Many cultures drink to sing, but singing to drink is a purely Swedish and Finno-Swedish tradition. At least when there’s snaps on the table.
The snaps songs are a uniquely Swedish, varied, musical treasure. The songs are characterized by the fact that they are sung to accompany the snaps, to the tune of a well-known melody. They are short, and often humorous, with a twist at the end. An unknown melody or long and contrived lyrics prevents a song from being spread by word of mouth, which is another defining characteristic for the Swedish drinking song.
The snaps song is often about having had one too many and crossing the line, and they don’t shy away from the physical effects of excess. In the world of the snaps song, we down our drinks, get drunk, happy, sociable and sexy, dancing the samba all night. Then we get a headache, stumble and throw up, but generally think it’s been worth it.
This may be in stark contrast to the idea of the introverted Swede, but completely in line with our slightly odd relationship to alcohol. Our unusually long and engrained tradition of laws and restrictions when it comes to alcohol has made its mark. But thanks to Systembolaget and the Swedish health authorities, the modern Swede is very well aware of the downsides of alcohol. The snaps song offers us a saucy alternative to the sobriety and steadiness which is so often required in real life.
The tradition of the snaps song and the ceremony surrounding snaps and aquavit was born in bourgeois, academic surroundings during the second half of the 19th century, mainly from singing students. The songs gained popularity and became commonplace about 100 years ago, with the introduction of alcohol restrictions and the ration book.
These days, snaps and the snaps songbooks are not as prevalent at Swedish parties as they once were. But they are still the option of choice when it comes to the traditional holiday smorgasbord served at Christmas, Easter and Midsummer, or with other “snaps-friendly” foods such as surströmming, eel and crayfish. As long as these culinary traditions live on, so will the snaps song.
Helan går! The most well-known snaps song, “Helan går” is about 150 years old. “Helan” – the whole – is an old term for the first in a line of drams (the whole, the half, the third, etc.) Not finishing your first dram was not good, which is also pointed out in the song:
“…och den som inte helan tar, han heller inte halvan får…”
“…he who doesn’t drink the first, shall never, ever quench his thirst…”
Despite being one of Sweden’s most well-known folk songs, or perhaps because of it, there are not a whole lot of traces on the song in our history. Perhaps it has been TOO common to be considered worthy to document. The first recorded version of the melody is from an 1840s operetta, and one scholar’s theory is that the melody could have its roots in a military trumpeting signal.
The fact that “Helan går” has become somewhat of a second national anthem is confirmed by a story from the world of sports. When the Swedish national ice hockey team unexpectedly won the 1957 world championships in Moscow, the players were obviously expected to sing the national anthem. Since their victory was so unexpected, however, they hadn’t had the chance to practice, and had to quickly find a song EVERYONE knew. Obviously, they chose “Helan går”.
If you would like to read more about snaps songs, we recommend “Från Helan till Lilla Manasse – den svenska snapsvisans historia” (2002) by Christina Mattsson.
MORE THAN 10,000 SNAPS SONGS
The Historical Museum of Wines and Spirits started collecting snaps songs at the end of 1992, and now the Museum of Spirits has picked up the baton. The result is a database of over 12,000 songs, a number which is constantly growing thanks to the museum’s annual Swedish championships of snaps song writing. Every year, more than 200 songs are submitted, many featuring current events.
In 1994, the museum published “Stora Snapsviseboken” – the big book of snaps songs – which has been printed in 40,000 copies! The following year, in 1995, “Stora Snapsvise-cd:n” – the big CD of snaps songs – featured celebrities like Hasse Alfredsson and Lill-Babs singing a hundred (or so) songs.
You can download a booklet with snaps songs in English here.