Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Little Karin

Here comes a short post about a ballad that was recently relatively widely known in Sweden (as Liten Karin) as it was printed in many school songbooks and other songbooks. It is a bit of a grisly one, and has not been widely recorded by modern artists, though there are some recordings.


The story goes something like this: Little Karin is serving at the young king's court. The  king notices her, and asks her to be his. Quite a few verses of the ballad are spent with the king offering Karin various fancy gifts: a grey horse with a gold saddle, a gold crown, half of his kingdom, and so on. Each time, Karin refuses, saying that the king should give those things to the queen instead, and leave her (Karin) alone, with her honour intact.

The king then tells Karin that he will lock her in the tower. She replies that God will know whether or not she deserves that.

Next, the king tells her that he will put her in a nail-barrel. The nail-barrel (spiketunnan) we may understand is a torture device consisting of a barrel pierced by nails that may be rolled around with someone inside (apparently not widely attested outside of folklore). The king puts Karin in the nail-barrel and rolls it around ... you may understand she did not survive this. At the end of the ballad, two white doves come down from heaven and take Karin away, and then two black crows arrive from hell to take away the king.

This ballad is one of those that is classified as a legend ballad, as it tells a version of a legend of one of the saints. In this case, it is St Catherine. St Catherine is famous for her martyrdom involving a wheel (after she had upset a certain emperor). The Catherine wheel fireworks and the wheel emblem used as a symbol of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges that are named after her are a couple of examples of where how this wheel may be seen and remembered. The unusual nail-barrel rolling torture device that the king uses in the ballad to kill Karin is also a manifestation of this Catherine wheel ....

St Catherine (Gualenghi-d'Este Hours)

Geijer and Afzelius wrote that the Little Karin ballad was sung almost everywhere in Sweden, and that it was rare to hear the same version in more than one place. They printed two versions of the ballad in their collection (full text here). According to S-B Jansson, one of these was reprinted many times after that as a broadside, so that version of the ballad came to dominate. This ballad is also known in Denmark (as Liden Karen) and Norway.


There is one Swedish melody for Liten Karin in Berggreen (No. 15) and Ahlström (No. 49). It is quite unusual in that it does not have chorus (omkväde) lines, but every line in the ballad is sung twice.


Rosenbergs Sjua is a band started by the Swedish folk musician Susanne Rosenberg. Their take on Liten Karin was included on their only album release: R7 (1999).

Øyonn Groven Myhren is a Norwegian folk singer. Here his her version of Liten Karin from the album Gullveven (2008)

Finally I will post a couple of live recordings: here Jan Hammarlund plays his one man and a guitar version of Liten Karin live at the Visklubben in Västervik (2013).

And a bigger band rather drum heavy version of Liten Karin from Slingerbult live in Gävle.


J. N. Ahlström, 300 Nordiska Folkvisor, Stockholm, 1878, Nr 49, Liten Karin
A. P. Berggreen, Svenske Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1860, Nr 15, Liten Karin
E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816, Nr 3, Liten Karin

Sven-Bertil Jansson, Liten Karin, Musikverket


  1. Ian - This is great stuff! I sing mostly Scots ballads, but I'd love to learn one of the ballads you have shared. It would be so helpful for people like me, who learn by ear, and who don't speak any Scandinavian language, if you could post a youtube of a ballad and post the words for that *specific* version on your blog. This is essential in order to understand how the words should be pronounced and how they scan with the music. Thank you warmly, and keep the music coming!

    1. Thanks, glad to hear you're enjoying the blog. You mean you want to learn a ballad in one of the Scandinavian languages from one of the YouTube vids I already posted? Any idea about which ballad? (Swedish pls).

      You are right usually there is a big variation in how people sing ballads, either because there are different source versions, or especially if the ballads are very long, which many of them are, then modern performers will typically sing only some of the verses.

      One exception that I can think of off the top of my head is Herr Mannelig, which is quite short, and so everyone usually sings all of it. They also all always sing the same version (the version also called in my blog post The Mountain Troll's Proposal). So if you want to have a look at that post, the full text that they will all be singing is posted there as well already ....