Ack Värmeland, Du Sköna

At a jam session a couple of nights ago, someone called “Dear Old Stockholm.” I suggested that we play it in the unaltered form of the Swedish folk song that Stan Getz recorded in Stockholm 60 years ago.
The bass player said, “Huh?”
“It was a folk song?” said the pianist.
Many musicians and listeners are under the impression that Miles Davis wrote the song. There is also a general belief that it came equipped with the four bars that Davis inserted. The critic Bob Blumenthal has called that section “static chordal motion.” The modification may have been at Gil Evans’ suggestion when Davis recorded the piece for Blue Note in 1954. Think of the shimmering hanging chords in so many Evans orchestrations. Davis’ 1956 Columbia quintet version with John Coltrane also uses the annexed section.
I argued at the session that although the static motion (I love the self-contradiction in that term) makes for greater sophistication, it sullies the simplicity and purity that attracted Getz to the tune in the first place. So, we mentally erased the four static-motion bars in the fake book lead sheet and returned the song to its original state. I’m not sure that all of the jammers went away convinced they’ll play it that way from now on, but we had a good time with it.
Whoever put together the fake book gives writing credit to “Varmeland.” I suppose it isVarmeland 4.jpg possible that there is a Swedish composer named Varmeland, but if there is he didn’t write “Dear Old Stockholm.” The AABA melody, with its distinctive four-bar bridge, is a beloved traditional song that goes back at least as far as the early 1800s. Its name is “Ack Värmeland, Du Sköna.” Värmeland, sometimes spelled Värmland, is a province in southwest Sweden on the border with Norway. It is noted for its beauty (see the picture). Here are three versions of the song, first in its unadulterated form by the imposing singer and actress Zarah Leander (1907-1981) in a 1965 television program.

Stan Getz recorded the song for the Swedish label Metronome during his 1951 tour of Scandinavia. His rhythm section was pianist Bengt Hallberg, who created an exquisite solo; bassist Gunnar Johnson; and drummer Jack Noren. When Roost issued the record in the US, Getz renamed it “Dear Old Stockholm.” That recording is hard to find, but the track is available as an MP3 download. Getz’s treatment of the melody helped earn him the nickname “The Sound.” Getz is followed by Monica Zetterlund (1937-2005), with the brilliant accompanist Jimmy Jones on piano.

For one more interpretation among the many on record, here is the great Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling (1911-1960) in a video illustrated with scenes of Värmeland.

On the off chance that you don’t understand Swedish, here is a translation into English.

Oh Värmeland, you beautiful, you magnificent land

You crown jewel among Sweden’s provinces

And If ever I should reach the Promised Land

I would still return to my beloved Värmeland.
If one day I take me a bride from Värmeland

I know it’s something I shall never regret.

For there I want to live, there I want to die

If one day I take me a bride from Värmeland

I know it’s something I shall never regret

(translation provided by Ulrich Menzel)

Glad att lyssna på dig (Happy listening to you)

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  1. mel says

    On reading this piece, a couple of things came to mind. First, that most of our local jazz musos seemed to be convinced that Miles wrote “On Green Dolphin Street” which is a Bronislau Kaper composition; and secondly that the majority of jazz musicians perform Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low” per Miles’s own idea of how the tune should have been written.
    I suppose they reckon it’s good enough for jazz … but not in my book.

  2. Dr. Mike Baughan says

    Gorgeous Varmland scenery in the last video! Was wondering if Zarah Leander (1st video) was undergoing hormone therapy at the time. ‘The Sound’ – so appropriate for Getz.

  3. says

    My favorite version comes from the Phil Woods album, “Phil Talks With Quill”. Phil and Gene Quill sound great on it. I liked it so much that I transcribed Phil’s solo and then wrote a big band arrangement featuring the sax section playing a harmonized version of the solo (a la Supersax).

  4. Bruce Armstrong says

    Doug, thanks for the “Dear Old Stockholm” history lesson. I finally feel vindicated! Like you, I used to suggest at sessions that we do the song “straight” without the 4-bars and would be told that the song was written that way (!) I first became aware of “Stockholm” when I bought the Getz LP back in the late 50s. I was attracted to the simplicity and purity of the song,plus the nice changes to blow on. Frankly, I never really cared for the Miles Davis rewrite. Thanks for including the Monica Zetterlund-Jimmy Jones version. Such taste by both performers. And speaking of musical taste, pianist Bengt Hallberg always had that. His rubato intro to “Prelude to a Kiss” on that same Getz LP remains a classic in my humble opinion.

  5. Bob Blumenthal says

    I’m glad you got a kick out of my “static chordal motion” phrase. You would have found me a bit more straightforward in my notes to the Blue Note “Miles Davis Volume 1” reissue, where I simply said that “Davis added a vamp between melodic stanzas, plus a suspended ending to each chorus.”
    The subject of Davis’ revisions to “Varmeland” and other compositions has always fascinated me. In this case the change points to his later embrace of modes, as does “Swing Spring” from 1954 and, I would argue, the tag endings his ’55-6 quintet employed (which to my ears are real static chordal motion). And while I enjoy “Varmeland” as played by both Getz and Davis, I’ve always loved the vamps that Davis introduced, which sound like Ahmad Jamal’s influence avant le lettre, if you’ll pardon my French.
    As for “When Lights are Low,” which Davis basically reshapes in the manner of “What’s New?” (his substitute bridge is the A strain in a different key), I’ve always thought Davis’ version was much hipper and have long wanted to write a piece defending my position (the circumstance has never arisen – perhaps I need a blog of my own). I know that Benny Carter didn’t agree on that point, or on modal music generally. I once saw Clark Terry ask Benny if he liked playing on modes, and Benny could not have shaken his head more vigorously.
    (Carter’s “When Lights Are Low” bridge, beautiful and complex, moves through three key changes in its eight bars. I once discussed Davis’s simplified version with Marian McPartland. She said, “Oh, how could he do that to Benny’s tune.” If Bob Blumenthal creates a blog, I will be an avid reader.—DR)

  6. O'Sullivan, "Red" says

    On “When Lights Are Low”: I couldn’t agree less with Mr. Blumenthal – that bridge is a masterpiece, a MASTERPIECE, and Miles perpetrated a dreadful thing with it (and I know Mr. Carter was troubled greatly by it – even Oscar Peterson recorded the lascerated version). I’ll even admit to being bewildered by Mr. Blumenthal’s thought… (but not by the fact that, of course, the Miles Quintet simply sounds wonderful while playing what they’re playing when they’re playing it). I’ve never ever heard anyone try to defend that Miles take on “When Lights Are Low”… It strikes me as utterly bizarre that Bob Blumenthal could come up with a defence for this (quite apart from the fact that there’s nothing “modal” about what Miles did here – that is, if Mr. Blumenthal is suggesting that too, with his reference to Carter’s reaction).
    Oh, btw, here’s another of Miles’ appropriations (this time generally less well known or discussed): “Solar” was really written by Chuck Wayne (and I believe he was good and sore about it too).

  7. says

    Davis, that varmelant, was always misappropriating inappropriately due to an immodal condition eventually known as miles priapes, which was experienced by an unlucky few–Carter, Wayne, Evans, the good folk of Sweden, other sidemen–as a prickling in the creative cortex and curled fingers, and cured only by large doses of press coveraage. Some of his later victims understood that if you can’t beat him, you might as well join him and at least get the Jazz street cred.

  8. Bob Blumenthal says

    Doug has invited me to comment on Red O’Sullivan’s reply. If I may allude to Ed Leimbacher as well, and at the risk of offending both gentlemen and others I know and respect, including Marian McParland and our host:
    Miles Davis did indeed take credit where not due. We all know that Cleanhead Vinson and not Davis wrote “Four” and “Tune Up,” and while we thought that Charlie Parker appropriated credit for “Donna Lee” from Davis, I have been told that the melody is actually Tiny Kahn’s. Davis also felt no need to play others’ compositions as written. He supposedly argued with Thelonious Monk during the ride back from the 1955 Newport Festival because Davis claimed that Monk played the “wrong” changes to “Round Midnight.” Davis also told Dave Brubeck that Brubeck played the wrong changes to “In Your Own Sweet Way.” “Well, You Needn’t” is another one that Davis altered to the composer’s chagrin.
    That said, I like and actually prefer some of Davis’ alterations. The original bridge to “When Lights are Low” may be a masterpiece to Mr. O’Sullivan, but for post-bop improvisers its chordal movement sounds stodgy in comparison to the tension created by Davis’ substitute bridge, the same kind of tension heard in other compositions that use the strategy such as “What’s New?” and “Good Bait.” And while I didn’t mean to suggest that the Davis version is in any way “modal,” it does work schematically in the same way as the “I Got Rhythm” of modal music, “So What”/”Impressions.” (I should have noted that Clark Terry’s question to Carter on modes followed Carter’s noting his displeasure with the Davis version of “When Lights are Low.” This is why I don’t blog – no editors!)
    It gets down to taste, and for me (with no disrespect to Benny Carter) I’d rather hear “When Lights are Low” as recorded by the 1956 Miles Davis Quintet. But then I’d rather hear Jackie McLean play alto saxophone than Paul Desmond (sorry, Doug) or Johnny Hodges (sin of sins, I know, so save the nasty responses). Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy Desmond or Hodges.
    Sorry to be so contrary, Mr. O’Sullivan, especially to one whose nickname suggests that we share the same hair color, or at least used to before mine started going gray.
    (Allow me to simmer down the pot or, perhaps, keep it boiling with a thought about Bob’s penultimate point. No one is required to have a favorite musician. It is possible to admire equally three (or more ) artists who play the same instrument. That is why polls that put musicians in rank order have always irritated me, even though I have been guilty of participating in them. I’m trying to stop. I know first-hand that Jackie McLean admired Desmond and that no one adored Johnny Hodges more than Desmond did. Polls instituted by editors and critics decades ago have helped to encourage a mindset among listeners that musical creativity is a contest. Basketball, tennis, track, soccer and football are contests. Music is music.—DR)

  9. says

    Mr. Blumenthal’s comments concerning the bridge to Benny Carter’s 1936 classic “When Lights Are Low” seem to reflect the vacuum that music critics often inhabit. Certainly one can prefer a different version from the composer such as Benny Carter’s great big band arrangement where he modulates from F to Ab along with some altered harmonies that no one else seems to play.The original was recorded with a vocal in Eb. The bridge was a typically advanced II-V-I harmonic structure as devised a number of years ahead of the so-called “bebop revolution” and would have been difficult for Miles who surely played that arrangement with Benny Carter in 1946. His decision to simply play the ‘A’ section up a fourth was more of a copout and/or an attempt at doing something different and taking credit for it. But it was no more an attempt at ‘modality” than was the ‘A’ section. Of course, Miles did incorporate modality a number of years later when he appropriated things from Bill Evans. But to arbitrarily decide that a different and weaker bridge was better indicates a total disrespect to the accomplishment of Benny Carter in using II-Vs (and flat 5ths) early on.
    To compound matters, many other artists tended to follow Mile’s’ lead and perform “When Lights Are Low” with Miles’ bridge so there are is a lot of misinformation regarding that tune in jazz. To help re-orientate the audience, on my 1994 Enja recording “Mel Martin Plays Benny Carter”, I had Kenny Barron use the bridge as an intro played three times in different stylings, then the quartet played the song using the above mentioned format as played in the big band arrangement which I learned playing in Benny Carter’s Big Band. If Mr. Bulmenthal would like a copy, I would be happy to supply him with it and perhaps, he will begin to understand just why that bridge is so important that it was a disgrace to mutilate it by one of the leading musicians in our music who simply should have known better.

  10. O'Sullivan, "Red" says

    But, Mr. Blumenthal, the fact remains, and I think it is Mr. Martin’s point too: that bridge is very, very IMPORTANT…
    Your idea that Miles’ mutilation is “hipper” is genuinely “far out” to me, and your assertion: “for post-bop improvisers its chordal movement sounds stodgy” is poppycock (just forget that). It is, yes, a real hard sequence, though (Benny Carter was a genius).
    I can understand someone loving that record (Miles’ band sounding so great playing whatever they’re playing) but this desicion was not a “hip” one. Far from it. The whole point of that song, more than almost any else I can think of, is its miraculous bridge.
    PS.: I sure love Jackie Mac too :-)