Snaps Visa: A song for aquavit

Aquavit, Cocktails, and Nordic Snaps Culture by Lexi of the Old Ballard Liquor Co.

Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket / Wikimedia Commons   A page from Sketches on a tour to Copenhagen, through Norway and Sweden by Jens Wolff, 1816. This is the beginning of “Norges Skål,” a revolutionary Norwegian drinking song.

Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket / Wikimedia Commons
A page from Sketches on a tour to Copenhagen, through Norway and Sweden by Jens Wolff, 1816. This is the beginning of “Norges Skål,” a revolutionary Norwegian drinking song.

Scandinavians aren’t exactly known for their outgoing and gregarious nature. From Lake Wobegon’s taciturn Norwegian Bachelor Farmers to the somber characters of Ingmar Bergman films, the image of silent stoicism follows Scandinavians everywhere. So it can be a bit of a surprise to discover that when a bottle of aquavit makes an appearance, loud, boisterous singing usually accompanies each toast. Typically learned while attending college, this social ritual is a silly, energetic expression of fun in a culture otherwise known for restraint and dry humor.

There are thousands of “snapsvisa”—drinking songs (drikkeviser in Norwegian)—in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Topics and lyrics vary from region to region and school to school, with new songs evolving all the time. Every part of Scandinavian society is represented in some form or another in these songs, from the tiny field-made cups that hikers fashion for drinking from wooded streams, to family relationships, and even to singing about death.

Many of the older, more traditional songs have a heavy, dirge-like melody and joyless lyrics like, “We should drink now, because soon we’ll all be dead.” More contemporary songs however, lean toward a more positive outlook and it’s not unusual to find optimistic, bouncy tunes that reflect the changes in national attitude over the past 50 years.

Drinking songs are popular all over Scandinavia, but nowhere as much as in Sweden. In the country’s capital city of Stockholm, there is a museum dedicated to all things alcohol related, the “Spritmuseum,” which catalogs the long and storied history of spirits in Scandinavia, from traditions of home distilling to Scandinavia’s contentious relationship with prohibition in the early part of the last century. But contemporary culture is represented as well, and the museum boasts the largest collection of snapsvisa in the world.

Each year the museum holds a contest for new drinking songs, and hundreds of submissions pour in. Every submission is kept and added to the library regardless of whether or not it wins, so the collection grows by an annual leap. There are currently around 4,000 songs in the library, which is open to the public, and visitors are encouraged to thumb through the collection and learn new songs.

Arguably the most well known of all snapsvisa is “Helan Går” (HAY-lan GORE) and just about everybody knows it. A friend of mine of Norwegian and Swedish descent once told me that as an American growing up with immigrant grandparents, she could never understand why every holiday the family sang about “Hell and Gore.”

Helan går
Sjung hopp faderallan lallan lej
Helan går
Sjung hopp faderallan lej
Och den som inte helan tar
Han heller inte halvan får
Helan går
(Drink)
Sjung hopp faderallan lej

Or, in English:

It all goes down
Sing hop falderalan la lan lay
It all goes down
Sing hop falderalan lay
And he that doesn’t drink it all
Won’t even get half either
It all goes down
(Drink)
Sing hop falderalan lay

Lexi is the owner and founder of the Old Ballard Liquor Co. in Seattle, which produces more varieties of aquavit than any distillery in the U.S. After growing up with the Scandinavian-American farming culture of the Skagit Valley and a three-year residency in Sweden, she settled back into Seattle life where she now operates the Old Ballard distillery and a Nordic café and fine dining Scandinavian restaurant called Tumble Swede, and travels the U.S. teaching classes on contemporary Scandinavian food and drink.

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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