Balen I Karlstad

When the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra first got together in 2000, one of the first things we learned from Mick Moloney was a set of two barndances, a four-parter called the “New Irish Barn Dance” (made famous in Irish music in the 1920/30s by the Flanagan Brothers, and later, by De Dannan on their Star Spangled Molly album) and “Paddy McGinty’s Goat” (a humerous song that New York melodeon player Tom Doherty used to play).  For a while it was our “signature set,” but like all sets, it’s come and gone from our immediate repertory (perhaps one day to return).  However, Mick’s group the Green Fields of America put a great version of the set on their most recent album (there, though, they did the “New Irish Barn Dance” in it’s full four parts; in the the WSHSO’s arrangement, we only played the first two).

I never really put too much thought into where the tune came from, until I heard it on The SopranosIn the episode called “The Ride,” Paulie had gone to visit his mom Nucci at the retirement community.  The show ended with them watching Myron Floren playing it in an episode of the Lawrence Welk show .  Although the show credits claim the tune was the “Johnny Olso Schottishce,” it wasn’t.  (I found Floren’s recording of Johnny Oslo–it’s a different tune.)  However, what Floren was playing turns up on his 1960 Most Requested album (Brunswick BL 54046) as “Ball in Karlstad.”  Floren was known for playing Scandinavian music, and I was reminded of something I’d seen posted on the popular session.org site under the “New Irish Barn Dance”:

…a good few years ago [...] I was playing the De Danaan recording of this and my former mother-in-law in Sweden burst into song and sang Swedish words to this tune

The Fiddler’s Companion site had a similar attribution:

The tune was featured in the 1968 Swedish comedy “Under ditt parasoll” (“Under your parasoll”). It was first recorded by the Flanagan brothers on a 78 RPM for Columbia in 1930, however, for stylistic reasons it may not be Irish in origin.

Intriguing connections.  So after some digging (and some orthographic help from a fiddler from Sweden I know), I found quite a bit about this tune, which is better known in the Swedish-American community as the “Ball in Karlstad.”  From what I’ve been able to learn, it was a well known dance tune in Sweden long before the Flanagans got to it.  The first recorded version (in America, at least) seems to have been issued in 1916.  An accordion duet, it was described as a “schottische“:

1. Balen I Karlstad.  John Lager & Eric Olson, Victor, March 1916

John Lager & Eric Olson

If historian Victor Greene is correct in suggesting that Eric Olsen was born in Sweden in 1895 and moved to the US as a teenager, Olson would have been 11 when he recorded this side.  Whatever his age, Olson was very well known in the Swedish music community. He made a couple hundred records, opened an accordion school in Brooklyn in 1926, began publishing his own sheet music in the early 1930s, (you can usually find inexpensive copies of his Scandinavian Dance Album on eBay) and had a popular Saturday morning radio show for Swedes on WBBC in New York.  Other than assuming he was an accordionist, I really know nothing about Lager.

The tune was recorded in 1928 twice, first by Finnish virtuoso accordionist Viola Turpeinen, and then by Eddie Jahrl:

2. Jukan Sottiisi. John Rosendahl & Viola Turpeinen (violin and accordion duet), Victor, January 1928

John Rosendahl & Viola Turpeinen

3. Balen Karlstad.  Jahrl Instrumental Quintet, Victor, April 1928

Jahrl Instrumental Quintet

Turpeinen was born in Michigan in 1909, took lessons from Italian accordion teachers, and moved to NY in 1927 where she became “the most popular Scandinavian performer of [her] era.” Greene suggests that her audience included music and dance lovers of many ethnic communities, and she had great crossover appeal.

Jahrl’s family immigrated from Sweden in 1916 and settled in New York.  His musical career started out in vaudeville, but at the behest of the head of the foreign department at Columbia Records (Greene, p. 185), he switched to folk and popular repertory and performed on NY stations WBBC and WBYN.  In the 1920s, he seems to have done a lot of recording for Victor. However, by the mid 1930s, he had switched loyalties and made around 50 records for Columbia.  In 1929, he’d re-recorded this tune with them:

4.  Te Dans Mä’ Karlstatösera. E. Jahrl’s Kvintett, Columbia, August 1929

E. Jahrl’s Kvintett

In fact (and this is where it begins to get interesting), Columbia appears to have issued Jahrl’s exact recording several times with different labels to different ethnic communities (as was common at the time):

The Ball in Karlstad – Waltz (Co 12121-F) (American)
Wesole Czasy – Walc (Co 18349-F) (Polish)
Naantalin Aurinko-Sottiisi (Co DI 98) (Finnish)
Karlstadtreinlander (Co GN 97) (German)

It seems that the only European-American ethnic community it wasn’t re-labeled and issued for was the Irish community.  This is where the Flanagan Brothers stepped in:

5. The New Irish Barn Dance. Flanagan Brothers, Columbia, Late 1929?

Flanagan Brothers

Spottswood only dates it to “late 1929,” so I don’t know whose version came first.  But why that tune?  What was going on between Victor and Columbia in 1928 and 1929 that caused Jahrl to bounce from Victor and re-record repertory with Columbia?  Was there some kind of demand for this particular tune that Columbia was trying to address? Did the head of Columbia’s foreign department specifically ask the Flanagans to record it, or did they get it from someone “on the scene?”  Are there other examples of this sort of inter-ethnic crossover in the Flanagans’s repertory?  Were any of these records marketed to the Jewish community?  How often did this kind of thing happen in general?  Have unexplored examples of this kind of marketing affected how people today imagine national identity/nationalism in old recordings?

(All the dates I use here come from Richard Spottswood’s ethnic records discography. The biographical material comes from Victor Greene’s A Passion For Polka: Old Time Ethnic Music in America, pp. 184-7.)

3 comments

  1. Donegal-born New York fiddler Hughie Gillespie recorded a mazurka that, according to the liner notes on the Topic LP compilation of his 78’s, was also released under another title for Eastern European customers. How mazurkas got to Donegal in the first place is another topic, but Gillespie’s “Irish Mazurka” was danced to by various ethnic groups in New York in the 1930s.

  2. What a lot of work you did to research that. Well done…..I’m sure there are many other tunes from the current Irish repertoire that have their roots in European music.

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