Skansen’s hill is alive with the sound of music

There is nothing more quintessentially Swedish than the nation's love of singing, and nothing symbolizes this love more perfectly than Allsång på Skansen, the summer song fest that has run since 1935. Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius explains.

Swedes love among other things: Swedish summer, long-standing traditions and community singing. Shake up those three ingredients and the cocktail you pour out is “Allsång på Skansen”, a most beloved Swedish summer tradition.

Sweden is a nation filled with people who love to sing, but not just in the shower. Swedes sing to greet people on their birthdays, they prepare song booklets for weddings and big parties, and they have songs to toast with aquavit at crayfish parties and fermented herring events.

It’s estimated that between 600,000 and 700,000 Swedes sing weekly in choirs. And yet that fondness of community singing has not transformed into the world-wide karaoke trend.

High on Skansen’s hill, ten to fifteen thousand voices belt out Swedish favorites each Tuesday evening during Sweden’s short summer season. The prime spots are claimed early for the evening show. Come sun, rain, hell or high water, loyal fans cluster in front of the Solliden stage. Allsång (all song), as it’s popularly called, won’t skip a beat.

The sing-along is led by a variety of famous Swedish musical artists from all walks of the musical genre. The Swedish public broadcast channel, Sverige Television (SVT) has broadcast the show live since 1979 into the living room of now nearly 2 million viewers. Many of them are friends and families receiving text messages from the audience to spot a glimpse of them –virtually interactive TV.

Allsång’s closest equivalent is the BBC’s The Good Old Days which had an admirable 30- year run between 1953 and 1983. Allsång is currently enjoying its 71st season at Skansen and there are no signs of waning interest.

Allsång på Skansen for some Swedes is an annual pilgrimage. For others it’s the “must do” of a Stockholm summer visit. Skansen’s Managing Director, John Brattmehr, explains, “If you happen to be in Stockholm on a Tuesday–you go to Skansen for Allsång.”

What is this Swedish community phenomenon that attracts nearly one-fourth of Sweden’s population to tune in faithfully those 6-8 Tuesdays each summer? “It’s a combination of many factors. People like to sing. People like to see themselves on TV” says Gunilla Nilars the programme’s producer at SVT. “Allsång at Skansen has cult status.”

Kerstin Ärlemalm-Ollen, a self-proclaimed devotee of Allsång, explains, “[Allsång] is nostalgia, it’s something I’ve watched since I was a child and it just belongs to Swedish summer.” Kerstin, mother of three, admits embarrassingly she has never seen it live. She chuckled when she elaborated why she is so fond of the show, “I know it sounds nerdy, but you can sing in front of the TV and the whole family can do it together.”

And families have been doing for generations. The long-running sing-along show was an instant success at Skansen in May, 1935 when the audience was invited to sing along with its musical director, Sven Lilja. The word “Allsång” was coined in 1938 to provide a Swedish designation to the English term, “community singing,” the only available contemporary name at the time.

The songs on the programme from the early years were a variety of popular melodies. The ritual of a standing programme eventually died with Sven Lilja in 1951. Post-war tastes had changed and the song selection did too. But tradition dies hard. While the songs became more popular, they have remained classically Swedish.

A few years ago the producers realized that to keep the show a pop icon it needed to capture the hearts of the younger Swedish generation. Their plan to include today’s pop and rock stars like Håkan Hellström and Anders Jonsson as featured artists has been a smash.

Many of the songs on the current programme might be something granny and grampy would hum, but hardly spun on pop radio. While these songs might be oldies anywhere else or at any other time, if you’re singing them at Allsång på Skansen, you’re in high fashion.

Gunilla Nilars at SVT wonders when the 71-year old show will fade into performance history, “Is this the year when [Allsång] will become passé?” It seems like it won’t be any time soon. Kerstin Ärlemalm-Ollen sums it up best, “It is quintessentially Swedish.”

Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius