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Understrings vibrating sympathetically in the Midwest

Laura Ellestad originally hails from Canada, with forebears from the Norwegian district of Valdres. Her research at the Norwegian Academy of Music will culminate in a picture of the way Norwegian village dance music and circle dance music were used in the Midwest between 1900 and 1970.

Odd? No, not at all – because Ellestad’s doctoral project is based on a colourful history of musicians who hung on firmly to things Norwegian on American soil.

Hardanger fiddle discovered

It all began with the TV programme broadcast from the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Lillehammer. Through the flicker of painted faces, Olympic flame, cowbells and skydivers, the most Norwegian of all things Norwegian were transformed into centre-stage ingredients – and Laura Ellestad’s father suddenly felt a sneaking patriotism. His grandparents had emigrated from Valdres to Canada in the 1910s and were keen to integrate. “So the kids never learned Norwegian,” says Laura Ellestad in her sonorous Valdresian dialect.

Laura’s father discovered the Hardanger fiddle, and although his daughter did not immediately take a shine to Norwegian folk music, it would nevertheless turn out to be crucial to the choices she was to make in later life.

“I actually played rock fiddle, and studied for a Bachelor’s degree in Victoria on Vancouver Island,” says Ellestad. “But my parents started to perform Norwegian folk dances on the living-room floor and one day the great traditional musician Tore Bolstad came to visit from Valdres.”

“I had an hour with him, and suddenly everything felt completely right. I was 21, and of all the music genres I was interested in, Hardanger fiddle music soon became the musical language I felt most at home with. My parents had certainly had an influence on me, and the music had quite simply wormed its way into my brain unconsciously.”

Trilling for Norway

Her inquisitiveness about things Norwegian led Laura Ellestad to stay a while in Norway. Eventually she also became a student, opting to focus on folk music. What’s more, the music she played sounded increasingly better, her repertoire grew larger, the trills clearer and her knowledge deeper. Eventually, therefore, she applied to the Norwegian Academy of Music and earned a Master’s degree focusing on Valdresian musicians who emigrated to the USA.

“In this project I attempted to follow in the footsteps of five of the itinerant musicians. I wanted to find out who they were and how they kept up the traditional Norwegian folk-tunes or slåtter,” Ellestad says.

Their stories can tell the tale of fine musicians, some who even turned pro. And there was a market for things Norwegian on the other side of the Atlantic, even if it wasn’t always that easy keeping up traditions at the end of the 1800s. But the music was passed down, and the Norwegian folk music scenes were prolific right up to the 1970s.

Folk music contests and buskers’ tunes

As part of her project, Laura Ellestad is currently studying the way village and circle dance music was used in the Midwest.

“There were fiddling groups in the USA, and every year from 1915 to 1941 folk music contests were arranged, modelled on the homeland,” she says. So far, Ellestad has completed two rounds of fieldwork and met people with an in-depth knowledge of the Norwegian and Nordic folk music scenes.

While the Master’s project gave her insight into the village dance music traditions of North America, now she is also researching the traditions of circle dancing – or Norwegian-American old-time music, which may possibly be a richer description of a genre that also incorporates some American idioms.

Uses her own playing

Ellestad is primarily a research fellow writing a traditional doctorate, but in addition she is adopting methods better known from artistic development work.

“In my investigations of the music from the relevant historical period, I use my own musical experience. So in concrete terms I work with the melodies from my fieldwork. Hopefully, this will provide new insight into cultural history, and perhaps contribute to a practical understanding of how it is possible to work on historical folk music material from a performer’s perspective.”

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