Svea Jansson was one of the most acclaimed folk singers and bearers of tradition in the Nordic countries in the 1960s and 1970s. She became a role model for the academically schooled folk musicians in later decades in Sweden and Finland.
Svea Kristina Jansson was born on the island of Nötö in the south-western Finnish archipelago in 1904. She was the daughter of Ida Sofia Gustava Jansson and Abel Konstantin Jansson, captain of a small cargo ship. Her father sailed with timber to Stockholm. Svea Jansson was the fourth child of nine in the family.
During Svea Jansson’s childhood, Nötö was a lively island community with almost three hundred inhabitants. Seven state farms stood in the centre of the village, with smallholdings spread out on the outskirts, on hilltops and along inlets. When Svea Jansson was four years old, her maternal grandparents offered to take charge of her. They lived in Österäng on the edge of the village. Her maternal grandmother, Eva Gustava Jansson, born in 1842, was well known in the village as a good singer. She had a strong alto that carried a long way over water when she came rowing in from the fishing grounds or sailing across the bays. It was at her maternal grandparents’ home that Svea Jansson and research met up, at midsummer in 1923. The Swedish literary fellowship’s scholarship-holder Greta Dahlström, a voice teacher, was busy noting down folksongs in the Åbo archipelago. On what was only her second day on Nötö, she was sent to the Janssons’ home and in her diary she wrote:
“Now I’ve found the right people: the Janssons in Österäng! The inhabitants of this croft are grandfather, grandmother and Svea. Grandfather does not know many songs, but he is friendliness itself and with his superiority of age and sex he calls me ‘thou’. Grandmother is 82 years old, tall and thin with lovely marked features, certainly a beauty in her day. She is fit and cheerful and her repertoire is particularly extensive, covering all kinds of songs: ballads, sea shanties, love songs, humorous songs, and one or other dance melody. […] Here Svea, who has been familiar with the whole song repertoire since her childhood, is an invaluable help. She is musical and has a brilliant memory and seems to be very interested in this task (i.e. helping me). A lively, alert girl, eighteen years old, deft and vigorous, eyes everywhere, her wise little nose in the air, and over her figure still a certain childish angularity. I feel infinitely at home in their little cottage.”
Svea Jansson’s contact with folk music researchers was to a great degree to influence her life in the future. The first contact in the summer of 1923 had already given her a new view of the songs, that they were of special value. Svea Jansson had already acquired great piles of books with songs and other verse that she had copied. Greta Dahlström also encouraged her to create melodies to the texts and to write her own songs. Her song to the sea: ”Min sång till havet”, that she wrote as early as 1924, became very popular when she herself on several occasions performed it. All this meant that Svea Jansson started to dream about becoming a singer. However her plans had to be abandoned since there were quite simply no economic possibilities.
In 1919, the young people on Nötö and other islands close by formed a youth association, De Unga i Havsbandet. The membership register shows that Svea Jansson became a member in 1920. She immediately became active in the association’s choir. In 1926–1929, the association’s activities stopped. For Svea Jansson, this meant the end of her youth, for other reasons too. In 1926, at the age of 21, she had her first son, Olof Klas, and in 1934 her second son, Stig Gerhard was born.
Her hopes of becoming a singer were ignited anew in 1939. Svea Jansson was then working as a housekeeper at Södergård on the island of Brunskär. Greta Dahlström asked her to come to Åbo, where she recorded about twenty songs on lacquer records. The records were played on the radio and for the first time she was paid for her singing. Via the radio, the reputation then spread about the unique singer from Nötö. And Svea Jansson hoped for a continuation. “But then the war started and that was the end of everything again”, she stated later, resignedly.
After her stay at Brunskär, Svea Jansson moved to Jomala on the island of Åland, where she entered into service in a country household. She would probably have continued to live as an obscure folksinger in her rural environment if the Swedish Radio (Sveriges Radio) had not sought her out in 1957 in the hope of being able to collect medieval ballads. The radio company had started an extensive recording project at the end of the 1950s in which the Swedish medieval ballad was the central focus.
Svea Jansson’s first meeting with Sveriges Radio took place in the Sibelius Museum in Åbo during two days in November 1957. She then sang 38 songs, of which 19 were medieval ballads. As a bearer of tradition, Svea Jansson was at that point utterly unique. She had for more than thirty years collected old songs. She had a good singing voice, sang with power and gladness and was totally set to act as a singer. For Svea Jansson, the contact with Sveriges Radio was a turning point in her life.
On Boxing Day in 1958, Svea Jansson sang on Sveriges Radio. Programme leader Matts Arnberg presented the newly discovered folksinger and her background. The magazine Röster i radio TV drew attention to her in its Christmas number. That first programme was followed by several more. People on Åland also became aware that they had an important folksinger on their island and Svea Jansson was invited to perform at parties and meetings of various kinds.
As a consequence of the contacts with Matts Arnberg and Ulf Peder Olrog at the Swedish song archives (Svenskt visarkiv) in Stockholm, Svea Jansson moved to Sweden in 1959. She was employed as a home help and children’s nanny in Ulf Peder Olrog’s family and she settled in Rönninge outside Stockholm. In this move, she saw an opportunity to devote herself to singing.
Supported and encouraged by Arnberg and Olrog, Svea Jansson developed a profile as a divinely gifted folksinger. Her great break-through came in 1962, when Sveriges Radio published Den medeltida balladen, in which Svea Jansson alone was responsible for singing the songs recorded on one of the four LPs that make up the album. All at once she became the most famous folksinger in Sweden. Her songs were played on the radio, she was interviewed on the radio and on TV and she was asked to sing her songs at concerts, charity events, student meetings and research congresses.
Svea Jansson adapted well to her new life. She participated in Rikskonserter’s touring activities and she gave interviews that were published in newspapers and magazines. She said that she probably knew a thousand songs and that she had never been nervous about performing. “One is impressed not only by her good memory but also by how she – consciously or unconsciously – has adopted the style of singing of the olden days, the phrasing and other aspects that belong to that way of singing. In other words, Svea is not only a bearer of tradition, she is an artist”, wrote Jan Winter in the major national newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in June 1979. In Finland, people followed with interest Svea Jansson’s successes in Sweden: “Nötö-Svea given roses in Sweden” was one heading in the newspaper Åbo Underrättelser.
In 1964, the same year that Svea Jansson had her sixtieth birthday, she was awarded the Nordiska Museum’s Arthur Hazelius silver medal for her contributions as a preserver of tradition. That particular year may be seen as a peak in Svea Jansson’s singing career. She participated in among other things a great concert in the ABF building in Stockholm with the American folksinger Tom Paley, the Scot Archie Fisher and also Salmo Sahlin from the Swedish province of Jämtland. The following year, 1965, Svea Jansson left Stockholm. She was then 61 years old. Perhaps she realised that her powers would one day fail her. She went into service again as a housekeeper in Västergötland. The following year she gained her Swedish citizenship. As a folksinger, she still drew attention to herself. In 1978, Svenskt visarkiv in cooperation with Sveriges Radio and Rikskonserter issued the LP record Svea Jansson sjunger visor från Åbolands skärgård that used recordings of her made by Matts Arnberg at Sverige Radio in 1957–1961.
Svea Jansson had an impressively large repertoire consisting of 1,000–1,200 songs of all kinds from medieval ballads to modern hit songs. Researchers never ceased to be amazed at the enormity and variety of her repertoire, and her great receptivity well on into her old age. Even in the last year of her life, she learned new songs. Her repertoire embraced a folksong tradition that was at least 200 years old. No type of folksong was foreign to her. She sang singing games, children’s songs, love songs, sea shanties, medieval ballads, hymns and spiritual songs all with the same depth of feeling. Her powerful voice and spontaneity made her a favourite with researchers and audiences alike. Since her singing was so thoroughly documented, the archives contain an abundance of materials from which to choose, not only when it comes to folksongs for other solo artists’ or folk music groups’ repertoires, but also for scientific research on old folksong traditions and on a unique singing career.
Svea Jansson died at Kärnsjukhuset in Skövde (now Skaraborgs sjukhus Skövde) on 1 December 1980. On Finland’s Independence Day on 6 December 1980, she would have been awarded the medal Pro Finlandia for her contributions. Her last year of life was spent at a home for the elderly in Västergötland. She was seriously ill and sat in a wheelchair. When she died, she was destitute and she was buried at the expense of the municipality. The urn with her ashes was transported to Nötö. The grave is marked today by a memorial stone, a tribute from folk music researchers in Sweden and Finland.