Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Paradise Lost: Ole Bull And "Oleanna"

Sometimes as I consider the economic and political life of our country in 2011, I can't help but feel that we are in some ways being dragged headlong back into the 19th century, and the worst elements of it at that. Public life in the latter third of that century featured economic bubbles of speculation and subsequent crashes, concentrations of massive amounts of wealth in the hands of a tiny coterie of Wall Street bankers and their associates (industrial capitalists at the time), demagogic hysterics on both the right and left railing at abuses perceived and actual, and a government that seemed to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of moneyed interests.

What we sadly have not imported from that period are its best elements - like selfless dedication to causes that transcended personal interest or greed, causes like women's suffrage and abolition and temperance and trade unionism. The practical patriotism of the day may have been tinged by jingoism in foreign affairs, but our tough-minded forbears did not propound the illusion that their beloved Columbia The Gem Of The Ocean was a perfect place that was, like the Blues Brothers, on a mission from God. Rather, with the profound doubts about human institutions and perfectibility inherited intellectually from the Puritans, they believed that America was a work in progress whose perfectibility rested in their own hands and efforts.

Nowhere was that more in evidence than in what today appear to be the charmingly idealistic and quaint efforts to create Utopian communities, like the Transcendentalists' Brook Farm in Massachusetts, or New Harmony in Indiana - or Corning, Iowa, or the scores of Amish and Mennonite and Shaker communities stretching from the mid-Atlantic to the prairie states - or to the Great Basin Kingdom itself, Mormon Utah. Despite ethnic and religious differences, all of these shared in common the desire to become the New Jerusalem, the city on the hill that would become a model for national and eventual world-wide reform.

One of the lesser-known of these visionaries - or rather, a man known less as a visionary than as a musician - was the Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bornemann Bull (1810-1880). Bull (pictured above) was reputed to be second only to the legendary Paganini as the greatest instrumental soloist of the century, a reputation cemented by more than 40 years of extensive touring (he performed an authenticated 237 concerts in the U.K. alone in the year of 1838 - and then went off to tour Germany) and collaboration with the great composers and orchestras of his day. Bull was a veritable rock star, wildly applauded and mobbed by fans wherever he went. He was also a first-class luthier and made a fortune which today would be in the millions of dollars.

But Bull was also an idealist and a patriot, one who believed that his native Norway should be independent of Sweden (which it was not until 1905). He toured the U.S. several times and was so taken with the country and its ideals that in 1852 he decided to create what he called a New Norway colony in northeastern Pennsylvania. Bull used what today would be about half a million dollars of his own money to buy land (much of which today is Ole Bull State Park), and in September of 1852 started the colony in the rugged mountains of virgin forest with a few dozen countrymen, proclaiming, "We are founding a New Norway consecrated to liberty, baptized with independence and protected by the Union's mighty flag." Eventually more than two thousand people joined Bull in four sub-colonies, the last of which he named for himself and his mother - "Oleanna."

Like most of the other American Utopias, New Norway failed in a few short years, largely because Bull had been tricked into buying tracts that we virtually un-farmable due to steep slopes and rocks. Most of his Norwegian colonists ended up leaving for (you guessed it) Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas to become later beneficiaries of the Homestead Act, where good land was free to those who would work it. Bull continued his splendid career in Europe, though returning frequently to America and in fact marrying a Wisconsin woman in his declining years. His whole story is well told HERE.

So how did a Norwegian classical musician and communal idealist become the subject of an American folk song?

Though Bull's dream community had died, the power of his vision and his total dedication to it had not. In 1853, Norwegian editor Ditmar Meidell wrote a poem in humorous and satirical praise of Bull's ideals and set it to a popular tune named (of all things) "Rio de Janiero." The song has been popular in Norway ever since but was not translated into English until the 1930s, with 22 verses. Working off of that translation, in the mid-1950s Pete Seeger edited it down to six verses, preserving the flavor of the original, as in the first verse -

Oh, to be in Oleanna!
That is where I'd like to be,
Than be bound in Norway,
And drag the chains of slavery.

Vintage Seeger - and here he is singing it, alternating English with the Lillebjorn Nilsen's Norwegian at the legendary Tonder Festival in 1991:

A bit more restrained and with a slightly different translation, Jim Nelson and Lori Ann Reinhall, collectively known as Duo Scandinavica, presented a fine, homey and relaxed version of the song that has unfortunately disappeared from YouTube. Instead, we have here now a modern adaptation from 2012 from an Italian school group - the tune seems to be especially popular in Italia, with more than a dozen versions appearing on YT from there over recent years:

The performance was uploaded in 2012 and underscores the enduringly catchy nature of the rhythm and melody. It doesn't seem as if the lyrics sung here bear any relation to the Bull/Seeger socialist-uotpia trope.

International folk songs were also the specialty of the mid-1950s group The Gateway Singers, who used Seeger's lyric as the basis for some comedic inventions:

This is from the band's At The Hungry i album.

The song has gone full-on international. Here is a snippet of a group of students giving it a go in Soncillo, Spain:

and the Yellow Devil Blues Band from Lucca, Italy three years ago:

IMHO, that's another in the endless line of unfortunate attempts to "update" an acoustic folk song into an electrified, rocked-out and ultimately bastardized non-entity, neither folk fish nor rock fowl. Yes, Pogues and Avetts and Killigans, I'm talkin' to YOU.

I suppose I'm thankful for that - stuff - for one reason here: it makes the Kingston Trio's somewhat lame attempt to turn Meidell's idealism into 1950s semi-topicality sound downright authentic:

The guys cannot be faulted here for quality of arrangement or enthusiastic vocals. It's just that the chorus has nothing to do at all with the verses, which I always found odd. I'd guess that the group didn't really know the original - this adaptation is by Tin Pan Alley songwriters Mark Seligson and Harvey Geller, who also penned "Mark Twain." As a matter of interest to me only - I always figured this song had Dave Guard playing banjo on it - but now that I listen more closely - it's there, but inexplicably blended way to the back of the digital mix here, barely audible.

The latest incarnation of the term "Oleanna" was a 1992 drama and 1994 film by leading American playwright David Mamet, whose piece portrays the conflict between a smug, superior college professor and a disturbed female grad student who accuses him of sexual harassment. The idealized community of Oleanna in the song implicitly represents the "ivory tower" of the university, both being ultimately unreal and unrealizable illusions. And what a commentary that is - that Ole Bull's pure 19th century vision becomes a sardonic byword for the failures of our own times. Sad it is indeed.


Jim Nelson said...

Hi Jim, Thanks for the great "Oleanna" blog. Our Scandinavian-American version is bound to sound more restrained to American and Eastern European ears than those of two of my childhood music idols, Pete Seeger and Theo Bikel, for cultural reasons. I also sing "Do Re Mi", Woody Guthrie's fine 30's dust-bowl ballad, the closest thing I've found to a "Yankee" Oleanna song about an unaffordable paradise on earth. (My grandparents used to call non-Scandinavians "Yankees".) - Jim Nelson, Duo Scandinavica

Jim Moran said...

Hi Jim! And it is a genuine honor and delight to have your comment here - it's always great when an artist whose work is in one of the articles stops by to add to it. (It does happen occasionally.)

I surely hope "restrained" didn't sound like a criticism - I may need to clarify that in the article. Of course you're right - our folk music does have that Yankee brashness to it. I really enjoy your performance - it sounds rather more to me the way a Scandinavian couple sitting on their front porch in Minnesota singing for and with family and friends might sound - warm, relaxed, and inviting. Think I'll add that to the article. Thanks again!

Jim M.

ps - I should add that Woody's "Do-Re-Mi" recording has exactly the same feel to it. I'd love to hear you do it and will check your YT channel for it.