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Immigration and Migration
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Icelandic American Song
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Otto Bardarson

Otto Bardarson sang Icelandic songs for ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell in Carmel, California on January 17, 1939, including "Heimforin til Islands — 1930" (A trip home to Iceland, 1930), which was composed by his father, Sigurd Bardarson. Otto was born in Canada, and immigrated to the United States with his family as a child.

The first Icelandic settlers, a small group of newly converted Mormons, arrived in the United States in the 1850s and made their home in Utah. A larger group immigrated in the 1870s as a result of poverty and political discontent with the oppressive Danish government (Iceland was under Danish rule between 1397 and 1918.) Contributing to hardships during this period, the Askja volcano erupted on March 29, 1875 with such force that the mountain collapsed into the caldera. Farms and farmland throughout eastern Iceland were destroyed, creating widespread famine and economic depression. [1] Widely circulated letters from a Danish settler in Milwaukee, William Wickmann, which described the abundance of American life and in particular the plentiful supply of coffee — the Icelanders' favorite drink — provided further encouragement to would-be immigrants.

Between 1870 and 1900, roughly 15,000 of Iceland's population of 75,000 immigrated to North America. Many settled in Manitoba, Canada. Icelandic communities also sprang up south of the border in Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakota Territories and, eventually, the Pacific Northwest and California. [2] Just as at home, the Lutheran Church was central to the lives of the early Icelandic immigrants. They brought with them a strong choral singing tradition. Ensembles performed classical European and Icelandic music.

Iceland's most prominent musical form, the "rimur" (a song type that dates back to the thirteenth century) has also played a significant part in the culture of the Icelandic American community. The Icelandic language has changed little since the rimur's inception, so some of the oldest songs are still sung by Icelanders in their original form. John Olafson provides an example of an old rimur, "To sail a boat, to ride a horse, and to lie in a women's arms are the three finest things in life." More recent songs often use the style of rimur, such as "About the Looks of a Girl," sung by Sigurd Bardarson, who adds verses of his own at the end about Mt. Baker in Washington state, where he lives.

Sound recordings and still photographs collected in the 1930s by the folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell of Icelanders in Carmel, Berkeley, and San Francisco singing unaccompanied rimur, hymns, and immigrant songs in Icelandic and English can be accessed via The Library of Congress Folklife Center website.

Part of a multi-format online collection entitled "California Gold: Northern California Music from the Thirties," the songs were collected as part of The WPA California Folk Music Project, a joint effort of the Work Projects Administration, the Library of Congress, and the Music Division of the University of California, Berkeley, to document folk music being actively performed in Northern California. The project, which ran from 1938-40 was one of the earliest attempts to document the performance of English-language and non-Black, non-American Indian, ethnic folk music in the United States.


  1. The Icelandic Emmigration Centre at Hofsos [back to article]
  2. Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. The Harvard Encylopedia of American Ethnic Groups p474-476. (Harvard, 1980; Second printing, 1981) [back to article]