Songs of the North

Posted by Grace McClure

Let me set the scene: I have never been camping before.

I take that back. I had been camping once, on the whitewater rafting trip during my Freshman Santa Fe trip with the McDermott Program. But the expert and longsuffering souls at New Mexico Rafting Company took good care of us, and made sure everybody was generally safe and comfortable.

Dabbing in Lierne

But the teachers in Norway who took 20 or so students from all over the world canoeing through the backcountry of Femusdsmarka national park for four days were intent on teaching us to live in the outdoors, in harmony with the wilderness (an ideal and life philosophy called friluftsliv – the “free air life” – that characterizes much of the Norwegian national psyche). And these teachers were adamant proponents of what we might call “experiential learning.”

Our teachers were always within shouting distance when we set up camp for the night, but for the most part we were left to fend for ourselves. Fortunately, my classmates had more camping experience than I. We became better and better at setting up our 12-person tents, finding good firewood, starting the campfire, and making ourselves dinner.

The backcountry


And at the end of the evening when we were all full, and the blankets had been brought out, and the conversation had lulled to match the glow of the embers, somebody would start singing.

Sometimes they were children’s songs; things that you can teach easily to someone who doesn’t speak your language. I learned a Norwegian kindergarten song that sounded familiar:

Lille Petter Edderkopp han klatret på min hatt.

Så begynte det å regne og Petter ned han datt.

Så kom solen og skinte på min hatt.

Da ble det liv i Petterkopp som klatret på min hatt.

Lille Petter Edderkopp

Little Peter spider, he climbed up on my hat.

It began to rain, and Peter fell off!

So came the sun, and shined down on my hat.

Then there was life in Petterkopp, who climbed back on my hat.

Some of them were old, old love songs, like this one my Czech friends taught us:

Pod tou skálou, kde proud řeky syčí

a kde ční červený kamení.

Žije ten, co mi jen srdce ničí

koho já ráda mám k zbláznění.

Under that mountain, where the current of the rives hisses

there where the red rocks are

there lives the one who is destroying my heart

because I love him so.

(I learned later that it was inspired by the American song The Red River Valley, that I heard as a child when my father and his father tucked my brothers and me in for the night.)

Found in the wilderness (don’t eat this one)

Some of them were working songs, like the haunting canon our German friends sang:

Hejo, spann den Wagen an,

Denn der Wind treibt Regen übers Land

Hol die goldnen Garben, hol die goldnen Garben.

Hey oh, hitch the Wagons up

For the wind drives the rain across the land

Gather in the golden sheaves, gather in the golden sheaves.

I brought a few songs to the circle as well; the favorite seemed to be You Are My Sunshine, a classic of the American south for generations.

You are my sunshine; my only sunshine.

You make me happy when skies are grey.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you

So please don’t take my sunshine away.

The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping

I dreamed I held you in my arms

But when I woke, dear, I was mistaken

And so I hung my head and I cried.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.

You make me happy when skies are grey.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you

So please don’t take my sunshine away.

En nye venn (a new friend)

There were many, many more hours of songs late into the night. We sang in Spanish and Slovenian, Polish and Russian, Yakut and South Saami. We even nailed a few renditions of Let It Go from Frozen (the movie is, of course, inspired by Norwegian folk tales and landscape!) But as the stars came out and performed their familiar ritual dance, and the wind skipped across the river and into the pines overhead, it seemed to me that this collection of souls around a campfire had more in common than not. Many of the songs we recognized as having counterparts in three or four languages; and even the most unique ones spoke of the same universal human experience. Adventure, history, survival, love gained and love lost. For all that these songs shaped each of our national identities, they also connected us as people. It occurred to me that people have been sitting around fires singing about the human experience since the beginning of time. And for a few hours, a campsite in the Norwegian wilderness felt a little bit less far from home.

One thought on “Songs of the North

  1. As a person who loves Norway (and is trying to learn Norwegian), this was a really fun post for me to read. I love all the songs mentioned, and after listening to them all, I think the love song your Czech friends taught you was my favorite.


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