Exploring Norway’s pop music “oldies”
Take a walk down a Norwegian memory lane with these lively gems from decades past
If you ask most Americans what they know about the pop music of Norway’s past, I’ve found the answer usually will range from simply nothing, to one thing—recalling the mid-’80s catchy, upbeat song “Take on Me” by the band A-ha, the first Norwegian artist to have a big hit song in America.
If you ask Norwegian Americans this same question, odds are they’ll know a bit more about Norwegian “oldies”—they might mention the national anthem or fondly recall how a parent played the old immigrant favorite “Kan Du Glemme Gamle Norge,” or recite a few lyrics to the well-known ’40s waltz “Nidelven.”
Some of you reading this, I’m sure, know more. But in my experience, when it comes to Norwegian pop music—not only folk songs but also the countless songs in other pop styles—I’ve found Norwegian Americans of today weren’t exposed to many “oldies” unless they lived in Norway for a long time. Thus, though those of us growing up in the U.S. may know our Norwegian heritage well—and may be able to tell a Hardanger fiddle from a normal violin or name a Grieg symphony that’s not Peer Gynt—for most of us, Norwegian pop music of yesteryear is something rather unknown.
As a Norwegian American from my mother’s side and always interested in heritage, I, too, was unaware of older Norwegian and Scandinavian pop until my work as a DJ in New York City inspired me to look closer at the music of Norway, as well as older pop of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. And not just the folk music, but the jazz, rock, and other genres I guessed had a history there.
Once I started hearing some of these songs, I became excited and motivated to discover more and more songs and artists because the music I was finding made me think not only that Americans of Scandinavian descent would delight in the songs but also that anyone who hadn’t heard these songs would think they were great.
Why? So many of the songs I found had everything—the melodies stuck with you; the sound of the Norwegian accents was delightfully fresh; the lyrics had enough “English-y” sounding words or English slang to be surprisingly accessible; the rhythm and beat were dance-ready. Plus, the styles I discovered were surprisingly varied—in addition to folk, polka, jazz, swing, and rock, I found a lot of country and bluegrass, as well as blues, soul, and disco tunes. I had come across a world of music almost completely unknown to Americans—one I knew they would be charmed by if they just could hear some of it.
So here are many of the best Norwegian pop oldies in a breadth of styles I’ve found, from the ’20s, when radio and records became more commonplace, to the late ’70s, when more Scandinavian pop bands like ABBA, A-ha, Roxette, and Ace of Base began to have hits in the U.S. I chose these songs because I think they’re the most remarkable and distinctive of a style and because I think to those not knowing much about vintage Norwegian pop, these songs will seem catchy, pretty, or amusing, or make you want to dance, or even be surprisingly understandable to you if you don’t know Norwegian.
1) “En Glad Gutt fra Skandinavien,” Einar Rose: This catchy mid-’30s tune, translating to “A Happy Boy from Scandinavia,” by one of the first pop stars of Norway, is a lively and accessible example of the sound of the early days of pop music in the country—when folk, polka, and a bit of swing jazz sounds mingled together.
2) “Mandag, Tirsdag, Onsdag,” Jens Book-Jenssen: This lightly swingin’ foxtrot from the early ’50s by another beloved Norwegian singer stands out not only for the tender lyrical sentiment of longing for your sweetheart every day and month but also for Book-Jenssen’s vocals, which have a dash of operatic flourish—giving a pleasant touch of grandness to the warmth.
3) “Røkk og Rull på Ring,” Nora Brockstedt: Sung with a crisp, elegant vocal by still another beloved Norwegian singer, this mid-’50s tune was the first that hooked me on Norwegian and Scandinavian pop oldies. Unlike much Scandinavian pop of this time, this isn’t a reworked version of an American song but a vivacious original. It’s dressed up in brassy swing rhythms but also feels quite rockin’, especially in the lead-up to the chorus and in that chorus. Since at this time rock was just starting to thrill so many around the world, you can feel the wilder new style at times soaring over the more traditional big band arrangement.
4) “Mitt Svermeri,” Inger Jacobsen with Karl Westby’s Orchestra: A bouncy, jazzy tune from the mid-’50s, this song pairs Jacobsen’s sweet-but-nearly-sultry vocals with fun, brassy bursts from the backing orchestra that likely created an ideal background mood for stylish Olso or Bergen lounge bars long ago and still would.
5) “Cowboydansen,” Thor Raymond: This 1956 song, a mellow blend of twangy guitar and violins, makes you begin to feel the Norwegian romance with the loose, ramshackle American country sound of the time, as the elegant crooner vocals suggest the singer is in a jazz world but longing for the country.
6) “Dancin’ with My Rockin’ Shoes,” Odd Gisløy & Kjell’s Rockin’ Stars: In the ’50s, when most Norwegian artists sung rock in English, they recorded versions of American songs. This late-’50s tune is a rare example of a Norwegian original sung in English, and its catchy swing-rock groove stands up so well with most American classics of the time that you may think it’s a cover of a hit Elvis song you somehow never heard.
7) “Jeg Venter Deg,” Jens Book-Jenssen: This gentle but epic mid-’50s take on “Unchained Melody”—done about a decade before the definitive version would be recorded by the Righteous Brothers—makes the song feel like it was lifted from an aria from some Norwegian opera.
8) “Sigaretter, Whisky Og Ville Jenter,” Arne Bendiksen: Even if you don’t know much Norwegian, in hearing this mid-’50s cover of the folk-bluegrass standard “Cigarettes, Whiskey and Wild Women,” you’ll be able to pick up on the big ol’ feeling of “Uff da!” in the verses from Bendiksen’s warbling, exasperated vocals. This makes this song funny to listen to, but when Bendiksen steadies his voice and cathartically starts shouting each chorus, it’s hard to resist singing along.
9) “Jeg Trodde,” Nora Brockstedt: This original rock ‘n’ roll tune from 1963 is another that stands up so well to any American or British song of the time, you’ll think it’s a cover of a huge hit you’ve mysteriously missed. But it also creates a sound all its own. The combination of catchy, slightly distorted guitar riffs all over the place under the clear, powerful but elegant vocals make for a sexily unfamiliar blend of gritty rawness and jazzy sophistication—as if Ella Fitzgerald sung lead on “Johnny B. Goode.”
10) “En Student fra Uppsala,” Kirsti Sparboe: From 1969, this breezy tune has a rare kind of melody—both gentle and sweet, but also anthemic. Sparboe’s vocals and the song’s childlike whistle sounds echo the youthful French “Ye Ye” girl recordings of the ’60s, showing that Norway could match the quality of France’s pop just as well as America’s.
11) “Lena,” Odd Børre: A sleek, jazzy song, also from 1969, with vocals that effortlessly channel the best of Neil Diamond’s or Tom Jones’ singing of this time—in other words, there’s the soaring anthem feel but none of the kitschy drama.
12) “Harpa,” by Folque: From 1974, this lovely, meditative song, with its mixture of traditional and modern instruments and ethereal female vocals, is a striking example of a folk music revival that was taking place at the time and how powerful it could feel to coax melodies and sounds from Norway’s distant past.
13) “Heksedans,” Jan Eggum: Seamlessly blending soul, rock, jazz, blues, funk, and a touch of Caribbean and African rhythms as effortlessly as Stevie Wonder often did, this 1977 song creates a natural and irresistible groove out of so many styles that’s as perfect for dancing as it is for listening to on headphones. It also adds a welcome touch of experimentation, mystery, and soul to Scandinavian pop of the ’70s, much of which was dominated by the lighter, straightforward sounds of ABBA and nostalgia groups called “dansbands” covering rock and roll from the ’50s and ’60s.
14) “Kristine Olsen,” Odd Tom Risdal: This last song, a polka-ish take from the ’50s on a well-known folk standard, is the only one here out of chronological order—and that’s because this song, with its simple name, might be the most profound. Other Norwegian singers have recorded versions of this tune, but this one, with its fast accordion and robust, beer-hall ready chorus, is the most lively. This makes the tune more memorable to hear, but more importantly, it makes you want to dance, sing along, or just tap your foot to it. And when you interact with the song, I think it just could make you, a Norwegian American, feel kind of exotic. Many of us, with last names like Olsen, Larsen, or Petersen, have been in the U.S. so long that we don’t often get to feel that way. Well, long ago, a song was written with its title as one of those names—reminding us that our names were, and still are, worthy of a big, fun moment of celebration.
This article has been edited to reflect that “Kristine Olsen” was written not about a girl; rather it was written about a boat with that name.
Sean LaFleur is a DJ based in New York City. A favorite specialty of his is incorporating music from a crowd’s heritage(s) at his events. His website is www.djnewyorkcity.com.
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.