Lena Larsson was a Swedish ballad singer and transmitter of tradition, noted for her extensive repertoire of folksongs. With Svea Jansson from the Åbo archipelago and Ulrika Lindholm from Raukasjö in the province of Jämtland, she stands forth as one of three greatest Swedish female singers of popular ballads and folksongs.
Karolina (Lena) Larsson was born in 1882 in Ytterby outside Kungälv. Her parents were Karl August Karlsson and his wife Kristina. They were small-scale farmers who also earned their living by fishing. Since Lena Larsson was the eldest daughter, she had to help with her younger siblings and work on the farm. Her schooling suffered thereby and she herself described it as “uneven”. In 1935, at the age of 53, she married the small-scale farmer Gustaf Larsson, and her new home was at Gullö, on the other bank of the Nordre River. After having been widowed in 1956, she ran the farm until her death. She had no children of her own, but when one of her sisters died young, she took on her children as her own.
In Lena Larsson’s childhood and youth, singing was a natural part of her growing up and her daily life. People sang at work and when they met in their spare time. Lena Larsson had five maternal aunts and five maternal uncles, all born in the mid-1800s, who all sang. Her younger brother Anders Karlsson wrote down a number of her song lyrics and sent them to a folksong competition organised by Swedish Radio in 1948–1949, and to the west Swedish folklore archive in Gothenburg. In that way, Swedish Radio came in contact with the siblings and was able to record Lena Larsson’s ballads for the first time in 1957. This resulted in several more recordings and many performances on the radio, on gramophone and in concerts.
It was Matts Arnberg – partly in cooperation with Ulf Peder Olrog – who was responsible for the radio recordings and who founded what was to become the Swedish Radio’s folk music collection. Lena Larsson recorded 250 ballads for Swedish Radio all in all, divided into the following song categories: 66 popular love songs, 39 literary songs, 25 seaman’s songs, 20 small songs, 15 ballads, 15 humorous songs, 10 song- and dance games as well a lesser number of soldier’s songs, apprentices’ songs, historical songs, emigrant songs, nature songs, temperance songs, satirical songs, drinking songs and revue numbers.
Matts Arnberg described her as follows: ”She had a lively intellect, a fine sense of humour and irresistible charm. When she tells a story, she does it animatedly and captivatingly, but extremely modestly and quietly. In her songs she is kind of reflective and self-possessed, but she sings them with a forceful and intense alto voice, and her performance is filled to the brim with empathy and authority.”
In a list over broadside ballads sent out in 1959, Lena Larsson marked a further 75 songs that she remembered. The broadside ballads of the 1800s constituted thus the greater part of her repertoire and this was completely natural since these were the most popular songs, that were modern in her youth around the turn of the century. She also knew many school songs and patriotic songs. She lived in a strict Christian environment, and the clergyman and hymnwriter Johan Olof Wallin’s poetry had great significance for her during her whole life.
In 1967, during a folk music concert in the Gothenburg concert hall, Lena Larsson suffered a heart attack and died on the stage.