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Friday, July 19, 2013

#Bellmann and Bacchanalia by John von Daler

               We were in Sweden putting on our little play about the great Swedish poet, Nils Ferlin. It was summer and Stockholm shone with water, sun and the Swedes themselves, tall and blond and dignified.

                I had written some music and we had borrowed some very Scandinavian melodies from Lillebror Söderlund for the show. It was a pretty good success, even in Bergmann's backyard. Evidently the Swedes thought it interesting to hear what the Danes could do with one of their national skalds.
                On our nights off we got invited out to various parties. On one such evening all eight of us went to the home of a famous architect who was a great theater fan. He served a magnificent smorgasbord in his mansion in the suburbs. Even though the Swedes had their own kind of prohibition at that time, vodka and beer flowed freely and we all got our stomachs filled with food and drink.
                At about nine our host expressed the wish to entertain us. Evidently he knew the songs of the great Swedish 18th century poet, Bellmann, by heart. Someone asked me to play the piano.
                I really play the violin, but I can find my way around on the piano. As a teenager I even played something that sounded a little like jazz. Bellmann's songs were not part of my repertoire, but someone had a song book that I could use. The only thing I knew about the poet was that he drank a lot and that many of his songs described situations in the gutters of Stockholm. I thought, well, a kind of jazz musician from Oklahoma and Connecticut should be able to connect on some level with the great Swede. After all, music and drinking have their own international fellowship.
                I had not taken the Swedes into account.
                I sat down at the piano and the architect and I conferred as to which songs we would perform. I launched raucously into the first one with a devil-may-care, free-form feeling, all fun and games. Beside me my fellow soloist cleared his throat and intoned his huge bass voice in the grandiose manner of, say, Paul Robson singing "Old Man River". In Sweden (I learned) Bellmann is taken very, very seriously. You stand still, you listen reverently and you do not crack a smile, unless of course it is a knowing one.
                As I swung my way through the accompaniment my partner got more and more solemn. The more I sounded like a dixieland orchestra the more he sounded like a monk singing a mass.
                We reached about three songs when our lovely actress, Lisa, a woman whom I trusted and admired, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, John, your taxi is waiting. I would not ever have considered giving Lisa any trouble, so I took the hint. I can remember getting up and following her to the front door and going down the driveway.
                Why is it that the renegade of one generation becomes the idol of the following? Of the two generations, contemporary and ensuing, which knows the rebel best? I'll leave you to answer that one. But I still think Bellmann called out from his repose behind the Swedish clouds on that magical summer night. Well done, kid! Skoal! Happy times in Stockholm! 

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