This post was collaboratively written by the four staff members who addressed the visitors: Jennifer Cutting, Barbara Bair, Troy Smith, and Stephen Winick.
On the morning of April 19, 2023, thirteen members of the Swedish Women’s Education Association of DC (SWEA DC) arrived at the Thomas Jefferson Building for a long-planned visit to the Library of Congress. Since October 2022, SWEA DC Events Coordinator Viveca Stahl Kazarian and member Lisa Otterström had been in contact with Folklife Specialist Jennifer Cutting, to set a date and an itinerary for the visit. Jennifer arranged for curators to bring Swedish materials from their divisions for an unforgettable day in the beautiful Rosenwald Room of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, home of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection.
The Rosenwald Room itself is home to a Swedish treasure, and AFC folklorist Stephen Winick gave some of its background and history. It’s a large (over one meter tall) cast iron head representing the Greek mythological figure Orpheus. The sculptor was Carl Emil Wilhelm Andersson, known professionally as Carl Milles. The Head of Orpheus is an excerpt of one of Milles’s most famous works: the “Orpheus Fountain,” which was installed in 1936 in front of the Stockholm Concert Hall in Sweden. Most of the SWEA members had seen the fountain in Stockholm, but there the head is eighteen meters in the air, so this was a rare chance to see Orpheus’s face up close.
Orpheus, of course, is a legendary master of music and song, and his story is a well known part of Greek mythology. In some versions of the story, Orpheus’s father is the king of Thrace; in others, he is none other than the god Apollo. Orpheus’s mother is the muse Calliope, inspirational goddess of epic song. Through his parents he is endowed with supernatural abilities of music and song, and he plays a golden lyre. In the most famous story about him, he descends to the underworld to rescue his bride, Eurydice, who has died from a snake bite. Charming Hades with his music, he is allowed to leave the underworld with Eurydice following him, provided that he not look back to verify she is following. Once he reaches the upper world, forgetting that she too has to be in the upper world before the condition is met, he turns to see his wife, and she is forced to return to the underworld forever.
In the fountain at Stockholm, Orpheus, who is eight meters tall, plays his lyre to eight smaller statues. This represents Orpheus’s role as a music master, which is very appropriate for a concert hall. But by making separate heads of Orpheus, Milles also alluded to another episode in Orpheus’s tale: in many versions of the story, he dies by being dismembered by Maenads (followers of Dionysus), and his head and lyre continue singing mournful songs as they float down the River Hebrus into the sea. They wash ashore on the island of Lesbos, where a pilgrimage site and oracle of Orpheus were established in the ancient world.
The cast of the Head of Orpheus in the Rosenwald Room technically belongs to the National Gallery of Art. It is on long-term loan to the Library of Congress to adorn the Rosenwald Room because of its personal meaning to the Rosenwald family. NGA curatorial files indicate that the head was a birthday present to Lessing J. Rosenwald from his wife, Edith. On his 50th birthday, February 10, 1941, Edith arranged for him to receive not only the head, but a congratulatory telegram from Carl Milles and his wife Olga.
Finally, we should say a few words about Milles himself. Carl Milles was born in 1875 at at Orby Gard Lagga in Knivsta, Sweden. He became a prominent sculptor in Sweden during the 1920s, and in 1931 he was invited to be an artist-in-residence at the Cranbrook Foundation in Michigan. from 1931 to 1951, he worked as head of the Department of Sculpture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. While living in the U.S., he had many exhibitions across the country and sculpted many commissions for European cities, including the Orpheus fountain. In 1945, he and Olga became United States citizens. After he retired from Cranbrook in 1952, he spent most of his time in Europe, at the American Academy in Rome and at Millesgården, his home in Sweden, where he died in 1955. Millesgården is now a public museum and foundation owned by the people of Sweden.
The next curator to speak was Troy Smith, newly hired Nordic Area Reference Librarian in the European Reading Room, who introduced the materials he had selected from the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division. The broadsides by Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) were a natural choice to present to SWEA, since she was one of the best educated women of her time. Broadsides were a form of cheap print, consisting of single sheets or pamphlets that could be widely distributed to serve as an early form of mass communication. Smith shared A Declaration of the Most High and Mighty Princesse, the Queen of Sweden . . . (London, 1649), in which the queen names her cousin Prince Charles (1622-1660) as her successor. In 1654, Christina shocked Europe with her abdication, leaving the throne to Charles, who adopted the name Charles X Gustav.
Next up was an important piece of Swedish Americana: Lutheri Catechismus öfwersatt på American-Virginiske språket (Stockholm, 1696). This title is Johan Campanius Holm’s (1601-1683) translation of Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) catechism into the Delaware (Lenape) language, with an accompanying Swedish text. Holm had the aim of converting the indigenous people living in what was once New Sweden, a colony on the lower Delaware river. The leather binding of the Library’s copies are stamped with the royal monogram of King Charles XI of Sweden (1655-1697), who had ordered the posthumous publication of Holm’s work.
The SWEA members also had opportunity to see the first edition of one of the masterpieces of Swedish literature, in the original Latin: Emanuel Swedenborg’s (1688-1772) De coelo et ejus mirabilibus, et de inferno, ex auditis & visis (London, 1758), usually translated as Heaven and Hell. In this work, the great mystic, philosopher and scientist claims that everything in the material world has a “correspondence” in the spiritual realm.
There was even a book owned by Thomas Jefferson on display: Reflections on the Study of Nature (London, 1785), the translation of the preface to a Latin work by the great Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (1707-1778), also known as Linnaeus. Jefferson sold his library to Congress in order to replace the collection that had burned with the Capitol in 1814. Reflections on the Study of Nature, however, was not in the original accession. Famous for having said, “I cannot live without books,” Jefferson soon began collecting again, and some of these books—including this one—found their way into the Thomas Jefferson Library Supplement at the Library of Congress.
As a celebrated Swedish novelist on both sides of the Atlantic, Fredrika Bremer (1801-1865) brought Smith’s presentation to a fitting conclusion. Bremer recorded her experiences in the United States in her memoir Hemmen i den nya verlden. Mary Howitt published her English rendering of this work as The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America (New York, 1853). One of the Library’s copies of this translation has significant provenance; it was a donation from the great suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906). Dated December 25, 1902, Anthony’s inscription to volume 1 reads in part: “This noble woman from Sweden gave her impressions of America in 1853—we have improved some since then.”
Barbara Bair, who is Curator of Literature, Culture, and the Arts from the Library’s Manuscript Division, was next to present the materials she had selected for display from Manuscript’s collections. The feminist Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) became the first woman awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, due in part to the success of her two-part epic romantic novel Jerusalem (1901-1902), which remains a popular assigned reading in Swedish schools today. The novel is a fictionalized retelling of the real-life story of Anna Spafford (née Larsson) (1842-1923), a Norwegian educated in the United States, who became the leader of the American Colony, a millennialist Christian community she co-founded in the Holy Land in 1881 with her husband, the American hymn writer Horatio Gates Spafford (1828-1888), and a small group of friends. Devout Swedes migrated from Sweden and America to join the colony in 1896, inspired by Anna’s teachings. Lagerlöf was a former teacher who had turned to writing as a career and was an advocate of women’s rights and suffrage. She traveled to Jerusalem in 1900 to meet Anna Spafford in person and hear first-hand about the epiphany Spafford experienced while surviving a tragic shipwreck at sea. Lagerlöf recounted this episode of female bravery and faith in Jerusalem and in subsequent speeches she gave to international gatherings. Lagerlöf also interviewed the Swedish members of the colony about their communal way of living.
Each year in in Nås, Dalarna, Sweden, the Ingmarsspelen folk-pageant is held to celebrate Lagerlöf’s Jerusalem and commemorate the true-life migration of ancestors from the village to the Holy City. The re-enactment recounts the story of the diaspora of Swedish faithful from Nås to the Middle East to new generations of children and multinational visitors.
During their visit to the Library of Congress, SWEA members viewed a Library copy of Jerusalem as translated to English by Velma Swanston Howard (1868-1937) in combination with select primary documents from the Manuscript Division’s American Colony in Jerusalem, John D. Whiting, and Skans Victoria Airey collections. These included a telegram, scrapbook, printed programs, and a photo album with hand-pressed dried flowers created and sold by the American Colony, which together told the story of Selma Lagerlöf, Anna Spafford, and Swedish American Colony members. More materials can be found online in the Manuscript Division’s American Colony in Jerusalem digital presentation and the G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection of the Prints and Photographs Division, and other collections.
The next curator to speak was Folklife Specialist Jennifer Cutting, from the American Folklife Center. To complement the many printed word treasures on display, she concentrated on presenting audio experiences, beginning with a performance on her button accordion of the “Jenny Lind Polka” (a nod to Sweden’s most famous singer, often called “The Swedish Nightingale”).
She summarized the many kinds of Swedish and Swedish-American materials and collections held by the American Folklife Center Archive, directing the group’s attention to AFC’s online Sweden research guide.
As examples of the kinds of documentary recordings held by the AFC Archive, Cutting played two field recordings made in 1946 by pioneering folklorist Helene Stratman-Thomas for the Wisconsin Folk Music Project, which was co-sponsored by the University of Wisconsin and the Library of Congress. The purpose of the project was to record music from the many ethnic groups living in Wisconsin, so it’s not surprising that Stratman-Thomas chose to record the Swedish community. As James P. Leary wrote in his book Folksongs of Another America, “In the post-Civil War era, rural Swedes flocked to Minneapolis and to the nearby Minnesota-Wisconsin borderland, where they dominated both sides of the St. Croix River valley, farming, logging, and contributing to the region’s persistent Swedish identity. In the 1940s, Swedes constituted more than 75 percent of the ‘foreign-born’ in northwestern Wisconsin’s Burnett and Polk counties (Holmes 1944: 240-241).
Both field recordings Cutting played for the group were recorded by Stratman-Thomas in the primarily Swedish-settled town of Grantsburg, Wisconsin in 1946, and both illustrate how the singers held on to their Swedish identity in the U.S. The first presented a 57-year-old man named Mr. A.C. Lindberg singing the Swedish national anthem. The second featured the voices of two sisters in their mid-twenties, singing in harmony: Ruth Johnson Olson and Alice Johnson Carlson, singing the Christmas carol “Julen ai inne” (Christmas Is Here).
Finally, Cutting played for the group a recording made by another pioneering woman folklorist, Sidney Robertson Cowell, who organized and directed a New Deal project for the Northern California Work Projects Administration, or WPA. The collection, most of which is online as California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell, provides a remarkable survey of living folk musical traditions found in Northern California during the late 1930s and 1940 in a very wide variety of musical styles. This project was sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley, and cosponsored by the Archive of American Folk Song (now called the American Folklife Center archive), and it was one of the earliest ethnographic field projects to document European, Slavic, Middle Eastern, and English- and Spanish-language folk music in one region of the United States.
Cowell gave some information on Selleck, whose nickname was “Young John,” in her field reports, and said even more about him in an article about collecting folk music:
Young John is 66. Old John, his father, died at 90-odd, four years ago. Young John is an excellent fiddler…, very glad to play between bottles of beer. Mr. Selleck is authentically Californian and authentically the traditional country fiddler. […] He can read notes; he learned most of his tunes from famous dance fiddlers of the period of the Gold Rush. He is also a notable performer on the 5-string banjo. His father was well known as a singer of old songs.
The Jenny Lind Polka was composed by Anton Wallerstein to honor Jenny Lind in 1846, even before she toured America in 1850. Even though the tune was composed, it has passed into the oral tradition, and is played at gatherings across all genres… American Old-Time string-band, British barn dance, Irish set dance, and, of course… on Lawrence Welk!
To end her presentation, Cutting explained that although AFC has many collections that date from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, we are also interested in contemporary expressive culture, and one of the ways we both preserve and present that is by engaging the best traditional musicians and dancers and storytellers and other tradition bearers for our Homegrown concert series. To bookend the 1946 field recording of the Johnson sisters singing in harmony, Cutting played an excerpt of a concert video from contemporary Swedish women’s group Kongero singing “Hulda Flicka,” which the group jokingly refers to as “one of the very rare happy love songs from the Swedish tradition.” AFC presented Kongero in a virtual concert in April of last year. The concert video, along with an interview by Steve Winick and information about the group, is in the blog post at this link. “Hulda Flicka” occurs at 04:52 of the concert video.
Cutting directed the group to other videos of Swedish culture that AFC has presented online, including:
- A concert by singer Emma Björling with guitarist Petrus Johansson
- A tour of Swedish fiddle styles with American fiddlers Andrea Hoag & Loretta Kelley
- A lecture by Swedish architect and folklorist Mats Widbom on how the parstuga, or double house, has been used and reimagined in Dalecarlia, Northern Sweden.
After the visit, Viveca Stahl Kazarian wrote: “Thank you for your passion for what you do, your diligence, and keen interest in making all of our Swedish history so alive in sharing our oral traditions – an important addition to the written word.” Lisa Otterström wrote: “We were mesmerized by all the Swedish gems we were treated to in the fabulous Rosenwald Room.”
But the real testimony to the power of all three presentations was that, immediately following, about ten of the SWEA DC members went straight to the Reader ID station to get their LC Reader Cards, which bodes well for their returning to enjoy Swedish and Swedish American treasures in all of the Library’s reading rooms and collections.