The Seventeenth of May in Mid-Atlantic:
Ole Rynning's Emigrant Song
Translated and edited by Theodore C. Blegen and Martin B. Ruud (Volume VIII:
One of the best known names in the early history of Norwegian emigration to the United States is that of Ole Rynning. In the spring of 1887 Rynning, who was the son of a clergyman and well educated, joined a party of emigrants who crossed the Atlantic on the bark "Ægir" and made their way to Illinois, where they established the ill-fated Beaver Creek settlement. There on a sickbed in a log hut Rynning wrote his Sandfærdig Beretning om Amerika, the manuscript of which was brought to Norway in 1888 by one of his comrades, was there published, and became the most influential of the many "America books." Rynning himself never saw a copy of his published book, for in the fall of 1888 he died, a victim of the fevers that scourged the settlement, and somewhere on the Illinois prairies his body was laid in a nameless grave. Meanwhile his little book and the story of his short career have made him an historical figure, and he ranks justly among the important American immigrant leaders of the nineteenth century.
It has long been known that Rynning wrote a song that was sung by the emigrants on board the "Ægir" in mid-Atlantic on the Seventeenth of May, 1837. This song has even been described as the first venture into the realm of poetry by a Norwegian-American. It is not infrequently hazardous in historical matters to say that this or that is the first of its kind; and there may possibly be some question as to whether a Norwegian emigrant in mid-ocean can yet be
designated as a Norwegian-American. It may safely be asserted, however, that Rynning's song is one of the earliest known Norwegian emigrant songs.
It has been generally supposed hitherto that Rynning's song consisted of only two stanzas. These have often been printed in Norwegian and several times translated into English. Actually, however, the song had five stanzas, only the second and fifth of which have been known. The full text is drawn from a detailed report of the crossing of the "Ægir" published in a newspaper in Norway in 1837 and based upon an interview with Captain Behrens, who brought the ship to America. This newspaper account not only gives us the text of the song; it also enables us to picture the scene of its singing. The "Ægir" with its eighty-four passengers had sailed from Bergen on April 7, 1837. Though a tragic fate awaited these emigrants in America, the crossing was not one of those dismal experiences so common in the first half of the nineteenth century. These Norwegians in fact had a merry time on the voyage, once the first attack of seasickness had passed. "With its passing, all anxiety seemed to disappear," the newspaper tells us. "Peasants who never before had seen the ocean saw that it was calm, lost all fear of its terrors, and saw the ship sailing on toward milder regions. The fiddle was brought out, and every evening sailors and young people danced to it with lusty abandon till the captain was forced to beg them to desist, since the ball-room floor (the deck) was being seriously injured by the huge nails in the soles of the dancing slippers of the young gallants and their ladies; unless, indeed, they were willing to dance in their stocking feet."
On May 8 the "Ægir" narrowly escaped shipwreck when an English ship crashed into it broadside. "The rigging of the two ships got inextricably tangled; sails were torn to tatters; the outer planking was damaged; the seams were opened; the stern and the upper part of the ship more or
less battered. The mizzenmast was stripped clean, bolts and spikes ripped loose; in short, destruction seemed imminent.'' But the ships were cleared after a time without disaster, and the "Ægir" continued on its way, its passengers naturally much shaken by the experience. The newspaper account continues: "But despite all the terrors of this day, our people did not forget that in this month fell Norway's independence day. For the first time this the most precious of days to all Norwegians was celebrated in mid-Atlantic. The dawn of May 17 was saluted by a salvo of cannon. Everyone wore his best clothes; and, after the performance of a jolly skit, not untouched by sadness, of the land they had just left, perhaps forever, and which, therefore, quite naturally, was beginning to be more dear to them than ever; and of the hopes that smiled to them from the shore whither they were sailing, the morning passed. At noon the whole company, so far as possible, assembled at a festive banquet, at which, to the accompaniment of cannon, toasts were drunk to the day, to the fatherland and Liberty, and to our beloved king and his son." It was at this point that Ole Rynning's song, composed for the occasion, was sung. "In the evening," the newspaper continues," there was dancing; and so, amid innocent entertainment and merriment, this day, celebrated under such strange circumstances, came to an end with the last rays of the sun, as it sank into the ocean."
Original Text of Rynning's Song
[Den Bergenske Merkur, September 16, 1837]
O Brødre! Norges Frihedsdag
Nu lyser over Nordens Fjelde;
Der vaier nu trefarvet Flag,
Mens Glædeskud i Dalen smælde;
Høit toner Sang ved fulde Glas,
Og Fossen durer høit sin Bas.
Nu ligger Norges Klippeland
Saa dybt mod Nord bag salten Vove;
Men Længslen higer til den Strand,
Hvor Granens Suus i dunkle Skove
Og Bølgens Brag og Jøklers Drøn
Er Harmonie for Norges Søn.
Thi hilse vi den Dag med Lyst,
Da Løven vaagned af sin Hvile,
Og fra der brede laadne Bryst
Fremtog den tunge skarpe Bile,
Og Slaget gjennem Dalen lød,
Sore Seclers tunge Lænke brød.
Som Hayer før i Sagas Old
Tit vugget har de norske Snekker,
Saa Stormens, Bølgens fælleds Vold
Ei heller nu en Normand skrækker;
Og "Viinland Godes" fjerne Strand
End hilses tidt af norske Mand.
Men selv om Skjæbnen bød ham der ---
Som fordum Bjørn og Leif --- at tjælde,
Han vil dog stedse have kjær
Sit gamle Norges trygge Fjelde, ---
Og længes ømt med sønlig Hu
At see sit Hjem engang endnu.
Brothers, the day of Norway's freedom now shines on the mountains of the North; the tri-color waves aloft, and salutes boom in the valleys; there is song at festive board to brimming glasses; and the waterfalls sound their bass.
The cliffs of Norway lie hidden now beyond the waters; but our longings go out to those shores where the soughing of pines in ancient forests, the roar of the waves, and the thunder of glaciers are music to Norway's son.
Therefore we hail with joy the day when the Lion wakened from his slumber, drew from his shaggy breast the keen battle-ax; and the blow that broke the heavy chains of centuries sounded through the valley.
And so, as in saga days Norse ships were tossed about on the sea, even now the Norwegian fronts without fear the might of storm and wave, and hails once more the distant strand of Vinland the good.
But though Destiny should bid him pitch his tent where once Bjørn and Leif pitched theirs, he will cherish always the mountains of Norway, and yearn with pious longing to see his home once more.