"Simple Gifts," Aaron Copland, and the Swedish connection

Posted Jul 3, 2009
Last Updated Jul 4, 2009
Simple Gifts, Appalachian Spring, and 1940s jukeboxes
July 3, 2009

     The first time I heard "Simple Gifts" in its Aaron Copland form was in 1987 or so, in a classy automobile commercial — Acura, I believe.  I was flabbergasted.  "Good Lord!" I thought, "Jo'an på Snippen in a tux!"  How could that be?
     To me it was the old Swedish song widely heard in Scandinavian-American ethnic communities on jukeboxes in the 1940s.  Sometimes as a frenetic banjo arrangement titled "Banjo Schottishe," but more often as "Jo'an på Snippen," with lively, evocative lyrics dating it as early 20th century, when bonded servitude still survived in Sweden but the laws regulating it had been seriously relaxed "…å till bönnemöte går nog ingen mer."  ("…and no one goes to prayer meeting anymore.")  The tunes are the same, but the rhythm is different.  (I still have it as sheet music, purchased in Duluth in 1949, with attribution only to the arranger.)
     To test my identification, at the next meeting of the Swedish lodge, I started whistling the commercial as we trooped downstairs to lunch, and Hilda Marie said to Anna Lisa, "Why is he whistling Jo'an på Snippen?"  I took that as proof enough.
     So.  How did an 1840's Shaker melody become a popular 1940s number on Minnesota (and North Dakota and Upper Michigan etc) jukeboxes?  (I'd also heard it on a jukebox in Milltown, Montana in 1951, along with "Baltiska Valsen," and of course "Nikolina."  Yep; Swedish-American clientele.) 
     "Jo'an på Snippen" and "Banjo Schottishe" might have taken their melody from an older, unattributed Swedish folk melody brought to America in the cranium of some immigrant farmhand recruited by the Shakers.  Or some fallen-away immigrant Shaker might have carried it to the old country, where in time, very different Swedish lyrics were applied.  At any rate, Aaron Copland gave it a bath, shave, haircut, clean clothes, …and class.  Thank you, Mr. Copland.  Nicely done! 
     But truth be told, I am more fond of the lively, sweaty, farmhand lyrics of Jo'an på Snippen.  "…Jo'an han spelar t' sjortan bli våt; lägger sinn själ intill varje drägspels låt!"  "Johan he plays till his shirt is soaked, puts his soul into every accordian note."
     Don't tell anyone but I am antediluvian.

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