A world premiere at Norway House

New PBS documentary “The Devil’s Instrument” deepens cultural understanding with a focus on building community

The Devil's Instrument

Photo courtesy of Pioneer PBS
“The Devil’s Instrument” presents some of Norway’s most accomplished folk musicians. Pictured here is Benedicte Maurseth, who has been playing Hardanger fiddle since she was 8 years old. In the past, the “devil’s instrument” was played by men, and it was banned from churches.

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

Television viewers in the Midwest and around the country were in for a treat earlier this month when the new Pioneer PBS documentary about the Hardanger fiddle aired publicly for the first time on Feb. 13. 

Produced by Dana Conroy, with videography by Ben Dempcy and Kristofor Gieske, it captures the highlights of a 10-day road trip around Norway in August 2019. They had traveled there to explore the history and music of Norway’s national instrument from their own Midwestern perspective. With up-close-and-personal encounters with local musicians and craftsmen, it offers unique insights into the folk music scene of Norway today.

The documentary had already seen its world premiere on Jan. 16 at Norway House in Minneapolis, where it was received with unexpected enthusiasm—even before it was shown. So great was the response to the event, that a second showing had to be added.

Having been among the viewers, I can report that the anticipation was not unfounded. But first I had the pleasure to talk to producer Dana Conroy and Patrick J. Moore, communications director for Pioneer PBS, who offered valuable insights into the production.

“The Devil’s Instrument” is part of Pioneer PBS’s Postcards, a program designed to introduce viewers to the artists and craftsmen, musicians and chefs, culture, and traditions of rural Minnesota. Here the Hardanger fiddle has a long history, going back to the first days of the Norwegian immigration, beginning in the mid-19th century. 

Granite Falls, Minn., home to Pioneer PBS, was one of these settlements, and its Norwegian heritage remains strong to this day. One of the town’s most famous Norwegian residents was the attorney and politician Andrew Volstead, who sponsored the Volstead Act, which enabled enforcement of the 18th Amendment, the “Prohibition Amendment.”

Granite Falls, like many small towns throughout the Upper Midwest, faces a number of challenges that have come with a new economy in the digital era. Retail has been devastated by Amazon and other online retailers, eroding the downtown areas, and while there are jobs available, they often remain unfilled as young people are drawn to metropolitan areas for higher pay. Populations are aging, and the workforce is diminishing. The towns need more people to stay put, and more people to move in.

Nonetheless, these communities are still functioning, and there are many bright spots on the horizon—and this we where the programming at Pioneer PBS comes into play. The tradition of folk arts is very strong in these rural communities, and new business ventures are popping up around them. 

With a renewed interest in everything from silver-making to flat plane carving to folk dancing to the Hardanger fiddle, people are flocking into to small Midwestern towns to explore their cultural heritage. They are looking for the handmade and the personal, beauty and authenticity, as a new art-based ecotourism is emerging.

“People want to know where they came from,” said Conroy. “There is an identity to pass on to your children, a sense of who you are and where you came from, giving you a sense of where you want to go.” With their documentaries, Pioneer PBS’s goal is to inspire people who are working to develop their communities, while increasing interest throughout the larger viewership. 

At the same time, Conroy and her colleagues also pay respect to cultural diversity. By remembering our own immigrant roots, our tolerance of new immigrants can be deepened. Conroy has also produced a Postcards episodes on the Hmong culture in rural Minnesota as well as Native American documentaries. The series addresses the question of identity and what it means to live in the diverse landscape of communities in the Upper Midwest. They are often shown at civic engagement screenings and in schools as a catalyst for multicultural understanding and community-building.

The Hardanger fiddle project had a special meaning for Conroy, who was born Dana Johnson and is of mostly Norwegian extraction (a recent DNA test showed that she is, genetically speaking, 68% Norwegian, with the rest of her Swedish and Finnish). She has always had a strong interest in her roots.

More specifically, Conroy became interested in the Hardanger fiddle, when she heard it played by visiting Norwegian musician Olav Mjelva when he came to Minnesota with the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc a couple of years ago and PBS covered the story. Conroy was intrigued by the origins of the tradition in Minnesota, what it is today, both at home and abroad, and the cross-cultural exchange taking place.

As a result, Conroy and Mjelva teamed up to co-produce “The Devil’s Instrument.” Conroy remembers their 10-day road trip throughout Norway with Mjelva and videographers Dempcy and Gieske as “intense.” She had just had a baby, and there was a lot of territory to cover. But fortunately, Mjelva, who is regarded as one of Norway’s leading performers on the Hardanger fiddle, was also an excellent driver and tour guide. (In fact, Mjelva enjoyed his new role with PBS so much that he has spun off his new business, Norwegian Road Trip: see Andy Meyer’s article in the Jan. 24 issue of The Norwegian American.)

For those who don’t know much about Norway’s national instrument, the documentary serves as a “Hardanger fiddle 101 crash course,” set against the backdrop of some of Norway’s most majestic scenery—but even if you do know something, there will certainly be new things to take in. And then, of course, there is the music.

Conroy and team were surprised by much of what they learned, especially the strong interest in Hardanger fiddle by Norway’s young people today. The “darkness” historically associated with the instrument is perhaps also less known in the United States. The intensity of the music and the dancing that it accompanied, often with alcohol and merriment, gave its name, “the devil’s instrument,” and for centuries, the Hardanger fiddle was banned from the churches.

And those who do know quite a lot about the Hardanger fiddle will be delighted to meet some of the most renowned authorities on the screen: historians, craftsmen, master teachers, and performers. “Olav had all the contacts,” said Conroy, “and he was really the star of the production,” but she admired him for his modesty and willingness to step away from the limelight, another lesson about cultural differences between Norway and the United States.

A lively discussion followed the world premiere screening at Norway House, as Conroy, Dempcy, and Gieske fielded questions from the audience and offered personal anecdotes about the whirlwind tour of Norway. It felt inspiring to see three young professionals all in their 20s and 30s and an audience that spanned many generations so excited about a centuries-old instrument and the music that is coming out of it today—both in Norway and at home in the Midwest.

Viewers anywhere will enjoy the Pioneer PBS documentary “The Devil’s Instrument,” which will be available online for two weeks following the Feb. 13 broadcast at video.pioneer.org. After that, PBS Passport members will have unlimited access. Pioneer is also offering the documentary to PBS stations across the country, so keep your eyes open to your local PBS schedule if you would like to see it on your television screen at home (and let your local stations know that you want to see it). In any case, you are in for a Norwegian-American treat.

This article originally appeared in the February 21, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.