folk music by region, with regions profiled against each other. We can also observe that the classification of a tune as “polska” led to a rise of its status and thus increased the tradition bearer’s prestige. It is clear that many musicians adapted their repertoire after collectors’ preferences—explicit or implicit—and this meant a shift of the folk music genre toward older repertoires.

(p. 701) Standardization

The Swedish folk music of today is based very much on the collections created by FMK. The polska has become the overall dominating melody and dance type in Swedish folk music. As a result of FMK’s focus on a few musical instruments, folk music today is largely dominated by violin music. The orientation toward older folk music practice has also counteracted the ensemble types developed in the 1900s with the accordion as a central instrument. Until the last few decades, this kind of ensemble has not been regarded as folk—unlike in many other European countries, where the ensembles have been seen as a natural development within the tradition. FMK’s ideal folk musician was the nineteenth-century spelman, a romanticized and mythical maverick, a strong-willed natural artist who maintained traditions without allowing himself to be influenced by contemporary trends and musical fashions. The musician was a man, an instrumentalist who usually played to dance, alone without accompaniment. The effect of this was, of course, that the Swedish folk music by FMK became a more male-dominated instrumental genre throughout most of the twentieth century.51


A fundamental effect of FMK’s collecting work has been the creation of a distinct “Swedish” folk music idiom. The nationalistic ideas during the Romantic era had their roots in Johann Gottfried von Herder’s ideas of national folk characters. These ideas were the basis for FMK’s collections and the publication of Svenska låtar. The collectors’ focus on typical or distinctive features, in terms of melody types and modal structures, have turned these into stylistic cannons. From this perspective, it is possible to say that FMK made Swedish folk music more Swedish, or at least more distinct. In the early twentieth century, instruments such as the Swedish nyckelharpa were threatened by new factory-made musical instruments, especially the accordion and harmonica. In the work of FMK, the nyckelharpa was identified as particularly important to preserve. The result that we can see today is that the nyckelharpa has developed into a national symbol. Without FMK, this would hardly have been possible.


FMK’s ideological importance to the folk music concept in practice may be summarized as the following:

  • The spelman as the focus

    • The individual musician becomes visible in the tradition

    • Sorting of good and poor musicians

    • The older the better as a basic idea

    • (p. 702) Focus on “passing on to the next” (tune learned from… which was learned from, etc.)

    • Collecting becomes focused on instrumental music

    • A shift from a female to a male focus

  • Local distinctiveness

    • From national to regional

  • Certain types of tunes become established standards

    • Polska dances, waltzes, marches, herding music, and long dances

  • A clearer picture of the threat from popular music

    • Art music composers considered to be allies

    • Accordion music and popular dances end up on the outside

    • Strong demands on helpers and other collectors to avoid collecting polkas, polkettas, and galops

  • The instruments are standardized.

    • Focusing on fiddle, clarinet, and nyckelharpa—as well as the cow and sheep horn and bark trumpet (lur).

    • Less focus on bagpipe, fipple flute, diddling—singing of dance tunes (trall), bowed lyre (stråkharpa)

    • Absolutely no accordion, harmonica, other bowed instruments, or transverse flutes.

Music collecting and archive work were important parts of the homogenization and establishing of Swedish folk music—a Swedish folk music that was different from other countries’ musics. From this perspective, the work of FMK is definitely a form of applied ethnomusicology, where the aim was to interact with and influence the music community and, in a way, on a higher level, take an active part in the creation of a Swedish identity. The quote “history is written by the victors “is sometimes said to originate from Winston Churchill. That is possible, but more important is the meaning of the sentence—that history writing is a matter of the exercise of power. This is also true for memory institutions. The records of bygone times are, of course, important for our understanding of history. By taking the initiative in the collecting work, FMK could decide what should be preserved concerning genres and tunes. And this was not unproblematic—in several cases there were tensions and power struggles between competing collectors and institutions. FMK emerged victorious from this power struggle, and the material that became published in Svenska låtar is dominant among Swedish practitioners of folk music today.

FMK employees had very little contact with other European collectors. Apart from the Nordic network, where scholars exchanged ideas and materials, there were, as far as one can see in the documentation, almost no contacts with collectors in Central Europe, the Berlin School, or with British or Hungarian collectors. This might explain why they so stubbornly clung to the use of pen and paper without using the modern technical aids of that time. But in the work of FMK, which of course was conducted much later, the phonograph was used only on a few occasions. Perhaps this had to do with the fact that (p. 703) FMK had as its primary goal to publish the material in printed form and that the collectors were very skilled at transcribing and felt that it was unnecessary to lug heavy equipment for fieldwork. But it is also possible that this was a way to control the situation—to have the exclusive right to the interpretation. Because there have not been recordings available, FMK’s transcriptions are the only sources. There is thus little opportunity to question the versions published in Svenska låtar.

Anthony Seeger is probably right when he says that ethnomusicologists in the first place will be remembered for their collections, not for their theories or methods.52 But possibly, one can draw his reasoning a step further and argue that it is primarily the collections themselves that will live on, and in most cases, both the collectors and the motives for the works will be forgotten. However, from a research perspective, this is extremely important—if we do not understand how and why the collections were generated, we cannot fully interpret or comprehend them.

No one can predict the ways their collections will be used. Some will become one of the building blocks of cultural and political movements; some will bring alive the voice of a legendary ancestor for an individual; some will stimulate budding musicians, some will soothe the pain of exile, and some will be used for restudies of primary data that may revolutionize approaches to world music.53

A very important and difficult task of responsibility for applied ethnomusicology is to try to ensure that the fruits of ethnomusicological work cannot be misused. In Sweden, nationalistic and xenophobic forces in recent years often used folk culture archives as arguments, as examples of the “real” Swedish culture that must be defended against other cultures that threaten to take over. FMK’s efforts to describe Swedish folk music as something distinctly different from the music of other countries by identifying and collecting older distinctive music forms of course appealing to such forces. Applied ethnomusicology then then has a particular responsibility to explain the origin of our archives and provide a perspective on their background and role in history. And folk music is still a question of definition.


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(2.) Lundberg, Malm, and Ronström (2004).

(3.) Slobin (2010: 1). The concept is also recently discussed in connection to “world music” by Philip Bohlman (2002).

(4.) The work of the Folk Music Commission has been discussed and described by the Swedish ethnomusicologist Mathias Boström (2006, 2010). Different aspects of the Commission’s activities are investigated in the anthology Det stora uppdraget (2010).

(6.) Cf. Lidman (2012: 5–6).

(7.) Ibid.

(9.) Cf. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s article “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland” (1983).

(10.) Ronström (2010). My translation from Swedish.

(13.) Quote from Barons reprinted in Nordiska museet (1985). “Folkdiktning från Lettland. About the Latvian folk poem collector Krišjānis Barons.” My translation.

(16.) Ibid.

(17.) Abraham and Hornbostel (1909: 15). Am besten ist es, wenn der Forscher selbst die Gesänge oder Instrumentalstücke so erlernt, dass er sie zur Zufriedenheit der Eingeboren en wiedergeben kann. Als Kritiker muss man sich musikalisch besonders Begabte—(wieder nach dem Urteil ihrer Landsleute)—wählen und auch die Sicherheit haben, dass die Zustimmung nicht nur aus Höflichkeit oder aus Interesselosigkeit erfolgt.

(20.) Cf. Lundberg et al. (2003: 400–412) in the chapter “The Play of Opposites,” and Anthony Giddens’s concept “disembedding mechanisms” (1991).

(21.) Mark Slobin uses the term “superculture” to mean the dominant culture (Subcultural Sounds: Micromusics of the West, 1993). Slobin, in his turn, builds on the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Peter Burke 2009, makes the same distinction between what Robert Redfield called “the great” and “the little tradition” in Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe.

(23.) Bohman (1997) and Björkholm (2011).

(24.) Cf. Bohman (2010) who uses: defining—coding—change of context—objectification. See also Lundberg, “It Goes Without Saying” (2011).

(28.) “Upprop” (Call). Archive of the Folk Music Commission.

(29.) “Polska” is a very common dance in the Swedish folk culture. The word means “Polish.” At the end of the 16th century couple dances came to Sweden. The most significant types had their origin in different parts of Northern Europe. The term probably has its roots in the Polish dances danced in the Swedish noblemen’s halls from the late 1500s. The popularity of the polska is manifested through the great variety of the dance types called polska. Many older dances (also different chain dances) had locally been called polskas. The polska of the Renaissance had a two-part form, in full accordance with the demands of balance and proportion in art (cf. other two-part dances, such as pavan-gaillard). The original Polish dances were composed of a slow first part in duple meter and a more lively second part in triple meter. Eventually, the second part, the livelier spring dance, became more and more important. And it is that part that survived and became the polska that is still danced in Sweden.

(30.) Fataburen (1908: s. 186).

(31.) Svenska låtar published by Nils Andersson and Olof Andersson (1921–1940).

(32.) The entire collection from FMK was published on the Internet by Svenskt visarkiv (the Centre for Folk Music and Jazz Research) Folkmusikkommissionens notsamling och Musikmuseets spelmansböcker (2007). The collection consists of around 45,000 handwritten pages with folk melodies.

(33.) In her dissertation, Bland polskor, gånglåtar och valser. Hallands spelmansförbund och den halländska folkmusiken (2004) (Among Polskas, Walking tunes, and Waltzes: Halland’s Fiddler’s Association and the Music of Halland), Karin Eriksson discusses Swedish folk music as an “open concept” in which the meaning is always recharged with new meanings. She highlights how Halland’s (region in southwest Sweden) Fiddler’s Association, through its activities, presents, in various ways, what can be considered to be a regional folk music of Halland, and what the consequences are for the repertoire that is emphasized as folk music from Halland. In Med rösten som instrument. Perspektiv på nutida svensk vokal folkmusik (2007) (With the Voice as Instrument: Perspectives on Contemporary Swedish Vocal Folk Music), Ingrid Åkesson, from the Svenskt visarkiv (Centre for Swedish Folk Music and Jazz Research) discusses, among other things, how the process of transmission within the genre of folk music involves more than a direct taking over of the older singers’ (and fiddlers’) practices. In his book Från bondson till folkmusikikon. Otto Andersson och formandet av “finlandssvensk folkmusik” (2007) (From Farmer’s Son to Folk Music Icon: Otto Andersson and the Forming of “Finnish-Swedish Folk Music”), Niklas Nyqvist takes up a discussion of Otto Andersson’s large collecting project of music of the Finland Swedes. Andersson’s work went, in many ways, parallel to that of the FMK and also had significant implications for the meaning of the folk music concept within the context of the Finland Swedes. Finally, I will also name American ethnomusicologist David Kaminsky’s Hidden Traditions. Conceptualizing Swedish Folk Music in the Twenty-First Century (2005), in which he discusses, in detail, the folk music concept within the Swedish academic tradition and sets it against the practical use of the term by musicians and those interested in music.

(34.) David Kaminsky has done a thorough examination of these definitions in his thesis from 2005.

(35.) It can thus seem like the authors completely disagree on the question of what folk music means. It is not that way, of course—all the authors recognize a much more nuanced picture of what the concept of folk music stands for. I have simply chosen to use the quotes that draw the apart the meanings and create apparent contradictions between the authors. I hope that they forgive me for this.

(37.) The model in Musik, Medier, Mångkultur—“doers-knowers-makers”—is based on the roles of three different actors within a music culture. See also Lundberg and Ternhag, Folkmusik i Sverige (2005), and Lundberg’s “Bjårskpip in blossom: on the revitalization process of a folk music instrument” (2007).

(38.) Ramsten (1992: 7–8).

(39.) We wrote the book together and, during the process, put the definition of folk music through the ringer, but the basic wording is Gunnar Ternhag’s (Lundberg and Ternhag, 2005: 14).

(41.) The Swedish title of the lecture was “Om svensk folkmusik.”

(42.) The article “Melodisamlaren Nils Andersson. Minnen och anteckningar” is part of Budkavlen XIX, 1940. Nils Andersson’s lecture was also commented upon by Otto Andersson in Spel opp, I spelemänner: Nils Andersson och den svenska spelmansrörelsen (1958).

(43.) Johann Gottfried von Herder, Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (1978).

(45.) Peter Burke (2009: 134); cf. Owe Ronström (1990).

(46.) Cf. Dan Lundberg and Gunnar Ternhag, Folkmusik i Sverige, och Owe Ronström “Inledning” in Arwidsson, 1989.

(48.) Cf. The Swedish ethnologist Jonas Frykman (1988) in his book “Dansbaneeländet”The Dance Pavilion Misery.

(49.) Cf. Richard Carlins interesting article about folk music aesthetics, “The Good, the Bad, and the Folk” (2004).

(51.) In much of the earlier collection works the interest was on the texts and, to some extent song melodies. This meant that more women were recorded. Folk Commission’s focus on the instrumental folk tradition was a clear new trend. The male dominance among folk practitioners has been broken in recent years and today many music educators report a preponderance of women among the students.

(52.) Seeger (1986: 267); cf. Fargion (2009: 76).

(53.) Seeger (1986: 264).