Discovering Tusen Tankar

A year ago, trumpeter Dean McNeill introduced us to a piece called Tusen Tankar…and we knew it had to be part of our 2020 Christmas live streams.

Conservation efforts come in all shapes and sizes. From those linguists fighting to preserve the status of “dying” languages in remote villages to the many environmentalists who contribute by saving endangered wildlife each year, every bit helps our planet hold on to its beauty in some way. It is no different in the Arts sector, where entire genres and forms are spared the fate of falling into obscurity by the collective efforts of inspired and curious creators.

An ongoing effort which captures this spirit of revitalization can be found in the projects carried out on behalf of the Swedish Song Archives, a massive undertaking of traditional music documentation begun in 1968, and one whose contributions to modern Swedish folk music are immeasurable. It is thanks to this initiative that the traditional and haunting ballad “Tusen Tankar” was able to reach the ears (and bows) of the talented musicians at Kronos Quartet over fifty years later.

As part of their mandate to preserve traditional Swedish folk music wherever it could be found, the Swedish Song Archives team hired Märta Ramsten (a musicologist and song researcher) to record musicians and singers around Sweden. One of Ramsten’s first stops was the city of Östersund in Jämtland County. Of the many musicians who were recorded during the Jämtland trip, there was one who stood out to Ramsten (so much so that she would return and record an additional 300 songs performed by this very singer). The musician in question was one Thyra Karlsson, whose extensive vocal repertoire and charisma rendering folk ballads shone like few other Swedish vocalists of her time.

Ostersund, Sweden

Ramsten described the humble Karlsson as “a God-fearing singer” who possessed a “clear and fine voice and [who sang] with great musicality and authenticity”. In her travel report for the Jämtland trip, Märta Ramsten expressed a hope that “the Östersund audience – who are used to hearing fine Jämtland musicians – will someday also have the opportunity to listen to Thyra Karlsson and her songs.”

Thyra Karlsson was delighted with the attention these archival recordings brought her way from members of her local community. In a letter to Ramsten, Karlsson wrote of the changes that took place in her life after the recordings were created. “[Its wonderful to] think of what I have experienced since then, what I have dreamed of all my life. To be able to sing for others… My life [has] became much more fun and richer in content”. Although Karlsson passed away in 2001, her letter to Ramsten is quoted in the cover text of a 2014 album produced by Caprice Records to honor her musical legacy. 

In 1998, three years prior to Karlsson’s passing, singer Emma Härdelin was searching for old Swedish songs to resurrect with her band (the Jämtland folk music group “Triakel”). After getting in touch with Ramsten, Härdelin heard Karlsson’s rendition of a long-forgotten song “Tusen Tankar” or “A Thousand Thoughts”. An unrequited love ballad that takes on new layers of meaning during the coldest and darkest months of the year, this raw piece of folk music helped to immediately establish a following for Härdelin and her Triakel bandmates. 

Speaking about her experience studying Karlsson’s rendition, Härdelin has remarked that “Tusen Tankar is one of the most beautiful and sad love songs [I’ve] ever heard. We learnt it from an archive recording of Thyra Karlsson, a great singer of traditional Swedish folk songs. Thyra’s greatest wish was to make a record so that her music could reach a new and wider audience.” And reach a wider audience it did, not only through Triakel’s performances of the song, but in the deeply moving arrangement for strings penned by the brilliant musicians of the Kronos Quartet. 

Tusen Tankar is the first track on Kronos’ album “A Thousand Thoughts”, and paints with every aching lilt of its melody a picture of pure love. Though the beloved in Tusen Tankar will never return, this song reminds all of us to hold our loved ones dear… especially during trying times. Kronos Quartet’s ethereal version owes a debt of gratitude to Karlsson’s original interpretation, and to Härdelin for her faithful replication of Karlsson’s vocal stylings which continue to inspire young folk artists in Sweden and around the globe each year. Tusen Tankar is a song that encourages us all to be grateful for those we cherish in our lives and, not unlike Auld Lang Syne, to remember fondly those who are irreplaceable in our lives. 

We’re thrilled to be performing it with Dean McNeill in an arrangement by David Braid specially done for our Night at the North Pole.

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