We listened to a new CD released by Columbia University's Swedish Program, featuring songs by Carl Michael Bellman.
Have you heard this one?
“A Russian, a German and Bellman wanted to see who could swim the fastest across the Atlantic. First out was the German. He swam one kilometer and drowned. Next came the Russian. He swam 10 kilometers and then he drowned. Then it was Bellman's turn. He swam and swam until he almost reached the coast of America—then he got tired and swam back.”
This “Bellman skämt” (a Bellman joke) is the kind that Swedish school children know plenty. It was inspired by the life of poet and composer Carl Michael Bellman. Most Swedes know a Bellman joke or two, and every Swede knows at least one Bellman song—he is central in our song tradition and remains a very important influence in Swedish music.
There are always new recordings of his songs in the making. But sometimes the simpler the better, and by simpler I do not mean poor or not elegant. A recording in the series “Scandinavia Off Broadway,” with songs by Carl Michael Bellman sung by Swede Staffan Liljas and American Brett Umlauf (and with Daniel Swenberg on lute), is simple yet perfect and very much fulfilling. It features some of the greatest Bellman gems (from “Opp Amaryllis” and “Solen glimmar blank och trind” to “Märk hur vår skugga,” “Käraste Bröder” and “Hvila vid denna källa”).
Liljas and Umlauf’s voices lend themselves particularly well to Bellman’s songs, they are well-trained and supple. Bellman goes from one extreme to another, from the deepest darkness and the vulgar, to the fresh, fun and fairly clean. You must have a broad register to cover his songs, and on top of that you must have humor and sensitivity. All of these qualities both Liljas and Umlauf have.
“His songs felt limitless for interpretation, somehow,” said Umlauf when asked about Bellman. “They also lent themselves for different moods, and for physicality. They are very theatrical. I think my favorite piece by Bellman is ‘Märk hur vår skugga.' It still gives me the chills to sing it.”
And it gives us, the listeners, chills to hear it.
For more information on how to purchase the CD “Scandinavia Off Broadway: Bellman!” visit
Our earlier interview with Brett Umlauf: Searching for Bellman