“The Swede from North Dakota”

Explicating a Euro-American Folksong

in Ethnologia Europaea
Author:
James P. Leary University of Wisconsin-Madison jpleary@wisc.edu

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“The Swede from North Dakota,” a narrative folksong or ballad performed in a broken-English “Scandihoovian” dialect, has circulated in differing versions throughout America’s Upper Midwest since the early 1900s. Chronicling the misadventures of an itinerant Swedish farm hand, it has been: performed by vaudevillians, lumberjacks, hobos, labor activists, radio entertainers, and women’s groups; published in newspapers, reminiscences, and songbooks; recorded commercially; repurposed in folksong revivals; and documented yet never studied by folklorists. Fully considered, the song exemplifies ways in which immigrant agrarian and industrial workers simultaneously sustained their respective evolving ethnic/local identities; assimilated elements imposed by larger American institutions; and forged an emergent creolized regional cultural blend by creatively fusing varied Old and New World elements into expressive folk forms.

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