by Rita Leydon ©2000

There’s a lot of stuff out there that we have no control over—other people’s passions, for instance. I bounce merrily along pursuing my own passions with fervor and scattering seeds all around me as I go. Every now and then I glance back to see if anything takes root. Mostly not. However, every now and then you come across a Nancy.

Last year I worked like a woman possessed trying to get Sweden’s best (my opinion) nyckelharpa player, Peter Hedlund, to these American shores for a bit of musical inspiration in the I-wish-I-could-play-like-that department. He came and was the star attraction of the 1999 American Nyckelharpa Association’s Bi-Coastal Stämmas (workshops). Between the coasts he was Mr. Johnny Appleseed himself. After one of Peter’s concerts here at home, a round eyed and paint spattered Nancy approached—been painting radiators all day—full of questions and shooting enthusiasms like a fourth of July sparkler.

“This is my instrument!” gushed Nancy. “I mean, I’ve searched my whole life for this instrument but didn’t know what it was. I love the sound of it! How can I get one? Where can I learn? Tell me. Tell me.” She came on like a big bright yellow bulldozer. Amused, we pressed our phone number into her palm and said, “We’ll be home in three weeks.” Out of sight, out of mind.

Three weeks, to the day, the phone rang. “Hi, this is Nancy.” She only lived a mile or so from us. “Come on Sunday morning at nine,” we said. Sunday morning at nine, Nancy was at the door. After preliminaries, we introduced her to our extra nyckelharpa which mostly hangs out on the wall. The harpa was delirious with anticipation at being stroked and caressed by a beautiful and passionate young lady.

For the next two months, Sunday mornings were reserved for Nancy. She learned fast. It was almost scary. She embraced the concept of double stops immediately. Straight melody is all I can personally handle so far. She intuitively found the keys while staring off into space. Her bow hand was gorgeous. She loved the Swedish music. She was a violin teacher who’d pulled horse hair across taut strings since childhood. Nancy was light years ahead of where Chris and I started a few years ago, musically speaking. Way out of our league by the third or fourth Sunday. It was wonderful.

In early January, Nancy said, “You’ve been lending me this harpa for a long time, I think maybe it’s time I get my own.”

Chris and I looked at each other. “Well, you get nyckelharpas in Sweden.”

“OK,” said Nancy.

That Tuesday, the nice folks at Iceland Air sent me my weekly “lucky fares” e-mail bulletin. Only $250 round trip to Stockholm. Wednesday night I whispered this number into Nancy’s ear at her regular Irish jam in Mitchell’s Pub. She looked soberly at me without missing a beat. I nodded. On Sunday, Nancy said she was ready and asked if I’d go with her. I had already done my homework, meaning I had called harpa maker, Tage Larsson in Sweden and asked if he had a selection to choose from. He did. Chris’ own harpa is by Tage, and he’s very fond of it. My harpa is by Sören Åhker and we knew he had a long waiting list. I communicated to Peter Hedlund that we were on our way. Nyckelharpa or bust!

The world’s smallest car awaited us at Arlanda airport, a cheerful little round purple marble on studded winter wheels, chomping at the bit and ready for action. Five hours later we were hugged, fed and installed in the cozy guest quarters of Lassegården—the farm where my mother grew up and where I spent my childhood summers. We were now within striking distance of Tage Larsson in Skövde, Västergötland.

The next day, after catching up on sleep and eating a big celebratory midday meal of tender moose roast and wild mushrooms we knocked on Tage and his wife Siv’s door. After hellos, hugs and how-are-yous we got right to work. Nancy listened objectively and searched for the soul of each instrument. She was all keyed up and had all those hot crowns sizzling in her pockets. Focusing was a challenge. She needed my cool-as-a-cucumber support and linguistic savvy (there isn’t a lot of practical similarity between spoken dialect Swedish and English). After coffee and Siv’s delectable cakes Nancy said she needed private time with the five candidates. Of course. An hour later, she had selected “Victoria.” The name is after a neighbor whose spruce tree the harpa was made from. It is also the name of Sweden’s Crown Princess. With a big smile on her face, Nancy counted out the exact sum of freshly exchanged crowns required for transfer of ownership. Mission accomplished! Nancy couldn’t quite believe she was in Sweden, her very own nyckelharpa in hand. Neither could I. We pinched ourselves and said goodbye to Tage and Siv.

It was very, very cold. Not much snow. Just verrrrrry cold. Our next objective was Peter in Hälsingland—a two day drive north. Luckily I have nice warm relatives in Stockholm who are happy to see me every now and then. After hugs hello and hot chocolate, we slept snugly enveloped within the warmth and security of my childhood memories. My father was born in this house. In the morning we continued driving.

A bundled up Peter stood by the road waiting for us, breathing vapors under his American cowboy hat, a nice smile on his face. We called from Bollnäs so he knew when to expect us. The hat was a nice touch. I was with Peter in Missouri when he bartered the hat for a couple of tunes and his CD in a western wear store, while I had to pay hard cash for my new boots. The Hedlund home is a classic Hälsingland farmstead, two story wooden house attached at right angle to the barn. For three days we were part of the family which consists of wife Karin and sons Jonas (6) and Mattias (10).

Peter took time to be our gracious tour guide. Through Järvsö where Chris and I had danced in the hambo competition twice. To Delsbo to see where the famous stämma is held every summer. To Iste to meet Gösta, his friend and neighborhood baker. To Ilsbo to meet Sören Åhker, our (Peter’s and my) harpa maker. It felt like a pilgrimage. I couldn’t resist the urge to throw my arms around Sören on the spot. He survived and Nancy got the moment on film. After pivoting and gawking in the basement workshop we were treated to some great jamming by Peter and Sören. It’s hard to convey how special this was. Imagine being with (arguably) the world’s most esteemed musician on the nyckelharpa and one of the world’s finest builders of the instrument simultaneously. Humbling. Truly humbling. In reality they are both just plain nice folks wanting to welcome and please us. The warmth of their welcome contrasted sharply with the utter merciless cold outside. Miles of deep, dark pine forest in all directions, spelled by frozen lakes and occasional open white stretches. Long shadows. At high noon the sun was maybe just over the tree tops and longing to sink back below the horizon. Dusk lasts forever.

Peter asks me the favor of hand carrying a Hasse Gille harpa which he has sold to a woman in Minneapolis. “Certainly,” I said, and promptly adopted it as my own. It was the ox eye variety and we communed happily for hours. I got attached. Then I had a religious experience. I was playing Peter’s harpa with my own bow. (I didn’t bring a harpa, just a bow.) “Here, try my bow,” said Peter. Smaller and lighter, it was a cut down violin bow. WOW!! I couldn’t believe the pleasure I felt. Bordering on sinful. I was almost embarrassed. I went to bed stunned and babbling about the bow.

Peter shared home videos of Eric Sahlström playing solo and with an assortment of folks. He shared his albums filled with thirty years worth of news clippings. He was always just as adorable as he is now (in case anyone was wondering). He dug out his old (made when he was seventeen) Swedish costume. Dark blue with lots of shiny buttons and a tiny red vest with high collar. Karin, Nancy and I giggled irresistibly when he modeled the vest and jacket which he’d grown too big for. Arms sticking straight out like sausages in the too tight and too short sleeves, endearingly stressed at the shoulders. Requesting he model the pants too, Peter firmly declined. “I guess I’ll save this for the boys,” he mumbled and retreated. Three women giggling in the kitchen can be tough on a guy.

Karin is no slouch either—a riksspelman on the fiddle in her own right—they treated us to a kitchen concert like no other, at the end of which Peter indulged my request for a recording of him playing Spelmansglädje s-l-o-w-l-y, so I can play along as I learn.

“Tack så mycket.”

“Var så god.”

Reluctantly, we packed into our purple marble and bid adieu to the Hedlunds. Time to move along. In Viksta, north of Uppsala we stopped in and said hello to Leif Alpsjö for a few hours. He was just back from a wonderful trip to “the Gambia” and had lots to share. Decked out in ivory and brown patterned African “pajamas” he entertained us and fed us. Nancy wandered around thunderstruck by all the harpas and violins hanging in all nooks and crannies. Leif’s is a warm, hospitable house. I did the dishes while Leif spent some quality time with Nancy. She loved it when he played the violin for her with his big red mittens on. We pressed on and got to Stockholm before dark.

On our last day we went with Per-Ulf Allmo (Tongång records) to the Kallhäll Stämma just outside Stockholm. Four floors of music, fiddles, nyckelharpas, accordions and miscellaneous others. Lena and Ingvar Jörpeland. Kurt Tallroth. The group Frifot. A whole lot of folks I’d met at Ekebyholm. Dancers I’d met both in Sweden and in the US. We joined in the busk spel (of course). I had the Hasse Gille harpa and Nancy had Victoria. Nancy’s smile was wider than the Mississippi.

The day after we arrived back home a massive snow storm shut down the neighborhood. The next day, Nancy popped over to collect a few things she had in my suitcase. “Let me show you what I worked on yesterday.” She proceeded to play a rudimentary version of Hardrevet on my harpa. On a scale of one to ten in difficulty, it’s maybe an eight. Another week and she’ll have it down pat. Sickening.

Remember the story of Jack and the Bean Stalk? Remember the bean? Just get out of the way and watch it grow. That’s Nancy!

Published in Nyckel Notes, February 2000, Number 18