Until the cows come home: Norway’s cow calls
St. Paul, Minn.
Many American farmers call their herds in with the simple words “Come, boss,” standing at the fence and waiting for the lead cow to start the herd toward home to be milked. In the high mountains of Norway, however, farmers have a much more elaborate tradition of calling in their herds—kulokk.
Kulokk is said to be the oldest musical tradition in Norway, dating back to at least the middle ages. It may be simple calls such as “Kom, nå” or “Ha, ku,” just the names of the cows, or elaborate long melodies that may contain words about summer farming.
Women typically tended the herds. In the summer months, teenage girls would take the herd to the higher mountain pastures to graze. The young farm girl (seter jenta) would stay there for up to three months, tending to the herd, making cheese and butter, and lodging in a small hut. When it was time for the cattle to be milked and to rest for the evening, each girl used her own musical call to bring them in. There were many girls around the mountaintops with their herds, and each herd knew the call of their own mistress.
This tradition was popular in Norwegian farming until the 1950s, when it died out with the adoption of more industrial farming. However in the 1970s it regained popularity as part of the organic farming movement, and kulokk can still be heard today. Archivists began to record the calls in the 70s, and there are many samples in the Oslo and Valdres Folk Music Archives, usually of older farmers who used kulokk in their youth. Several Norwegian folk and jazz singers also perform kulokk and adapt it into their repertoire. Some of the prominent ones are Eli Storbekken, Ruth Wilhelmine Meyer, Berit Opheim, and Agnes Garnas Buen.
In 2007, I had the joy of traveling to Norway and interviewing several people who had experience and knowledge of kulokk. I met with Sten Erik Knive, an agricultural engineer who researched kulokk for his masters’ thesis. He worked with farmers in the Valdres region of Norway, where at that time the most seter farmers still existed. He asked several farmers to use kulokk or an instrument to call in their herds, instead of going behind the herd and hitting them with a stick, which had become norm. The farmers recorded the time it took to bring in their herds, and by the end of the study the cows were coming in 20 minutes faster! Knive also asked four seter farmers to record their calls, then he played the recordings for the herds to see if they would come. He asked one farmer to call to another farmer’s herd. He found that the cows came to everything, because they knew it was time to be milked and fed.
I have my own experience of animals coming to kulokk, calling to a herd of steers in Wyoming. After miles of driving along fields in Wyoming, I stopped and started calling to a herd a distance from the road. Before long one turned and started walking towards me. Soon the whole herd was gaping at me from across the fence. In northern Minnesota I also discovered it works on calling in husbands from fishing!
Kulokk can carry for five kilometers (about three miles). The traditional technique uses long, straight-toned calls that end very abruptly or with a cry, almost imitating the sounds of the cows. These abrupt endings also help create an echo so the call carries farther.
I have given numerous lectures, concerts, and workshops around the U.S., and in doing so, have heard many interesting and heart-warming stories of kulokk from Norwegian Americans. When I taught some calls to my cousins, they sang as if they had always done it. The same was true for a group of adults taking a week of Norwegian at the Concordia Language Villages in Minnesota. They embraced it so well, they were hard to keep quiet! Kulokk seems to be in our genes!
Peggy Larson has an MA in ethnomusicology, has taught singing and kulokk to students in America, Europe, and India, and performs other Scandinavian music and jazz. She has recently published a book with a companion CD about kulokk called Sing ’til the Cows Come Home, a collection of stories, transcribed melodies and information on the vocal technique of singing kulokk. You can purchase the book and contact Peggy at www.peggylarson.com.
This article originally appeared in the June 2, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.