The Wandering Ballad – Song no. 11: Systrarna

The last song on our CD is Systrarna, a Scandinavian version of the ballad Binnoorie or The Cruel Sister.

The main difference between the British/U.S. and Scandinavian versions seem to be that the water where one of the sisters drowns is a river in Britain/The U.S. and the sea in Scandinavia. In Scandinavia the fiddler who finds the bones of the girl usually makes a harp, while in Britain/The U.S. it is usually a fiddle.

But the terrible crime is the same. A young woman drowns her sister out of jealousy. The sister returns from the dead to accuse her in the form of a musical instrument built from her bones. The musician breaks the instrument and the girl is resurrected.

Spelmannen tog hennes vitgula hår,

(The player took her white yellow hair)

-I sommarens tider

(- In the summer time)

lagade harposträngar därå

(Made harp strings thereof)

-Örteren sprider ut sig så vida

(-Herbs are spreading so wide)

Spelmannen tog hennes fingrar små,

(The player took her fingers so small.)

-I sommarens tider

lagade harpopinnar däråv.

(Made harp sticks thereof)

-Örteren sprider ut sig så vida

Spelmannen tog hennes tånar små,

(The player took her toes so small.)

-I sommarens tider

lagade harpoknappar däråv.

(Made harp pegs thereof.)

-Örteren sprider ut sig så vida

Första gången han på harpan klang,

(First time he on the harp clang)

-I sommarens tider

bänkarna darra och låsena sang.

(The benches where shaking and the locks sang.)

-Örteren sprider ut sig så vida

Andra slaget han på harpan slog,

(Second time he the harp hit)

-I sommarens tider

bruden och brudgummen log.

(The bride and the bridegroom smiled.)

-Örteren sprider ut sig så vida

Tredje slaget han på harpan lät,

(Third time he on the harp made sound.)

-I sommarens tider

bruden hon satt uppå bänken och grät

(The bride sat upon the bench and cried.)

-Örteren sprider ut sig så vida

Spelman slog harpan mot en sten,

(The player beat the harp against a rock)

-I sommarens tider

därav upprann en jungfru så skön.

(Thereof appeared a maiden so fair.)

-Örteren sprider ut sig så vida

As mentioned before, In my translation above I have not attempted to create a singable text. I have given a literal translation as far as is possible. The texts of the ballads are not always grammatically logical and often use words in odd ways. It is not uncommon to find words used in a slightly odd way, but looking at several variants can sometimes reveal that it is a question of a kind of distortion that can happen when you learn something by heart. It is easy to remember something slightly differently than the original. Also in material that has been handed down for so long you encounter words that have changed meaning or are no longer in use, or taken on new meanings.

The ballads were sometimes noted down from dictations which can introduce variations as well. To me these slightly unusual ways of using words actually add to the poetry and I like using them wherever possible and as long as it is still possible to understand the storyline.

The refrains are also at time interchangeable and you will find the same ballad with different refrains or the same refrain in several different ballads. Again I find this adds a certain slightly surrealistic poetry to the text.

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