The Ballad of Oleana: A Verse Translation
By Theodore C. Blegen (Volume XIV: Page 117)
An interesting aspect of the Norwegian emigrant songs and ballads of the nineteenth century is the faithfulness with which they reflect special trends and episodes in the saga of emigration. They tell, for example, of the adventures of immigrants who sought fortunes in the gold mines of the West, of the reactions of participants in Norway's labor movement of the 1850's, and the story of the paternalistic colony established by the violinist, Ole Bull, in Pennsylvania.
The idealistic Ole Bull stunned his countrymen when in 1852 he bought, or thought he bought, 120,000 acres of land in Potter County, Pennsylvania; projected the colony of New Norway, centered about the town of Oleana; invited settlers; and busied himself with a dozen magnificent schemes.
There was a burst of songs and ballads in Norway about this development. Jubilant songs they were:
Come, hail the Music Master,
Hurrah for Ole Bull!
To cheats he's brought disaster,
Their cup of woe is full.
New Norway he is founding,
A gift to everyman,
So come, your shouts resounding,
With freedom in the van.
And they praised Ole Bull as a friend of the workingman:
Good men of Norway, strong of arm,
If fortune's barbs have torn you,
Behold a friend whose heart is warm,
A man who will not scorn you.
Better he than gold or fame!
Ole Bull -- yes, that's his name.
He knows that here are grief and pain,
Your burdens he would lighten.
Freedom, bread -- these you will gain,
Your future he will brighten.
Better he than gold or fame!
You know him -- Ole Bull's his name!
Alas, Oleana, as the colony was popularly called, failed. The violinist had fallen into the hands of land speculators. Cheats had brought disaster to him, not he to them. The colonists were disillusioned, and the grand scheme went to pieces.
Precisely at the climax, in 1853, the rollicking ballad of "Oleana" appeared-- a satirical song that was sung for more than two generations on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Oleana" was written by Ditmar Meidell, the editor of the comic Norwegian journal Krydseren, and first appeared in that paper on March 5, 1853. For a full account of the song the reader is referred to Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads, 187-198, in which the original, a prose translation by Martin B. Ruud, and the music as arranged by Gunnar J. Malmin are also made available.
It is a somewhat surprising fact that this ballad, one of the most interesting examples of its kind in the literature of American immigration, has not hitherto been translated into verse.
I have tried to turn the ballad into an English translation that can be sung, basing my effort upon the original text and Professor Ruud's prose translation. Though admittedly free, it is, I think, faithful in spirit to the original, and it tries to recapture something of the exuberance with which Meidell delighted thousands of his countrymen.
I'm off to Oleana, I'm turning from my doorway,
No chains for me, I'll say good-by to slavery in Norway.
They give you land for nothing in jolly Oleana,
And grain comes leaping from the ground in floods of golden manna.
The grain it does the threshing, it pours into the sack, Sir,
You make a quart of whisky from each one without expense, Sir
The crops they are gigantic, potatoes are immense, Sir,
You make a quart of whisky from each one without expense, Sir.
And ale as strong and sweet as the best you've ever tasted,
It's running in the foamy creek, where most of it is wasted.
The salmon they are playing, and leaping in the brook, Sir,
They hop into your kettle, put the cover on, and cook, Sir.
And little roasted piggies, with manners quite demure, Sir,
They ask you, Will you have some ham? And then you say, Why, sure, Sir.
The cows are most obliging, their milk they put in pails, Sir,
They make your cheese and butter with a skill that never fails, Sir.
The bull he is the master, his calves he likes to boss, Sir,
He beats them when they loaf about, he's never at a loss, Sir.
The calves are very helpful, themselves they skin and kill, Sir,
They turn into a tasty roast before you drink your fill, Sir.
The hens lay eggs colossal, so big and round and fine, Sir,
The roosters act like eight-day clocks, they always tell the time, Sir.
And cakes come raining down, Sir, with chocolate frosting
They're nice and rich and sweet, good Lord, you eat them till you're bloated.
<1> The original, translated literally, is "cholera frosting."
And all night long the sun shines, it always keeps a-glowing,
It gives you eyes just like a cat's, to see where you are going.
The moon is also beaming, it's always full, I vow, Sir,
A bottle for a telescope, I'm looking at it now, Sir.
Two dollars for carousing they give each day, and more, Sir,
For if you're good and lazy, they will even give you four, Sir.
Support your wife and kids? Why, the county pays for that, Sir,
You'd slap officials down and out if they should leave you flat, Sir.
And if you've any bastards, you're freed of their support, Sir,
As you can guess since I am spinning verses for your sport, Sir.
You walk about in velvet, with silver buttons bright, Sir,
You puff away at meerschaum pipes, your women pack them right, Sir.
The dear old ladies struggle, and sweat for us, and labor,
And if they're cross, they spank themselves, they do it as a favor.
And so we play the fiddle, and all of us are glad, Sir,
We dance a merry polka, boys, and that is not so bad, Sir.
I'm off to Oleana, to lead a life of pleasure,
A beggar here, a count out there, with riches in full measure.
I'm coming, Oleana, I've left my native doorway,
I've made my choice, I've said good-by to slavery in Norway.