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‘Syngje og spile fele ti’

Introducing a Tradition of Fiddling Singing in Norway
Telemark Research Institute (Telemarksforskning)

Johanna Seim (1989) holds a BA in Norwegian Folk Music from the University of South-Eastern Norway (USN) where she did work with both practical music training and research in the field of ethnomusicology. She also holds an MA in Environmental Planning with a focus on resource and climate change economics and land use policy from the Technical University of Berlin (TUB). She is currently working at the Telemark Research Institute (Telemarksforsking) in Bø as part of the research group for regional development. As a hardanger fiddle player and singer she is interested in utilising her instruments beyond a traditional set-up.

This article introduces ‘fiddling singing’ – the act of singing while accompanying oneself on the fiddle – found in folk music archives in Norway. In the course of this research work, twelve cases of fiddling singers were traced in southern Norway, documented through archive recordings. Fiddling singing was often performed in conjunction with religious practice. Some fiddling singers were travelling as preachers during the times of major Christian conversions in the early-to-mid-1900s. In these settings, they used to accompany their own singing on the fiddle. In music theory terms, fiddling singing can be described as a type of melodic accompaniment that creates a heterophonic sound. Melodies are sung and played simultaneously with subtle variations and notes added in parallel octaves. Typical fiddle playing features, such as ornamentation and double stops or drones, can be found in the material.

Keywords: ethnomusicology, archive recordings, vocal and fiddle traditions

Introducing the fiddling singer

‘Han brukar å syngje og spile fele ti’ (He sings and plays fiddle to it) is a quote from an NRK1 TV programme broadcast in 1979 which presented the use of the Hardanger fiddle – an instrument broadly connected to traditional Norwegian dance music – for playing a religious song repertoire (NRK 1979a). One of the two players featured is Hallvard Dale from Valle in Setesdal (southern Norway), who sings religious songs while he accompanies himself on his fiddle. The fiddle is not first and foremost thought of as an instrument used to accompany solo singing. Yet, it is found more and more on stages in the folk music scene today, in which musicians make use of the fiddle while singing. The American old-time musician Bruce Molsky is a prominent example of this. He has mastered the creation of chords and chord progressions, combining tones he sings and plays on the fiddle at the same time. Other musicians have followed his example, or have explored various means of using the fiddle to accompany their singing. Norwegian Hardanger fiddle player and singer Helga Myhr was nominated for the Spellemannprisen 2019, the Norwegian Grammy, for her solo album Natten veller seg ut, which features her singing and playing fiddle simultaneously. On popular television in Norway, fiddling singing was recently presented to a large audience on the 2020 season of the programme Hver gang vi møtes,2 where the Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Tuva Syvertsen performed solo with voice and Hardanger fiddle.

While the possibilities of creating sounds and performing music solo with voice and fiddle are many, it can be worthwhile to take a closer look at the use of simultaneous singing and fiddle playing in the history of traditional music. In Norway, there is a little-known tradition for accompanying one’s own singing with the fiddle in some parts of the country, which dates to the first half of the 20th century, and mostly covers a religious song repertoire. The fiddling singer, a term created for the purpose of this work, is a person who sings and plays fiddle at the same time, which forms the act of fiddling singing.3 The focus is on the singing, while the fiddle playing forms the accompaniment, and not vice versa. The term fiddle is used generically for the violin as an instrument used in folk music, including the Hardanger fiddle, a traditional Norwegian variant of that instrument. The terms traditional music and folk music are used synonymously within this research, with both referring to the definition by the International Council of Traditional Music (ICTM) (formerly the International Folk Music Council (IFMC)) from 1954, which defines folk music as

[…] the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are: 1) continuity, which links the present with the past; 2) variation, which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or the group; and 3) selection by the community, which determines the form or forms in which the music survives. The term can be applied to music that has evolved from rudimentary beginnings by a community uninfluenced by popular and art music and it can likewise be applied to music which has originated with an individual composer and has subsequently been absorbed into the unwritten living tradition of a community. The term does not cover composed popular music that has been taken over ready-made by a community and remains unchanged, for it is the re-fashioning and re-creation of the music by the community that gives it its folk character (Cappelens Musikkleksikon 1978, 539).

This definition may not be exhaustive and is subject to discussion in academia, as well as in the folk music/traditional music scene. However, it covers key elements that I consider relevant for comprehending the tradition of fiddling singing in Norway, such as the music being orally transmitted and shaped by variation through the living tradition of a community over time.

Academic research in the field of ethnomusicology has been conducted on a variety of topics concerning vocal and fiddle traditions in Norway, much of which is connected to solo performance of the music. Nonetheless, the solo performance of simultaneous singing and fiddle playing has to my knowledge not yet been covered by scholars. My work sets out to research that part of traditional music of Norway with regard to its origins (occurrence in location and time, traditional function) and its musical specifications. The aim of this article is to place the tradition of performing simultaneous singing and fiddle playing in Norway in its historical and functional context, and to propose a common terminology for this phenomenon. The work is based on recordings collected at folk music archives in Norway, in addition to filmed material available online through NRK. There are only a few examples of written documents touching on the topic, most of which can be found in local history books and newspaper articles. My inquiry of the archive material contributes to filling in a gap in existing research, and to laying the groundwork for additional ethnomusicological research on traditional fiddling singing in Norway (or elsewhere).

State of research

Internationally, only very little academic research on the tradition of fiddling singing can be found. Erynn Marshall (2006) briefly crosses the topic in her book, Music in the Air Somewhere: The Shifting Borders of West Virginia’s Fiddle and Song Traditions, in which she investigates the relationship between fiddle and song traditions in the music of central West Virginia. Marshall (2006) is mostly concerned with how the song and fiddle repertoires of traditional players are interrelated. She notes that melodic accompaniment in the combination of fiddle and song has taken place in the past, where a fiddler would follow a singer’s voice and rhythm in close unison. However, the increasing use of the guitar in the early 20th century made harmonic and more rhythmic accompaniment of singing more popular (Marshall 2006, 64, 143 ff.). It is also noted that, ‘female fiddlers […] were inclined to sing while they played and performed numerous vocal pieces, especially sacred songs, on the instrument’ (ibid., 179). The author does not conduct a closer examination of the tradition of fiddle accompaniment to one’s own singing.

There are a few examples of student works that address the topic of singing and playing fiddle at the same time. In her Master of Arts thesis from York University, Toronto, Cassandra Norton (2016) examines the practical implications a musician is required to master when performing simultaneous singing and violin playing. She names the existence of fiddling singing in the folk music traditions of North America, Europe and Mongolia, but does not investigate these traditions further (Norton 2016, 1, 127). Bruce Molsky is mentioned as being an example of ‘a notable fiddler/singer currently practicing this style of music’ (ibid., 1). Other than that, the author refers to contemporary musicians whom she calls ‘violinist/singers’ (ibid., 1). She describes the combination of voice and violin as a duet, with an equal importance for both instruments, rather than a form of accompaniment (ibid., 70).

As a part of her final exam in folk music performance at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Sunniva Abelli (2012) conducted a short analysis of three sound examples in which musicians accompany their own singing with a fiddle. The work does not explore a traditional use of this setup, but comprises a short music theory analysis of three selected pieces with a focus on the interplay between voice and fiddle bowing. A Bruce Molsky performance serves as one of these examples. Notably, one of the other examples is an archive recording of Anders Ysenius, who sings and plays a Swedish religious song simultaneously (Abelli 2012, 4 ff.). The style of Ysenius seems similar to the style found among Norwegian fiddling singers.

Fiddling singing in its historical and functional context

A repertoire of traditional music can be studied from many different angles. Which instruments are being played? In which area was this music in use? At what point in time did this music arise? What is the function of this music? How is the tradition executed today? What are correlations with other musical styles? What are the rhythmical, melodic and polyphonic implications of that music? These are only some of the questions that could guide scholarly inquiry into the many forms of musical traditions and cultures.

When taking a look at fiddling singers and their repertoire in the traditional music of Norway, it becomes clear that one has to take vocal music traditions as a point of departure. A substantial large part of the fiddling singer’s repertoire comprises religious song material. The fiddle playing can be seen as accompaniment of the voice, and not vice versa. In Norway, religious songs (religiøse folketoner) are traditional song material, along with ballads, stev (short rhymes with four lines of recurring melodies), dancing tunes, lullabies, cattle calls, work songs and different types of viser (songs) like skillingsviser (broadsides), bygdeviser (texts with a local connection), and so on (Sæta 2004). For the most part, the vocal folk music tradition in Norway is seen as a solo tradition where individuals perform without instrumental accompaniment. Sæta (2004, 4) describes the accompaniment of one’s own singing with a fiddle as ‘unntak eller kuriositeter’ – an exception or oddity. There are certain functions connected to performing religious singing that make the music become an integral part of people’s spiritual and social lives. Religious songs are carriers of pious messages and biblical texts such as psalms, executing a ritual function within people’s religious practice (prayer) (Sæta 2004; Gjertsen 2006).

Christian belief and its expression have been conducted in different parts of Norway in different ways. In post-Reformation times, it was obligatory for everybody to go to church, and confirmation classes (Horvei 1998; Sæta 2004). People were required by law to pray at home every day, which included singing (Gjertsen 2006). The church was an important social and cultural institution; the priest was a central figure in society, and people were more or less familiar with religious texts and song melodies. Starting in the early 1800s, waves of Christian awakening took place, which brought about large religious conversions in the country. This led to the creation of new parishes that pursued strongly pious beliefs and lifestyles. The movements partly generated free churches independent of the state church, and partly existed as conflicting movements within the framework of the state church (Gjertsen 2006; Horvei 1998; Sæta 2004). The Lutheran Pietist revival, led by Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771–1824), became very popular in the first half of the 1800s, and is regarded to be ‘of central importance in the practice and further development of the religious folk song tradition of Norway’ (Gjertsen 2006, 97). Singing was an important component of meetings held at parishes and homes, but also crucial to the personal prayer that people were conducting by themselves. Gjertsen describes the function of the singing as comparable to the spoken word: a ‘means of personal expression’, but also a ‘unifying element in the program of these meetings’ (2006, 108). Instruments other than the voice were often regarded as sinful, and therefore not used in prayers. In this way, an unaccompanied hymn singing was carried on for a long time in rural Norway. In larger cities, where the use of the organ was established early on and authorised hymnbooks (e.g. the one written by O. A. Lindemann) were introduced, a more stylised music form following the ideals of classical music was enforced by state church authorities. However, the hymn singing style also became somewhat more structured in rural areas during the early 1900s, with new Christian revival waves coming to Norway from England and North America via Sweden. These waves brought along a music culture that was simpler and a better fit for group singing. Many English song texts were translated into Swedish and then into Norwegian, with new religious texts written for existing melodies. It became common to perform music for an audience, for example the community in a church, something that was not common in the Hauge movement. Instruments such as the guitar, the fiddle or the cittern were eventually played in church contexts in rural Norway (Gjertsen 2006; Horvei 1998; Sæta 2004).

Even so, the fiddle needs to be considered as a special case. In some places in rural Norway, it was strongly connected to dance music, parties and drinking culture. Many fiddlers stopped playing when they entered into a strict religious lifestyle and many instruments were destroyed, since they were seen as a sin. There are many sources (both written and oral) that discuss the question of the fiddle being considered a sin, which is in line with the history of traditional music in rural Norway (cp. e.g. Horvei 1998; Lande 1992; Lande & Bjørgum 1981, 127; NRK 1978; NRK 1979a; NRK 1979b). Horvei notes that ‘Hardingfela vart karakterisert som djevelens instrument’ (Horvei 1998, 119) – the Hardanger fiddle was characterised as the devil’s instrument. In a study of the relationship between the Bible and the fiddle, Aasulv Lande notes that in the 1800s the fiddle was a symbol for vulgarity, the misuse of alcohol and a backward-oriented pagan culture (1992, 121 ff.). Lande (ibid., 123–127) describes the Bible and the fiddle as opposite poles that stood for societal conflicts reigning at that time between parochial and peasant culture. In Setesdal (a traditional district in Agder County), a negative picture of the fiddle arose in the 1820s when the Hauge movement became popular, which demanded a strictly pious lifestyle and included the denial of many elements of peasant culture, such as dancing. Before the Hauge movement took over, religion and fiddle music/dance culture were not separated much in Setesdal. Priests could appreciate fiddlers and take part in dances (ibid., 129–130). However, the extent of religious pressure on peasant culture could vary a lot from place to place, depending on single individuals and the influence of other religious movements. According to Lande (ibid., 146), the idea of the fiddle being a sin was later shifted to rhythm and dance as being sinful, not the fiddle itself. Around 1900, using fiddle for playing hymns and religious song melodies became accepted. Tarkjell A. Austad (1802–1875) and Knut J. Heddi (1857–1938) played an important role in that shift. They were both Christian believers and fiddle players, advocating for a unification of religion and the fiddle (ibid., 148–149).

In some places in Norway, the use of fiddle playing to accompany religious singing has been documented by means of archive recordings. The question of whether or not it was sinful to use a fiddle in church arises regularly in conjunction with fiddling singers. A strong connection between the fiddle accompaniment of singing and the rise of Christian conversion waves has been suspected (Lande & Bjørgum 1981, 127; NRK 1978; NRK 1979a; NRK 1979b). The examples of fiddling singers found in archives of traditional music in Norway underpin this supposition.

Twelve fiddling singers found in folk music archives in Norway

The following discussion is based on a survey conducted in February and March 2019 of all archives that form the network of Norwegian folk music archives.4 Four of the archives provided recordings and consultation: Agder Folkemusikkarkiv (courtesy of Harald Knutsen and Daniel Sandén-Warg), Rysstad; Folkemusikkarkivet i Telemark (courtesy of Kari Lønnestad), Bø; Norsk Folkemusikksamling (courtesy of Hans-Hinrich Thedens), Oslo; and Tradisjonsmusikkarkivet Mjøsmuseet (courtesy of Stein Villa), Gjøvik. The cases considered relevant for this work were all performers, born before 1950, singing and playing fiddle simultaneously, and whose recordings of doing so have been archived in Norway. Additional information about the cases was gathered through literature, web-based research and accessed online through film media provided by the Norwegian public broadcasting company (NRK). This survey revealed a total number of twelve fiddling singers whose simultaneous singing and fiddle playing has been documented. The volume and characteristics of each fiddling singer’s repertoire varied, as did the availability of background information about the performers. The following table gives a short overview over the twelve cases (Table 1).

Table 1:

Overview of fiddling singers in Norway

RegionNameBirth – DeathPlaceRepertoire1 Remarks
Indre AgderEivind S. Berg1892 – 1983ValleOver 70 songs, mainly relig. content 4 recordings of dance tunes
Tallak O. Hoslemo1894 – 1982BykleCa. 60 relig. Songs Sometimes joined by other singers
Hallvard Dale1913 – 1993ValleOver 50 songs, relig. and non-relig. content Comparatively many stev melodies
Andres T. Hovet1910 – 1985Hylestad3 non-relig. songs, 1 relig. songOver 300 recordings of fiddle only (mainly song melodies, some dance tunes)
Sigurd Nomeland1889 – 1977Bygland4 relig. songs
Dreng Røysland1925 – unknownValle2 relig. songs
Samuel Mydland1911 – 2006HægebostadOver 10 relig. songs, one non-relig. songLarge repertoire with fiddle only (mainly relig. song melodies, some dance tunes)
Trygve Eftestøl1901 – 1993Kvinesdal4 relig. songs, 3 non-relig. songsLarge repertoire of dance music on the fiddle
TelemarkJohannes Bakken1899 – 1996Kviteseid30 relig. songsAuthor of hundreds of relig. songs
Johannes Flatland1910 – 1999Flatland1 relig. song
Torleiv K. Lia1895 – 1985Drangedal4 relig. songs
HadelandAstrid Kleven1929 – Bjoneroa5 relig. and non-relig. songs Main repertoire: dance music on the fiddle

1 Relig. = abbreviation for religious

Eivind Sigurdsson Berg (1892–1983) from Valle in Setesdal can be regarded as a central figure who used the fiddle to accompany his own singing. In local history writings, he is described as the first person who played and sang religious songs on the fiddle in public, despite the common belief of the fiddle being a sinful instrument (Lande & Bjørgum 1981, 114; Lande 1992, 146; Berg n.d.). Berg is the only fiddling singer from Indre Agder whose recordings were published on tape, and he has been broadcast many times on the radio, which has made him known all across the country. He is also the only fiddling singer who is featured on the CD collection of Norwegian folk music published by Grappa in 1995 (Norsk folkemusikk 1995). Berg learned to play Hardanger fiddle as a teenager, after his musical talent had been noticed when he played the psalmodicon, a one-string instrument with frets that was primarily used to learn religious song melodies. During his time of apprenticeship as a horologist in Rysstad, Setesdal, he was taught to play Hardanger fiddle by Knut J. Heddi, a master fiddler from the region. Berg played for dances in his younger days, and spent some years in North America in the early 1900s, where he was in touch with other Norwegian fiddlers. Berg became a member of the free church in Valle in the 1920s, when an awakening wave reached the valley. From then on, he travelled around as a preacher in the region, and started to use the fiddle to accompany his own singing of religious songs (Lande & Bjørgum 1981, 112 ff.; Berg n.d.). The amount of archive recordings where Berg sings and plays at the same time is the most extensive from any of the fiddling singers. Most of the recordings are religious songs, but there are also a couple of songs with non-religious content. These usually apply stev melodies. However, stev melodies are also used for songs with sacred content. Remarkably, there are four recordings of Berg from 1967, in which he is not recorded as a fiddling singer, but as a fiddler. Here, he plays dance tunes on the Hardanger fiddle that were popular among fiddlers in Setesdal (tunes such as: Skorsvikjen, Klonkaren, Fanten, and Systerslått). It is questionable whether Berg had continued to play dance music in public after the 1920s. Lande (1992, 146) names Berg as one of the fiddlers who stopped playing dance music after converting to Christianity, alongside Hallvard Dale and Andres Hovet.

Hallvard Dale (1913–1993) from Systog Dale in Valle, Setesdal, became known for being a fiddling singer due to an NRK TV programme from 1979 that featured him playing religious songs on the fiddle and singing at the same time. Dale learned to play Hardanger fiddle at confirmation age, and used to occasionally play at dance gatherings in his younger years. In the 1930s, he started using the fiddle at free church meetings, following the example of Eivind S. Berg and Tallak O. Hoslemo. He also played a lot for himself at home (Lande & Bjørgum 1981, 125; NRK 1979b; Dale n.d.). Dale’s repertoire of fiddling singing comprises both religious and non-religious songs, with a large share of stev melodies.

Johannes Bakken (1899–1996), from Kviteseid in Telemark, used the fiddle to accompany his singing as a tool in his work as a travelling preacher. Bakken, born in Langelim, Seljord, converted to Christian beliefs when he was 19 years old and went to Bible school in Oslo, where Thomas B. Barratt was his teacher (Tveito 1969). Barratt was one of the founding figures of the Pentecostal movement in Europe (SNL 2019). Bakken saw it as his life’s mission to proclaim the word of God, and to make other people convert to Christian beliefs (NRK 1972). He travelled as an evangelist all over Telemark, and in some parts of Agder (he reports having had a seventeen-week-long visit in Bykle and Valle, Setesdal), first on skis, foot and bicycle, and later by car. He took his fiddle along with him on all his journeys, and describes it as having been a friend and a priceless support for his work. Bakken belonged to the Pentecostal parish in Kviteseid and was a preacher for almost his entire life, converting large numbers of people. He is described as a ‘typical missionary, who with his open, natural being, and the way he sings and talks about redemption, reaches easily those who listen to him’ (Tveito 1969).5 Singing was hence a tool that Bakken used in his preaching. In an interview from 1972, he says that it was important for him as a preacher to sing, because people always liked listening to that. In particular, older people enjoyed hearing traditional melodies. Bakken claims that he did not have any musical talent and was not a good singer, which is why he used the fiddle to help him find the right notes. He simply needed the fiddle in order to be able to sing (NRK 1972). Others say that he was ‘one of the few who mastered the rather difficult thing to sing along with his own fiddle playing’ (Eilert 2000).6 Bakken learned to play the fiddle from his cousin and fellow preacher Knut Gransbekk, as well as from Torkjell Haugerud, a master fiddler from Seljord. He never played fiddle for dances, as he believed that the fiddle was not a sinful instrument if it was used in the right circumstances and manner (Moen 1977). Bakken wrote hundreds of religious song texts himself (e.g. ‘Den burtkomne sauen’), often making use of existing folk song melodies (Tveito 1969).

Other examples of fiddling singers also underpin the thesis that there is a strong connection between practicing Christian beliefs and using the fiddle to accompany one’s own singing. Tallak O. Hoslemo (1894–1982), from Bykle in Setesdal, is an example of a fiddling singer whose documented repertoire was only comprised of songs with religious texts. Although it is said that he also played for dances in his youth (Lande & Bjørgum 1981, 131), Hoslemo appears as a typical case of a fiddling singer who employed this setup in the context of preaching and prayers. He was engaged in an awakening wave that reached Bykle in 1921 (Kinamisjonen led by Severin Tobiassen), and became active as a preacher (Gjerden 1993, 252–253).

Andres T. Hovet (1910–1985) from Hylestad in Setesdal is mostly recognised for having played religious song melodies on the fiddle after he stopped playing dance music, but there are also a few recordings of him singing along with the fiddle. He is featured in the NRK TV programme Inni hjarta er mange strengji alongside Hallvard Dale, where he plays religious song melodies on the fiddle but does not sing (NRK 1979a).

Sigurd Nomeland (1889–1977), from Bygland in Setesdal, was a travelling preacher who is archived as a fiddling singer with four recordings of religious songs. On one of these recordings, Nomeland also recounts having played fiddle for dances in America in the early 1900s (Nomeland n.b.).

Trygve Eftestøl (1901–1993) from Fjotland in Kvinesdal, Agder County, was a multi-instrumentalist with a varied repertoire of dance music and songs, who worked as a sexton at Netlandsnes and Knaben chapel for almost fifty years. Rebecca Egeland (2013) portrayed Eftestøl and his repertoire in her Bachelor’s thesis. Her work shows that the major share of Eftestøl’s song repertoire was religious songs. Remarkably, he also played a lot of dance music, mostly tunes from the category of gammaldans (e.g. Waltzes, Rheinlenders, Mazurkas), and was active as a fiddler at weddings and other festive events (ibid.).

Samuel Mydland (1911–2006), from Hægebostad, Agder County, was recorded as a fiddle player with a varied repertoire that included dance music (two Rheinlender tunes), religious and non-religious song melodies, in addition to some fiddling singing of predominantly religious songs (Agder Folkemusikkarkiv 1999). Mydland was a member of the Hægebostad Church (Hægebostad Menighedsråd 1952).

Johannes Flatland (1919–1999) from Flatland in Telemark was a singer and Christian believer, of whom there is only one recording where he sings and plays fiddle at the same time. The song is ‘Jonsokspelemannen’, whose lyrics describe the destiny of a fiddle player who becomes religious and then needs to stop playing for dances. Flatland was a member of the Pentecostal parish Betel, and was engaged in local politics in the Kristeleg Folkeparti (Christian Democratic Party) (Sisjord 1999).

Torleiv Klausen Lia (1895–1985), from Drangedal in Telemark, travelled around in his youth with a group of musicians (fiddle, guitar and singing) to spread Christian beliefs, and later played together with his wife Bertea on guitar. Lia converted to Christianity at the age of seventeen and studied at the Bible school in Ålesund. He was very engaged at the Bostrak Free Church, and daily prayer was a central activity in his home (Mjåvatn 1998). There are five recordings of Lia with religious song material, on which he accompanies himself on the fiddle on four songs.

Astrid Kleven (born in 1929) from Bjoneroa in Hadeland is the only female fiddling singer that could be traced in the course of this work. Astrid taught herself to play the fiddle as a twelve-year-old, and played a lot at dances. In a collection of traditional dance music from Hadeland, there are nine tunes notated with Kleven as a source (Berge 1995). The recordings with Kleven as a fiddling singer comprise both religious and non-religious songs. Kleven also used to travel around with a local group of musicians to entertain people in retirement homes (Stein Villa, e-mail to author, 26 March 2019).

Intrinsic fiddle traits among fiddling singers

When I first listened to a musical example of a piece of fiddling singing, my spontaneous reaction was that the performer was simply singing a melody and playing along to it on the fiddle in unison. I then took a closer look at the material via transcribing archive recordings and my own practice, aiming to more closely understand the way the voice and instrument were being employed in the tradition of singing and playing fiddle at the same time in Norway. This study revealed that there was more going on in the music than simply unison accompaniment. Features such as parallel octaves, ornaments, drones and double stops are key elements that provide for a more heterophonic understanding of the musical texture. In her work on West Virginia’s fiddle and song traditions, Marshall found that ‘fiddlers tend to incorporate stylistic traits that are intrinsic to their instrument when playing vocal pieces’ (2006, 148). This statement can also be said to apply to the playing styles of fiddling singers from Norway. There are numerous stylistic traits derived from the qualities of the instrument that are mirrored when the fiddle is used to accompany one’s own singing.

First of all, the choice to accompany singing on the fiddle melodically, instead of harmonically or rhythmically, can be seen as an intrinsic trait of the instrument. Traditionally, the fiddle has been used as a melody instrument, as has the voice. To combine both, fiddle and voice, with their primary musical functions, is basically what traditional fiddling singers in Norway have always done. In modern contexts, where the fiddle and voice are employed simultaneously, one can find large variations of the musical functions that each instrument can take on. For example, a fiddle may be utilised to mimic the musical characteristics of a guitar, with the aim of creating chords and chord progressions as accompaniment. The voice can also take on accompanying traits that follow the main melody on the fiddle. The style of accompanying one’s own singing melodically on the fiddle, without any further musical expansion and experimentation, may underscore the function of the music of fiddling singers in Norway. This music was not created to be performed on stages or in concert halls. Instead, it developed as a means of prayer, communication and personal enjoyment.

Furthermore, the accompaniment of the fiddling singers shows traits typical for traditional fiddle music in Norway. The use of ornaments, such as trills and grace notes, the playing of double stops and the creation of different harmonic textures with using open strings as drones, are typical elements. In traditional Norwegian fiddle music, especially in Hardanger fiddle music, it is very typical for two strings to be played at the same time, often with an adjacent open string ringing, in addition to the melody string. This is also a common practice among fiddling singers, while the extent of using double stops and drones varies among the recordings.

Another aspect that is intrinsic to the fiddle is the range and use of keys. The most popular keys for songs in the repertoire of fiddling singers are G and D, which are also common keys for traditional Norwegian instrumental music played on the fiddle. Some of the songs can be clearly identified as being in major or minor keys, while others move somewhere in-between, due to the use of microtones. These microtones are played by finger positioning on the strings. For example, the second finger can often be found placed a little lower than in a tempered scale, which can result in a slightly flat third in the key of D, or a slightly flatted seventh in both the keys of G and D. Some fiddling singers use a GDAE tuning, while others are tuned to ADAE. This creates different harmonic textures when the bass string is added as a double stop or drone, thereby providing performers with different choices of keys. Almost all the repertoire of the fiddling singers examined in this work touches only the three lowest strings of a fiddle. This choice of range may simply be connected to vocal ranges comfortable to the performers.

Example of ‘Den bortkomne sauen’

The following two transcriptions of archive recordings provide an exemplary representation of the characteristics of the fiddle accompaniment of one’s own singing. Here, the focus lies on the notes played on the fiddle alongside the singing.7 They illustrate two simplified versions of the first verse of the song ‘Den bortkomne sauen’: one by Johannes Bakken8 and one by Eivind S. Berg (under the title ‘Langt inn på ville heii’).9 The notations are attempts to approximate the real performances found on the recordings. As is often the case with solo performed traditional singing, the music of fiddling singers does not follow a fixed pulse with clear rhythmic subdivisions. It can be described as being rhythmically rather free, following a pulse that is inherent to the lyrics and phrases within a song, with every performer taking individual choices on the lengths of single notes. Hence, the transcriptions below show a schematic representation of the performances, rather than an exact analogy. Occasionally, a fermata ( ) will indicate a specifically important lengthening of a note. It is common to hear rhythmic breaks in the performances at the end of a phrase, which is indicated by a breath mark ( ’ ).

Since the performers’ voices in the examples below are both male and range in the baritone or bass registers, the vocal parts are hereafter represented in the bass clef. The fiddle parts are notated in the treble clef. The song is notated in the key of G major, while the identification of the actual key of a performance found on the archive recordings is not always straightforward. Often, the third and seventh note of a scale deviate from the temperate system. These deviations are indicated as microtones in the transcriptions, with major scales as a point of departure, while a minor scale could also have been used as a base. The pitch of these notes may vary from performer to performer, and sometimes even within a performance. The indications shall therefore represent tendencies of notes that are sung and played slightly higher or slightly lower than notes in the temperate system of Western classical and modern music. Three accidentals are being employed to indicate microtones (see Table 2). The music notation software MuseScore, which was used for these transcriptions, does not allow for special accidentals to be added to the key signature. To simplify the notations and make them more readable, every microtone is only indicated the first time it appears in a musical piece, and is effective thereafter.10

Table 2:

Microtones in the transcriptions

A flat (♭) with an arrow pointing upwards indicates a microtonal variation of less than a semitone lower than the original note of the scale. In the example on the left, the note B is played/sung slightly low/flat, but not as low as a B-flat.
A sharp ( ♯ ) with an arrow pointing downwards indicates a microtonal variation of less than a semitone higher than the original note of the scale. In the example on the left, the note C is played/sung slightly high/sharp, but not as high as a C-sharp.
A natural ( ♮ ) with an arrow pointing upwards cancels the effect of the accidental used in the key signature, but indicates a microtonal variation less than a semitone lower than the note (before cancellation). In the example on the left, the F-sharp is played/sung slightly low/flat, but not as low as an F.

Additionally, many of the fiddling singers have tuned their instruments into pitches that deviate significantly from a standard A 440 Hertz. They often sing and play up to a semitone higher or lower than standard pitch. To help simplify the reading and understanding of the music, the pitches found on the recordings have been adjusted to standard fiddle notation.

A final comment on the use of double stops and drones in the fiddle accompaniment: as can be seen in the fiddle section of the transcriptions, performers may play two notes at the same time. Here, the note that is added to the melody note is indicated with a slightly smaller note head. These added notes are almost always played on adjacent open strings, and can be identified as drones or as double stops. A ‘double stop’ indicates that two notes are played simultaneously. The accumulation of a double stop played over a long time, in which the melody is played on one string and the subjacent open string note is consistently added, can be called a ‘drone’. The difference between drones and double stops therefore lies in the length of the added note played, while this length is not explicitly defined. Hugo Zemp defines drones as ‘long notes on a single pitch, usually low’ (Zemp 1996, 178). In Norwegian fiddle music, drones are commonly not referred to as a single pitch, but as the pitch of the adjacent, usually subjacent, open string played in addition to the melody string. In the performances of the fiddling singers notated below, both short occasional double stops and longer consistent double stops that could be interpreted as drones appear.

Figure 1:

‘Den bortkomne sauen’ – Johannes Bakken (vocal and fiddle)

Figure 1 shows a transcription of an archive recording of Johannes Bakken performing ‘Den bortkomne sauen’. Bakken follows the melody notes, which he sings on his fiddle with very little divergence. He adds a few grace notes, and there are a few times where a note that is sung is not played simultaneously. The fiddle is tuned in GDAE, and Bakken occasionally plays double stops using the subjacent open strings. A remarkable feature, which can also be found in other performances by Bakken, is that he sometimes adds an E note on the D string, instead of just playing the open string when he plays a B note on the A string. This gives the listener an impression of slight harmonic movement in the music.

Figure 2:

‘Langt inn på ville heii’ – Eivind S. Berg (vocal and fiddle)

Figure 2 shows a transcription of Eivind S. Berg’s version of the song ‘Den bortkomne sauen’/ ‘Langt inn på ville heii’. Berg follows the melody he sings on the fiddle, adding many notes that are not sung in the form of trills and grace notes. Here, the notation of the trills is also a simplification, as they are not always played consistently. The transcription shows the rather extensive use of ornamentation in Berg’s fiddle accompaniment. The trills are mostly found as an application of the first finger played on the A string (leading to an A or B note). The fiddle is tuned in GDAE and Berg uses many double stops, where the subjacent open string is sometimes played as a drone.

The fiddling singer’s sound

The sound of the fiddling singers can be described as a combination of:

  • a single melody performed on two instruments (voice and fiddle) with different timbres;

  • in parallel octaves (with the exception of one female performer);

  • with subtle variations in intonation, and

  • subtle variations and omissions of single melody notes;

  • ornaments, such as trills and grace notes, adding many tiny extra notes;

  • double stops or drones adding extra notes, thereby creating slightly homophonic textures.11

When combined, these features can be described as a heterophonic sound. As defined by Zemp, heterophony ‘indicates a musical procedure where several performers sing in a sort of unison. […] Heterophony proceeds through the enrichment of a single line, where the same voice appears under different forms. Heterophony may come from an approximate execution (involuntary heterophony) or on the contrary, be the fruit of an aesthetic desire’ (1996, 123, 178). Ali Racy describes the same phenomenon as ‘ensemble members [producing] slightly varied renditions of the same musical material at the same time’ (2003, 80). In the case of a fiddling singer, it is a single performer who sings and plays with slightly varied renditions in a sort of unison, thus creating a heterophonic texture by him/herself. Sort of indicates all the subtle variations in the two simultaneously performed melody lines and the slight additions of notes. The main melody still determines the listening experience of a performance by a fiddling singer to a large extent, although the sonic texture becomes slightly thicker due to the characteristics listed above. Whether the heterophony occurred involuntarily, or was the fruit of aesthetic desire among fiddling singers, must be left open to speculation.


This article has taken a closer look at the tradition of singing and playing the fiddle at the same time in Norway. The study reveals that there are examples to be found in the collection of traditional Norwegian music where people were recorded who sang and accompanied themselves simultaneously on the fiddle. Such recordings can be traced to different places in southern Norway, like Indre Agder, Telemark and Hadeland. In the course of this research, twelve cases of performers who were using this setup in the early to mid-twentieth century could be detected. A commonality between these performers is that they all accompany their singing on the fiddle melodically. I call them fiddling singers. All of the twelve performers have religious songs in their repertoires, most of them predominantly, some of them exclusively. Many of the fiddling singers were active as preachers or religious practitioners. A connection between religious practice and fiddling singing in Norway can be drawn, in the sense that preaching and prayer can be identified as the main functions under which the accompaniment of a singer’s own singing on the fiddle was employed traditionally. The conveyance of text stands out as the primary role of the singing, while the fiddle accompaniment follows the singer’s voice. Within the accompaniment, several musical traits can be found that are intrinsic to the instrument and its use in traditional music, such as ornamentation and double stops or drones with open strings. Voice and fiddle create a heterophonic sound.

This article has presented a collection of basic historical information on the tradition of fiddling singing in Norway, and described the musical traits for that type of melodic accompaniment of voice with fiddle. A foundation for further research on singing and playing fiddle at the same time is thus provided. To gain a more profound understanding of this phenomenon and its functions, musical scope and potential, both a closer look at historical material and an investigation of current uses of this setup could be insightful. The most prominent fiddling singer presented in this work, Eivind S. Berg, learned to play the fiddle from Knut J. Heddi – a rebel in his time – and spent some years in America in the early 1900s, where he was active as a fiddle player. How did these experiences influence Berg’s rather bold choice to play the fiddle in church in Norway? Can a connection be drawn between fiddling singing in America and in Norway? Will this path lead us to places like England and Sweden? What other profound reasons made fiddling singing appear and disappear? What can be said about fiddling singing in Norway beyond what is documented by folk music archives? Much is yet to be uncovered.


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1Norsk Rikskringkasting (English: Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation).
2 Hver Gang Vi Møtes (English: Every time we meet) is a Norwegian reality show broadcast on TV2, in which musicians perform each other’s songs.
3In Norwegian, a fiddling singer is sometimes referred to as felesanger (which literally translates to fiddle singer), however this is a term not broadly in use.
4see http://www.folkemusikkarkivet.net
5Original citation in Norwegian: ‘Johannes Bakken er typisk vekkingspredikant. Med sitt opne, naturlege vesen og måten han syng og talar om frelse på, har han lett for å nå inn til dei som høyrer han’ (Tveito 1969).
6Original citation in Norwegian: ‘Han er ein av dei få som meistra det nokså vanskelege å kunne synge til eige felespel’ (Vernes 2000).
7Ornamentation in the vocal part is being omitted in the transcriptions.
8Bakken is also the author of the song’s lyrics, while the melody is traditional.
9To be found on the CD Norsk folkemusikk: 2: Folkemusikk frå Agder (Grappa).
10For a broader discussion of the topic of tonality, and the use of microtones in traditional Norwegian music, see e.g. Kvifte (2012).
11To gain a more complete understanding, it is highly recommended to listen to sound examples. For example, the two recordings of Eivind S. Berg featured on the CD Norsk folkemusikk: 2: Folkemusikk frå Agder (Grappa).

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