Old religious songs carry a message of hope for today

Kim Rysstad, Tord Gustavsen, and Arve Henriksen perform old hymns in new ways

Photo: Gitte Johannessen / NTB
Tord Gustavsen and Arve Henriksen bring old hymns to life.

Kim Rysstad sings and Tord Gustavsen performs old, religious songs with lyrics about the abyss of depravity, the suffering of the valley of woe, lost souls, salvation—and Satan. Nevertheless, they can bring us new hope, they believe.

“Yes, I have struggled with some of the lyrics, such as those that deal with sin and forgiveness. Others I liked. But when we worked with them, we realized more and more that in a world also characterized by war, climate crisis, and general confusion, there is a message in these texts,” says pianist Tord Gustavsen—who emphasizes that he does not think we should return to the slanted theology of the hymn texts.

“But still, the words seem to say something important about our times. A call to our conscience to think about what is really important. I think that pietism in this new light, with its fervor, also has a strong connection to mysticism in other world religions.

While Gustavsen plays the piano, it is Kim Rysstad who sings the old lyrics. The “Star Game” celebrity admits that he struggled for years on what to do with them on a stage.

“I had sung hymns at school; they were part of music class. But standing there on stage and singing them took some time. “Can I sing this?”, I thought.

Tradition bearer

But in the end Rysstad came to the conclusion that he is a bearer of tradition—one in a row, through many generations.

“I can’t stop the streak just because it’s something I personally don’t like,” he said.

It’s the melodies that hit him first, that speak to him. But now that he has listened to the recordings of Villfarande barn—wayward or wandering children—he must admit that he understands why people feel safe with their message.

“There are many violent texts in which Satan is involved. But it must have been a fierce challenge to live at the time when these hymns were written—and it was important that people believed, which is why they are often so admonishing. There is heaven and hell, love, and doom. But there is also a lot of love,
says Rysstad.

“When I sing them today, I stand in the middle of it and have no problem conveying them. I am part of a long tradition, and for me, this piece of tradition is more important than anything else. As Norwegians, we have mostly grown up in a Christian cultural heritage, and I see no point in moving away from that.”

Voices of our times

“Can these old songs be understood in new ways in our time where, as humanity, more than ever in modern times, we experience bewilderment and insecurity about the future?”, says the recording company Kirkelig Kulturverksted in the description of Wayward Children. We live in a time that is full of unrest, contradictions, confusion, and anxiety about the future.

“The old religious songs that Kim sings on this album describe a world that resonates amazingly well with our own time, even if they use old-fashioned words like delusion and the abyss of depravity”, says KKV manager Erik Hillestad, who is the producer and technician for the release. “The songs convey that there is hope and that we are fundamentally safe because of God’s love. This is not an escape from reality, but comforting words that are needed in these times, and not least this is communicated with music that relieves and strengthens us.”

The third man in the constellation, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, is not present at Kulturkirken Jakob this morning. It was here that he, together with Kim Rysstad and Tord Gustavsen, stayed for three days in January for the recording.

Something in common

In May, there will be a release party of a quieter kind in another church, the small medieval church Tanum in Bærum, Norway, where Gustavsen is a part-time cantor. At Pentecost, the Deep Breaths festival is on tour with its meditative music, and the “Wandering Children” hymns will be performed there on 27 May. It was also in Tanum that the collaboration between the singer and the pianist started after they had first met at a Christmas concert.

“I noticed something we had in common. We share a great affection for the hymn collection, especially the part that is based on the melody of old folk tunes,” says Gustavsen. Now he thinks that their common material and interaction has become so strong, and that Kim Rysstad is such an important transmitter of tradition, that it should be recorded for posterity.

Arve Henriksen also came on board the hymn team. Not only does he play trumpet along to the simple, basic melody lines of the hymns, but he also creates atmospheric soundscapes using electronics, recorded live like the rest.

“With distortion and everything, there are probably devils on all sides,” Gustavsen jokes about taking trumpet tones into the hymns from olden times.

“Come home”

The “wayward children” project means something very special to Kim Rysstad. Which answers in one word what it is for him.

“A dream or ‘dream’”, as he says in his distinct Setesdal dialect. The singer can pinpoint exactly when he started dreaming of making a hymnal record: “When I heard Sigvart Dagsland’s hymn record almost 20 years ago. It rocked me!”

He was already fond of some of the hymns the trio now share with record audiences. He sang “Jesus, to taste your sweet union” at his best friend’s wedding. “Adam’s song” is one of the first songs that he and Tord Gustavsen played together, so it has become something special, he says.

“For me it was very special to meet Tord. Singing with him is one of the best things I’ve done,” says Rysstad.

They chose to include some hymns from the hymn book for recognition, where others are more unknown—from the goldmine that exists of religious folk tunes. “Misery,” for example, has been recorded for the first time.

Why the choice of title Villfarande barn, wayward or wandering children?

“I think it’s a nice title, after a hymn that says something about finding a way back to security, with its chorus ‘Come home, oh, come home.” Today people are afraid, lost in the world.”

Read Editor-in-chief Lori Ann Reinhall’s review of Villfarande barn.

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NTB (Norsk Telegrambyrå), the Norwegian News Agency, is a press agency and wire service that serves most of the largest Norwegian media outlets. The agency is located in Oslo and has bureaus in Brussels, Belgium, and Tromsø in northern Norway