Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Blood, Tears and Betrayal: The Shilling Sheet Genre

The Lion's Bride, referenced below (source: Vintage Printables)
In the 19th century, song sheets could be bought most everywhere in Sweden. Mostly they contained only lyrics and reference to an already well-known or traditional melody and cost one or two Swedish shillings ("skilling" in Swedish, pronounced very close to the English word "shilling"). These little booklets appeared already in the 16th century and were very common through the 18th and 19th centuries, until about 1910 when they were replaced by more modern versions of songbooks.

In principle, they could contain any sort of songs – secular, religious, folk songs or newly written – but the most popular variety were tragic stories of death and broken hearts. Hence, in Swedish, this genre of music has become known as "Shilling Sheets" and most people still know snippets of them  You might say they're part of our pop culture heritage every bit as much as ABBA or Stieg Larsson.

One of the most famous shilling sheet songs is Elvira Madigan, written in 1889 by Johan Lindström Saxon about the tragic elopement of tightrope dancer Elvira Madigan and Lieutenant Count Sixten Sparre that I have written about before on this blog. Another example of a well-known shilling sheet song is Amanda and Herman. It tells the story of  fair Amanda who is let down by the faithless Herman and seeks her death in the waves (women betrayed by faithless men is one of the most popular themes in these songs for some reason). It's been recorded many, many times and I found this lovely version uploaded to YouTube by the talented Elina Järventaus Johansson:

Quite often shilling sheet songs are translations of foreign poems or songs - like Lejonbruden (The Lion's Bride) about a lion tamer's daughter who is tragically killed by the lion she loves, which was originally written in German by Adelbert von Chamisso (it can be read in original German and English translation here and you can listen to it in Swedish on YouTube).
As adults, we tend to laugh at the unbridled sentimentality of these songs, but most children still find them hauntingly fascinating and heartbreakingly sad. During my childhood, me and my friends would beg my mother to sing them to us over and over, and we cried and cried – for some reason singing them ourselves was not the same thing at all. We didn't want control, we wanted the tragedy to sweep over us with purposeful and unrelenting force.

Why, one might debate. Personally, I think there is something about vicarious suffering that appeals to all people, and while we may think ourselves conditioned to prefer the less melodramatic forms of storytelling that our modern culture celebrates, let us not be fooled. What is the movie Titanic, really, but one long film-version of what would have made an excellent shilling sheet song?

ETA: for those who want to hear more, I made a Spotify playlist with some of the most famous ballads, including Elvira Madigan and the other ones mentioned above:


  1. I used to love it when my father sang Lejonbruden and Elvira MAdigan for me. Then we had Maritza Horn's Jämmer och elände too. I used to babysit a cousing and sing those songs for her as well- her favourite was Efter balen where the young mother goes to a ball, leaving her husband to take care of their sick child. Sh egets properly punished, of course, the child dies.

  2. Lasarettvisan was a huge favourite with the kids when I grew up. It's that whole thing about how she waits patiently without complaining and then dies and *never gets to see her parents again*. I think it was that last thing that really got to us.

    I loved sad things altogether - Astrid Lindgren's Sunnanäng is definitely written in the same vein as these songs (I think she had a soft spot for skillingtryck), and I loved that (the girl who gives her soul to the linden so it can play for the paupers and the brave Squire Nils who gives his life on the scaffold for his king)... I always played miserable thing too. My older sister caught me when I was about 4, playing with my dolls and she heard me whisper "He knew that the horse would die the next day, but there was nothing he could do" and then I sighed contentedly. Morbid little thing, I was! :)


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