A Swedish prairie pastor and the psalmodikon in America

by Peter Ellertsen

Peter Ellertsen

The writer demonstrating a replica of L.P. Esbjörn’s psalmodikon in Jenny Lind Chapel museum, Andover, Illinois. (The original is visible on top of cabinet at right of photo.)

In America, the psalmodikon was brought over by immigrants from Sweden and Norway in the mid-1800s. It was used widely in the early days of mass immigration, but its popularity only lasted a few years. Today it is all but forgotten, but it became something of an icon of the old Swedish-American Augustana Lutheran Synod, and little groups of amateur musicians, mostly of Norwegian-American heritage, still play it.

In the early days of Swedish and Norwegian immigration, the instrument was perfectly adapted for the struggling little churches established by poverty-stricken settlers on the frontier in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The instrument was inexpensive; it was essentially a rectangular wooden box with a catgut string across the top, and it could be slapped together by a cabinetmaker. And it was easy to play — at least by a settler who knew how to get music out of a fiddle, a nyckelharpa or another bowed instrument.

But as immigrants were able to buy pianos and pump organs, the psalmodikon was replaced by more sophisticated instruments.

Even so, it had a lasting influence. Many of the settlers kept warm memories of the psalmodikon, and they honored its role in training country church members to sing in four-part harmony. It helped lead to the flowering of choral music at St. Olaf, Gustavus Adolphus and other Scandinavian-American colleges, churches and choral societies. Today a revival group, the Nordic-American Psalmodikonforbundet publishes music and a a newsletter at http://www.psalmodikon.com/ for amateur players scattered across North America.

Pastor Lars Paul Esbjörn, who served congregations in west central Illinois and back home in Sweden, and who also founded a Swedish-American college and theological seminary, is central the story of how the psalmodikon came to America, how it was played, how it helped start the Scandinavian choral tradition and how it was replaced in country churches out on the prairies of what is now the Midwest.

A prairie pastor and the Svenska Psalmbok

For Swedish-Americans, the story begins with the Rev. Lars Paul Esbjörn, first president of the old Augustana Evangelican Lutheran Synod, and it begins not in America but in Uppland, where Esbjörn assisted Johannes Dillner, who is credited with inventing the Swedish version of the psalmodikon. He also arranged the melodies of the 1819 Svenska Psalmbok – actually Johann Christian Friedrich Haeffner's chorale book accompanying the psalmbook – in tablature known in Swedish as siffernoter. (The notation is also commonly known as sifferskrift in Norwegian and American English.) As Dillner's assistant at Östervåla parish north of Uppsala, he helped Dillner arrange the melodies of in four-part harmony for the psalmodikon.

After he came to America, Esbjörn recalled that he learned the psalmodikon because he wasn't a very good singer when he was a young parish minister. A young man named C.O. Hultgren later recalled a conversation with Esbjörn:

We sat on the grass. He started to sing Psalm 33 [in the Swedish psalmbook]. I sang too. He said I had a better voice than he. He said mine was natural. He said he could not sing until (after) he became a minister. … After my first sermon, my hostess asked me why I didn't sing the Mass. I said to her ‘I cannot sing.' She said I should buy me a ‘mellodium' (psalmodikon?). I got a few pieces of wood and made one. I learned to sing and play. I also taught music. Now, in God's Name, we shall continue our journey.”

Hultgren didn't record the conversation until 50 years afterward, and the reference to a musical instrument is ambiguous, but it sounds like what Esbjörn made was a psalmodikon.

A theology graduate of Uppsala University, Esbjörn came to America in 1849 and settled in Andover, Illinois. In 1851 when his little church was about half built, cholera struck and the lumber set aside for the building project was sawed up instead to make coffins. So Esbjörn traveled to the East Coast, where the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind was performing on a wildly successful tour of America. He was persistent and persuasive, and he came back to Andover with $1,500, a lot of money in those days. In gratitude, the church was later named for Jenny Lind.

Esbjörn must have been a good teacher. In 1853, before his congregation had a permanent roof on the Jenny Lind Chapel, he reported he was conducting singing schools once or twice a week. We are fortunate enough to have a reminiscence of those early sessions.

“As long as [Esbjörn] sang along, the hymn went well, but when he paused, they all stopped,” said Margaretta Warner-Douglas, an early settler, recalling a moment familiar to anyone who has ever practiced singing choral music. “Singing the next verse, they stopped at the same place, so again he had to help them.” As they sang through all 16 verses of the hymn, they caught the melody. Esbjörn told them they didn't just sing it once, they “sang it 16 times as all 16 verses were the same. Then everyone laughed heartily. He was always in a good mood.”

By 1857, Esbjörn's little church in Illinois had a pump organ.

For his part, Esbjörn left the parish ministry and became the first professor — and all-around handyman — at a little seminary in the basement of a Norwegian Lutheran church in Chicago. It later became Augustana College and Theological Seminary in Rock Island, Illinois, but in 1863 Esbjörn returned to Östervåla and served out his days there as a parish priest of the Church of Sweden.


During the same years, a Swedish newspaper near Esbjörn’s old church in Galesburg, Illinois, began to publish music in siffernoter for the psalmodikon.

The paper was called Det Rätte Hemlandet , and it was published for the Augustana Lutherans. A few years later, it collected siffernoter for gospel songs by Oscar Ahnfelt, Lina Sandell-Berg and others into a volume called Hemlandssånger . The song book became very popular, and later editions were printed in standard musical notation. But it began with siffernoter for the psalmodikon.

Front page of Hemlandet, a Swedish weekly newspaper first published in Galesburg, Illinois, with psalmodikon tablature for Just som jag är (Just as I am).

‘Grinding out the melody’ in Norwegian churches

Norwegian settlers brought a very similar instrument over from the old country. Also called a psalmodikon (spelled salmodikon in modern Norwegian), it was adapted from a Danish prototype by Lars Roverud, an educator in Norway. Both Roverud’s instruments in Norway and Dillner’s in Sweden used tablature — sifferskrift or siffernoter — so they could be played by song leaders who didn’t read music. While they weren't really folk instruments, they were also played at home in log cabins and sod houses.

Especially in the 1850s and 60s when large-scale immigration was just beginning, it was quite a struggle to transplant the old-country music in little churches out on the prairie. And that's where the psalmodikon came in handy. They were simply made from materials readily available, and their inventors said it only took a couple of hours to learn how to read the siffernoter.

Many years later Paul Maurice Glasoe, professor at St. Olaf College and president of the Choral Union of the old Norwegian-American synod, would recall his father's work in the 1870s with rural choirs in Minnesota.

“Music and note-reading had not yet found their way into the public schools of pioneer settlements. … What wonders patience and perseverance can work! Father played the salmodikon [the Norwegian spelling] and by means of it he could grind out the melody – alto, tenor, or bass – to the different groups. And what a thrill it was when two parts could perform – and then all four!”

Glasoe, a professor at St. Olaf College, interviewed another 19th-century church musician who said he couldn't carry a tune but “learned to handle the salmodikon and by means of it his classes learned to sing the hymns and folk melodies very well.”

As the immigrant churches prospered, the psalmodikon became something of an icon of their pioneer days. The Rev. Eric Norelius, a protégé of Esbjörn's and later an Augustana Synod president and historian, recalled the first Christmas morning service in a rented room in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Julotta 1860 was extraordinarily pleasant and edifying. The little teacher's desk was tastefully covered, and the little room was radiant with light … a psalmodikon made do as [utgjorde] our organ.” Later, when they moved to a new building, “one man took the pulpit on his back and the other the psalmodikon under his arm, and the chore was over.”

Ordinarily, however, the psalmodikon was used as a teaching aid and in home devotions. By the late 1800s, it was everywhere replaced by pianos and organs, even in the smallest country churches.

By then folks in town could afford pianos, too. Ardith Melloth, who wrote an authoritative account in 1981 for the Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly, caught the flavor of the late 1800s when she said, “Like carrying a gold-headed cane, having a piano in the parlor became a status symbol and the old psalmodikon was put in the attic.”

So the psalmodikon was all but forgotten. But it left its mark.

“One still can find these primitive instruments, in old barns out on Swedish and Norwegian farms in this area,” said hymnologist Grindal, of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, at a 1992 hymn sing celebrating the anniversary of Hemlandssånger. “[They're] much misunderstood, but a deeply significant part of the Swedish song tradition in this country.”

Esbjörns psalmodikon

L.P. Esbjörn's psalmodikon in Jenny Lind Chapel museum. Note sympathetic strings (resonanssträngar).

Links and notes on sources

This introduction is based in large part on two stories I wrote for Dulcimer Players News, a magazine for amateur musicians: “Pastor Esbjorn’s Box Zither: Reinventing a Swedish Immigrant Tradition” in the Fall 2015 issue; and “Psalmodikon: Joyful Revival of a Stern, Square-Jawed Ethnic Heritage,” on the Norwegian-American tradition in the Fall 2010 issue. Background on Esbjörn and the former Augustana Lutheran Synod (now part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is drawn from my article, “‘How Newness Enters the World’: Cultural Creolization in Swedish-American Hymnals Published at Augustana College, 1901–1925,” in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 109.1 (Spring 2016). Sources are fully documented in the Illinois State Historical Society’s journal article cited above and two papers, electronic copies of which are available on request, that I presented at gatherings in which I demonstrated the psalmodikon and discussed its origins and use in 19th-century America:

__________. “Cultural Hybridity, Anglo-American Hymns and European Chorales in a Pioneer Swedish Immigrant Singing School”: Presentation at the Conference on Illinois History, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library, Springfield, October 5, 2017
__________. “Pastor Esbjorn's Singing School”: Workshop for Founders’ Day, on the 155th Anniversary of the Augustana Lutheran Synod, Augustana Lutheran Church and Jenny Lind Chapel, Andover, Illinois, April 25, 2015.

In addition to the sources listed in the above-cited articles, I rely heavily on secondary sources including: Oscar N. Olson’s discussion of worship music in The Augustana Lutheran Church in America: Pioneer Period, 1846-1860; Paul Maurice Glasoe, “A Singing Church,” NAHA [Norwegian American Historical Association] Online, 13 (1943) https://www.naha.stolaf.edu/pubs/nas/volume13/vol13_5.htm; and John E. Norton, “‘Ecclesia Plantanda': Emigrant Preacher Lars-Paul Esbjörn and The Beginnings of the Augustana Synod,” Paper presented to the Augustana Heritage Association, Bethany College, Lindsborg, Kansas, June 19-22, 2008 http://augustanaheritage.augustana.edu/AHA_Ecclesia_Plantanda_2008.pdf.