A musical journey: Leif & Sunnie bring a favorite song home

Photo courtesy of Sunnie Sundquist
Leif & Sunnie Accordion Duo play “Nidelven” on Den Gamle Bybro over the Nid River in Trondheim.

Sunnie Sundquist
Mt. Vernon, Wash.

The journey of Leif & Sunnie Accordion Duo, musicians from the Pacific Northwest, began in Finland with an invitation to play at The 50th Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, the biggest folk and dance festival in the Nordic countries. Tens of thousands of folk music lovers fill the vast grounds in Kaustinen, Finland, as groups representing 25 countries perform on 27 stages. The acts are predominately violins and string instruments, some button accordions, with only a few musicians from the U.S. I ponder, why us?

At Kaustinen Festival, we played outdoors under clear skies to an enthusiastic crowd on the Setori stage, a large covered flatbed behind a tractor. The next day, our first performance was in the intimate Santerin kabinetti adjoining a café in the Pelimannitalo, where I happily found grisar, my favorite Swedish-Finnish pastry shaped with pig’s ears and filled with jam. That evening, we played in the Troka, an over-18 bar and dance floor under a vast tent.

The programs we presented were a selection of traditional Nordic folk music, some learned as young students from Hugo Helmer, Swedish immigrant accordion music teacher in Mt. Vernon, Washington. Helmer’s emphasis was old Nordic folk songs, perhaps at the urging of our parents: “Livet till Finnskogen,” “Kristiania valsen,” Gammal Svensk schottis, vals, polka, hambo, “O Store Gud,” a Swedish folk tune from the 1800s, and so on.

From Kaustinen we drove northward through the fell landscape (From Old Norse fell, fjall, referring to mountains rising above the alpine tree line) in Finnish Lapland to our destination of Kirkenes, Norway, where we boarded the Hurtigruten ship MS Trollfjord.

For us, the Hurtigruten trip was the icing on the cake for our musical journey in Norway. We were invited to play in the Troll­fjord Bar to overflow crowds. We played a favored Norwegian song, “Nidelven,” and MS Trollfjord Tour Manager Eksvil, born in Trondheim, waltzed in to find a dance partner. While my quiet Swede-Finn nature may prevail, my quarter-Norwegian heritage shines through when I am playing with Leif Holmes, and the Norwegian passengers responded enthusiastically.

At Hammerfest, we visited the Polar Museum. Havørn, Norway’s sea eagle is on display and of interest to us, as we play a song called “Havsörn,” high notes soaring like an eagle. We disembarked at Tromsø to view a midnight concert. The acoustics in the contemporary cathedral amplified the sounds of a soprano accompanied by flute and piano, not the folk music we’d expected from the excursion description—except for a rendition of “Biegga” (Wind), a Sámi joik, written by Sámi poet Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, whose poetry I am familiar with.

The northern coast of Norway was a feast for the eyes as we passed the Lyngen Alps and the enchanting Lofoten Islands where mountains meet the sea. Cod-drying racks appeared like sculpture beside the sea at Svolvær. Framed by the port window like a beautiful painting, we passed farms and colorful village houses dotting the green mountainsides.

Photo courtesy of Sunnie Sundquist

MS Trollfjord entered its namesake, the impressively narrow Trollfjord, a nature experience that touches the soul. Norwegian friluftsliv defines “an ingrained ancient Nordic philosophy of outdoor life, the idea that returning to nature is returning home.” I have that sense of returning home, a connection accentuated by Nordic heritage that remains in my blood memory.

In Trondheim, we hail a cab to transport our accordions to the Old Town Bridge crossing the Nid River that runs through the heart of Trondheim. There, our most satisfying and proudly shared moment was playing the beautiful song “Nidelven” on Den Gamle Bybro within sight of Nidaros Cathedral where the man who wrote the words is buried. Twelve years ago, I joined an accordion band that Holmes was directing. One practice, he stood in front of the band and played “Nidelven.” I was smitten and vowed to learn that beautiful song. And now, here we stood playing it together on the very spot where the poetic words of love were written by Oscar Hoddø on a scrap of paper and left between the planks of the wood bridge, before he went off on a mission during WWII German occupation. He did not return.

Back in the U.S., we wheeled our Petosa accordions, Hurtigruten ID tags still hanging from the cases, into the Nordic Museum Viking Days celebration. Leif & Sunnie Accordion Duo had been invited to perform at the last Viking Days event at the museum’s current location, and we played to an overflow crowd in the vast outdoor beer garden tent. And yes, we played with heartfelt emotion our favorite song, “Nidelven”:

Langt i det fjerne, bak fjellene blå, ligger et sted jeg har kjær. Dit mine tanker og drømmer vil gå, alltid du er meg så nær. Nid­elven, stille og vakker du er, her hvor jeg går og drømmer. Drømmer om henne jeg hadde så kjær, nu er det bare minner. Den Gamle Bybro er lykkens portal, sammen vi seiler I stjerners korall. Nidelven, stille og vakker du er, her hvor jeg går og drømmer.

Far in the distance, ’neath mountains so blue, lies a place I hold dear. There my thoughts and dreams will go. Always, you are so near to me. Nidelven, quiet and beautiful you are. Here where I go to dream. To dream of her that I held so dear, now they are only memories. The Old Town Bridge is the lucky portal, together we sail under starry skies. Nidelven, quiet and lovely you are, here where I go and dream.

Leif Holmes and Sunnie Sundquist were both born to immigrant parents and grandparents, raised in the embrace of Scandinavian-American community. Leif is Board Trustee of Sons of Norway Fritjov Lodge; Sunnie is Board Trustee of the Nordic Heritage Museum and author of a narrative nonfiction book about her Swedish/Finnish grandmother, The Legacy of Ida Lillbroända: Finnish emigrant to America 1893. Their Nordic Folk Music CD is available at Ingebretsen’s online and in Seattle at Scandinavian Specialties and the Nordic Museum Shop.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 8, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.