Just in time for an old-fashioned Christmas — a very old-fashioned Christmas — comes the Nordic-American Psalmodikon Quartet and its new recording: “Psalmodikons Return to the Old Country Church.”
All together now:
If you came out of a small, rural Lutheran church with Scandinavian roots, you might know the psalmodikon, a simple, single-stringed instrument that was the primary source of music in the state church of Norway and in those conservative little immigrant churches that sprouted on the American prairie in the mid- to late-19th century.
Floyd Foslien, 69, of Hudson, Wis., makes psalmodikons and plays a hand-crafted bass in the quartet.
“The state church in Norway wouldn’t allow the use of violins in church because that instrument was used for dances,” he said. “Also, the small, rural churches in Norway and Sweden didn’t have organs or pianos, so they used this instrument, which is easy to make and use, to teach people to sing hymns in church.”
Quartet recorded 17 pieces
The quartet, with members playing alto, soprano, bass and tenor psalmodikons, recently recorded 17 hymns and traditional Scandinavian numbers at Singsaas Lutheran Church outside Hendricks, Minn., on the South Dakota border. For more than 130 years, immigrants and their descendants have gathered there at Christmas to sing “Jeg Er Saa Glad Hver Julekveld” — or, “I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve.”
A typical rural Norwegian Lutheran church, tall-steepled and glistening white within a sheltering windbreak of evergreens, Singsaas has watched as other rural congregations withered and went way. Its own numbers have declined steadily in recent decades as rural society changed.
“Maybe there were too many (of the old churches) to keep,” Trygvie Trooien, the congregation president, told me last year when I visited Singsaas just before Christmas.
“A lot has come and gone,” he said, standing not far from the graves of his Norwegian immigrant great-grandparents. “But we’re proud of our little place here.”
‘Christmas in the Old Country Church’
With a prod from one of Singsaas’ younger and digital-savvy members, Jay Nelson, 37, the little congregation put its faith and pride into song last year — gathering the children and adults of the area to record an album of traditional music: “Christmas in the Old Country Church.” They sold thousands of copies, with profits earmarked for mission work and for projects to sustain the old church.
The choirs were assembled again this year to accompany the psalmodikon players for the new compact disc, on such standards as “Faith of Our Fathers” and the immigrant favorite, “Hils Fra Meg Der Hjemme” (“Greet Those at Home for Me”).
“When we play ‘Hils Dem,’ there’s usually some old Norwegian or Swede who gets tears in his eyes,” Foslien said. “It’s my favorite, too.”
He grew up “in a Norwegian Lutheran church environment” outside Alexandria, Minn., he said, and by that he meant square-jawed stern. “The music at West Moe Lutheran Church was not exactly what you’d call joyful,” he said. “It was more restrained. That’s how I saw it as a kid, anyway.”
Most of the 19th-century, old-country psalmodikons were simple instruments fashioned from pine, including one that was brought to America in 1860 by Foslien’s great-grandmother. “It’s a little hard to keep in tune,” he said, “but I still play it.”
A hauntingly rustic sound
The instrument, bowed or plucked as it lies flat, produces a hauntingly rustic, cello-like tone that approaches sweetness on such hymns as “Beautiful Savior” and “Softly and Tenderly” — and joy with children singing along on “Jesus Loves Me.”
Foslien has built dozens of psalmodikons, using cherry wood, black walnut or oak for the base of the long, hollow box, good-vibrations spruce for the tops and hard maple for the fret boards, which are marked with a simple mathematical key called sifferskrift to make the instrument easy to play even for someone who has no musical training.
The bass Foslien plays in the quartet was made with red pine cut from centuries-old sunken logs salvaged from a bay in Lake Superior.
Copies of the psalmodikon CD ($15) and other discs produced by Singsaas Music Ministries are available online or by writing to P.O. Box 87, Hendricks MN 56136.
“It is the sound of tradition,” Foslien said. “When I play it, I think of all the people who have gone on. And I think my great-grandmother would be happy to know that the instrument is still being used — and that people are listening to it in our churches.”