Oleanna

I think I’ve had a couple of dreams in which I’ve tried but failed to look up info about the folksong “Oleanna.”

In last night’s dream, I finally managed to do a web search on that term, but got no relevant results.

But when I woke up, I did a real-world web search, and got results that surprised me.

I heard the song in English as a kid, probably sung by Pete Seeger. (Maybe also in a songbook I had?) I vaguely remembered it as being much along the same lines as “Big Rock Candy Mountain”—a catchy song about a sort of paradise where nobody has to do any work because good food is magically available to all.

So I was rather surprised, on reading the Wikipedia article about the song, to learn that it’s much more specific than that: it’s “a critique of Ole Bull's vision of a perfect society in America.”

And I didn’t know who Ole Bull was. I assumed that “Ole” was short for “Old,” but even that turned out to be wrong. He was a Norwegian guy (so his name was pronounced more like OO-luh) who “[bought] land in Pennsylvania [in 1852] and founded a colony he called New Norway, but that is commonly referred to as Ole Bull Colony.” One of the four communities in New Norway was named Oleana, “after him and his mother.”

There’ve been plenty of utopians who’ve tried to build the perfect community. But the thing that I found particularly surprising about this one is how Ole Bull made the money that he used to buy the land for New Norway:

He was a famous violinist.

So apparently this world-renowned Norwegian violinist decided, in his early forties, to create a Norwegian colony in the US. (A couple of articles seem to suggest that he had utopian ideas, but no articles that I’ve found give any details about that; the detailed articles I’ve seen seem to imply that New Norway was just intended to be a nice place for Norwegians to come live.)

After a year or so, with a few hundred Norwegian settlers on the land, Bull found out that he didn’t actually have the deed to some of the land. There may also have been financial problems. The various accounts I’m seeing are kind of confusing and at least a little contradictory, but one way or another, the result seems to have been that New Norway fell apart within a couple of years.

And the song was originally a satirical song in Norwegian, mocking the promises of New Norway. It was translated into English a couple of times, most notably in an abbreviated version in 1955 by Pete Seeger et alia.

Content warning if you follow links to see earlier versions of the song: it originally included misogynist verses about violence toward wives.

Anyway, this whole set of material was much more involved than I was expecting when I set out to satisfy my idle curiosity about a half-remembered song.

Some links with more details:

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