Fin Alfred Larsen: A Life In Music
Morten Alfred Høirup brings us another Danish adventure, but this one is a little closer to home and a lot more personal. Morten talks with his father, Danish folk singer and musician Fin Alfred Larsen, about Bombardine, class consciousness and singing the right song at the right time.
Invited to write an article about my father, the folk singer, musician and music teacher Fin Alfred Larsen (born in 1939), I thought it would be fun. After the many hundreds of private parties, school concerts, dances, folk song evenings, union meetings and festivals we have played, and although we have had our differences, I realize that I have him to thank for a very large part of the musical baggage and inheritance that has taken me round the world in my career.
Fin Alfred has a huge repertoire of songs of all kinds. He plays a dozen or so instruments, but mainly accordion, mandolin and banjo. We have played in public together since I was about 16, and we still do when the occasion arises. Fortunately this is not rare, and in 2009, as Fin Alfred turns 70, he also celebrates 60 years as a singer. At age 10, Fin got a banjo from his mother, Julie Larsen, who worked as a cleaner, and who promised him a shilling when he could play and sing his first song. Marking this jubilee is the album Songs Along My Way (Sange fra min Vandring), which was released in the spring of 2009.
When I was a boy in the 60s, we lived in an old fisherman's house at the southernmost tip of the island of Lolland, south of Copenhagen. The house stood in a disused gravel pit, near woods, not far from the harbour and the dike. My father, born and bred in the heart of Copenhagen, had his workshop and study right above my room. He was working on various folk music projects when we lived on Lolland, and I have happy memories of the music he played in the evening as I falling asleep. It was a broad selection, from gypsy music and Russian male voice choirs to Swedish fiddles, Irish bagpipes, to George Brassens and Pete Seeger.
In the years that followed, Fin Alfred's music career took off. He wrote songs, published teaching materials, played Greek folk music, political folk rock, folk dance music and formed a band to play at all sorts of family parties. In recent years, he has also played dozens of concerts on the more formal folk scene, for instance he has appeared many times at the major Danish folk festival: Tønder Festival.
Morten Alfred and Fin Alfred
Passing On A Tradition
It was only relatively recently that I learned that Fin Alfred also has a vast repertoire of Copenhagen songs, work songs, courtyard songs (street musicians play and sing for people at the windows of the five-story tenements, and money is thrown down to them), sailor songs, soldier songs and broadsides. It was not until the day in 2001 when he 'ordered' me into the studio to help record what was to become the prize-winning album Work Songs and Broadsides from the Copenhagen Area (Håndværkersange og Skæmteviser fra København og omegn), - the first in a series of albums of traditional Danish songs and ballads - that I heard about characters such as Bombardine, Ragman Niels (Klunser-Niels) and Olsen from Hauser Square. Ballads such as The Tinker Song (Tatersangen) and The Roving Journeyman (Naversangen) were quite new to me. But not to my old father, and since then he has made several albums of, among others, seamen's songs and soldiers' songs. But where do all these songs come from?
"I have collected these songs from the people I lived, travelled and worked with. In the rambling clubs, with journeymen and tradespeople, like my own family, and in the stairways and closes where we sat and sang as children. Later on, the walking trips gave a lot, too. We rambled all over Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain, in fact all over Western Europe. We took the old Journeymen's Road, and there would be Schuster, Tante, Saltsyre, Cæsar and Balaika-Ole. We swapped songs as we walked, and when we met up with other wanderers at markets and fairs."
So where did he hear songs like the ones on albums like Work Songs and Broadsides from the Copenhagen Area and Songs Along My Way?
"These are the songs folk use for fun, to have a laugh at their own problems. There are horrifying stories like "That's Capitalism For You" or the song about Bombardine who has a child out of wedlock. We know they are real tales of misery but they are told in a humourous way, so we can laugh at ourselves. That's OK, but you have to show solidarity with the people you are singing with, you mustn't sing anything you can't sing from the heart. You mustn't sing down, so to speak, because that's when it becomes hollow. To say 'Now I'll sing you one of the kind of songs you like hear…' - that's no good. Then you're cheating people. But you have to take the temperature: a really fine song by Frank Jæger (the late Danish poet, ed.) can stick out like a sore thumb sung in the wrong place, but of course it can be perfect in the right place. A lot of it is in the words. I remember my mother used songs as words of life's wisdom. If she was down in the dumps, she would sing a line from a song or a hymn that suited her mood, like the line from the Fairy Storm: "... though storms lay waste to all around, fresh new shoots will soon appear...", quotations she could use whether she was happy or sad or in between."
The Tinker Song
I remember Granny bursting into tears when I was just a boy and sang her the old tear-jerker "In a Hospital Ward," all about a little girl who's very ill. I got scared. I didn't know at the time that many of Granny's friends had died of TB when she was young, and the song is from that period. But what about a song like "The Tinker Song?" Where does it fit in? Isn't it just like a cheap picture with its lines about a little outcast tinker boy that nobody wants?
"You'd do that one for folk who like sentimental verses, particularly about unrequited love, always a rich subject. The song tells of a tinker who has his songs and his music, but is unloved and unwanted, and that's precisely what almost all the films and songs of that type deal with. Dumbo, the little elephant with the big ears, in Walt Disney's film, is a good example."
"It's one of the songs I got from Nygaard Fauerskov, an artist type who was a lodger in my mother's house when I was a boy. He would sit and paint in one room and I would sit and paint or play guitar in the other room and he would shout, 'Fin, come in and hear a song!,' or he would come in and play a song for me, and ask what I thought of it. 'Should it be quicker or slower, do you think?' and we would sit and talk about the songs. I was just starting out at the singing, and I sang him loads of ramblers' songs, dirty songs and funny songs, and he came out with this one. I said, 'I'll need to write that one down,' and so I did. He'd learned 'The Tinker Song' over by Give, out on the moors, in the lignite (coal) fields where he had played as a boy. He would cycle 20 miles to play at dances and sing chorus songs. He had his drum on the carrier on the back of his bike, he covered 20 miles to earn a couple of bob and they built a barricade of old benches they played behind for protection when the fighting broke out. We know all about that, you and I. And there sat Nygaard, singing his chorus songs into a loud-hailer, and later on he told me that it doesn't matter what you sing, as long as there is a chorus to it. 'They don't listen to the verses anyway,'' he would say
Pride And Class Consciousness
But it's not all courtyard songs and broadsides. There are also the political songs, soldier songs, sailor songs, work songs and journeymen's songs that are all part of Fin Alfred's huge repertoire. Many of them he has picked up in the course of a long musical life on the Danish left wing, at union meetings and out in the branches. This not least true of the many tradesmen's songs, which will be new to many young tradespeople today. I was there, for instance, when my father learned The Smith's Song (Smedesangen) with boilermakers in Lyngby. It is powerful and very intense to hear 100 metalworkers and their wives sing the song of the Grimy Smith. All talk stops, everybody sings along. And when we get to the verse about the day when the smith swings "his final hammer blow," and all present, grown men and women, from pensioners to youngsters, lower their voices and almost whisper the first four lines, then the small hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and you feel gratitude for being here and sharing these emotions.
"Work songs and trades songs are sung where there still is pride in the labour movement. There are those who won't sing the songs, who think they are above all that, they no longer see themselves as workers. They are the ones who think that because they sit in a fine office, or work in an IT company, that they are no longer workers. But in reality all wage-earners are workers. Things have changed, we no longer go out in the lignite fields, not so much into the smithy, but you are still a wage-earner and still dependent on a boss giving orders and organising the work. The people who possess class consciousness, who are aware of their place in the hierarchy, who can say, "I sell my labour and I'm proud of what I can do, it's something they can't do," they are the ones who sing these songs. The others sometimes laugh scornfully at them, but that's just because their eyes aren't open yet. And many of the young workers are starting to search for their tradition when they begin an apprenticeship or finish their course. There is massive interest in the old trades now, the fine old furniture and other products, there's growing respect for them now. I am happy to sing these songs and I include them in the programme with the others when I am out. A feast is not just the roast - there are lots of other things served too."
Memories And Plans In The Old Man's Workshop
We're sitting out in Fin Alfred's workshop in an old house in Dragør, drinking beer and talking. The workshop is full of records and CDs, rows of old tools, old paintings, a used human skull, Nygårds lute, Fin's old balalaikas, the big drum that fits on your back, and loads of other instruments. Then there are costumes for every conceivable kind of performance, including a Santa Claus suit, and lots more.
My thoughts fly back to the many places we have performed - countless harvest homes, family celebrations, all over Sjælland, the parties with the boilermakers in Lyngby, 1st of May in Fælledparken, and we recall masses of funny and strange experiences we have had together. But these stories are not for here and now: get my father, Fin Alfred Larsen, to tell you some of them when you meet him in one of the many places he will be round to play and sing, until he is summoned to play in the great band in the sky. - Morten Alfred Høirup
Fin Alfred: www.finalfred.dk
Morten Alfred: www.mortenalfred.dk
Video about Fin Alfred: www.folkstreaming.dk
CDs by Fin Alfred: www.gofolk.dk and www.cdRoots.com
Danish Folk Music Council: www.folkmusic.dk
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