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Creating a culture through community singing

The 19th edition of the Folk High School Songbook, a community singing (fællessang) classic, was released late last year. After much debate about making the songbook more inclusive, The International looks into the roots of fællessang and its role of expressing a culture and creating it.

Photographs: DR1 / Unsplash

Text: Sarah Redohl

Liberation Day, officially May 5, celebrates the end of Germany’s occupation of Denmark during World War II with the flapping of Danish flags, the flicker of candles in windows the night prior, and the cherished Danish tradition of community singing (fællessang).

Internationals are familiar with fællessang - at birthdays, bars, meetings, and the start of the school day. Fællessang has long proven its importance in the good times - and the bad. According to Denmark's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, fællessang "played a big part in keeping a sense of national solidarity" during WWII.

More recently, fællessang became a way to connect during COVID, with one-fifth of Danes tuning in to sing-alongs broadcast by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR). Even Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen led a virtual sing-along in April 2020 from her kitchen! In 2021, Liberation Day fællessang may remain virtual, but that won't be the only difference. There's also a new edition of the Folk High School Songbook (Højskolesangbogen).

Balancing tradition and renewal

Dating back to 1894, the book has become Denmark's most popular songbook and a frequent national bestseller. However, each edition of the songbook isn't without contention, and the latest version was no exception, writes Songbook Committee Chairman Jørgen Carlsen. This year's controversies range from requests for the removal of a song called 'Grandpa put your teeth on' for the way it portrays the elderly to debates about the inclusion of a song titled 'Ramadan in Copenhagen' by rapper Isam B. Even the New York Times weighed in on the latter.

People are, of course, sad to see songs they love excluded to make way for contemporary additions. But each edition must strike a balance between tradition and renewal, wrote Songbook Committee Member Mette Sanggaard Schultz. For her, every time she sings 'In Denmark I was born' ('I Danmark er jeg født') is a reminder of fællessangs original ideological aim to connect citizens in a nation state - "to make them a people."

The role of community singing in national identity is well-recognised, stated matter-of-factly by nearly every source I uncovered for this article. The conclusion, it seems, is that the songs we sing together don't just reflect the culture, they help create the culture.

"Authentically Danish"

According to the Danish Royal Library, the Danish folk song tradition began with German-born composer J.A.P. Schulz, who was a royal bandmaster in Copenhagen from 1787 to 1795 and left "indelible traces in Danish music life." Denmark's most prominent composer, Carl Nielsen, was heavily influenced by Schulz' work. As Schulz composed melodies for German poems, so did Nielsen for Danish poems and verse. Because Nielsen's work is the basis for many of the melodies in the songbook, "we will find Schulz's ideas in the songs we sing today."

When a pair of researchers aimed to identify 'Danishness' in Nielsen's songs, they concluded that it wasn't the musical characteristics - not the horn fifths, not the flatted sevenths - that made his work "authentically Danish." Rather, it was Nielsen's aim to write songs that spoke to 'the Spirit of the People' (folkeånd), as well as the songs' reception across Denmark and their use in community singing. The authors argue that these factors constructed the perception of the songs being "especially Danish." Ultimately, the songs are Danish because people perceive them as Danish.

It was Nielsen's aim to write songs that spoke to 'the spirit of the people' (folkeånd).

Nielsen said something similar in 1924: "It's the people who grab hold of a song and turn it into a national song...and when it happens, the decisive factor is the spirit of the times far more than any literary or musical taste." Century after century, crisis after crisis, songbook after songbook, the debate continues because these decisions help define the 'Danishness' of the future.

Both sides now

People seem to be 'grabbing hold' of the 19th edition; the Songbook Committee must have succeeded in balancing renewal and tradition. Released in November 2020, 120,000 copies had been sold by mid-January. When I flipped through the new book, I was surprised to find so many English-language songs I grew up with 7250 kilometres away. For example, 'Both Sides Now' by Joni Mitchell expresses the duality of life through the metaphor of clouds: "One day, soft and friendly. The next, full of rain," reads the song's description.

Whether or not the song is inherently Danish, it has 'grabbed hold' of enough people to persist through numerous editions of the songbook. In the song's eighth verse, Mitchell sings about how, with every day, we both gain something while losing another. Whether applied to our daily life, an anthology of songs, or a country's culture itself, I can't think of a better metaphor for the delicate balance of tradition and renewal.

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