CULTURAL BRIEFING
Benny is Not the Worst that They Have

May 19 - [Note: Something is apparently wrong with the Moronic Underground, but I'm not sure what and I don't know how to fix it. It seems to have simply disappeared. I haven't heard anything from the host company, but I am aware of the problem and will try to deal with it soon.]

I've written a lot in the past about the Danish love affair with singing. It's something many of them will do at the drop of a hat—and come to think of it, I'm surprised they don't have a special song to sing on the dropping of hats: they've got pretty much everything else covered.

Because our instruction in the Danish language is also instruction in Danish culture, we've learned a lot of Danish songs in the course of my fourteen months at Studieskolen. While I still haven't even managed to memorize the simplest of the birthday songs, it's reached the point where at least I usually know what's being sung, how long it's going to last, and whether or not I'll be expected to launch into hurras at the end.

In the firmament of Danish folk music, the brightest star is by far that of the 76-year-old Benny Andersen. One fan site identifies him as "the most read, sung, and beloved modern Danish lyricist," and I haven't seen or heard anything in my three years here to contradict that. An English-language site more or less repeats the phrase verbatim. He's also frequently referred to as "Denmark's other Andersen," which is a shame. Maybe one day Hans Christian will be "the other" Andersen. In any case, no understanding of contemporary Danish culture is possible without familiarity with both.

Possibly the most beloved of Benny Andersen's songs is Svantes lykkelig dag, or "Svantes Happy Day." It's also one of the most quintessentially Danish songs I've been exposed to.

The song was first released in the 1970s, if I understood my teacher correctly, on an album entitled "Svantes Viser," or "Svantes Songs." The album consists of songs composed by Svante himself, the melancholic hero of an Andersen novel also entitled "Svantes Viser." The songs therefore have three levels of Andersen: the character of Svante, which he created; the poetry of Svante, which he wrote; and the melodies themselves, which Andersen composed (and apparently included in an appendix to the novel).

Though he's a popular singer, Andersen didn't record the vocals on the album. The vocalist was Povl Dissing, whose voice is difficult to describe. It's sort of a cross between Joe Cocker, Tom Waits, and someone with something stuck in the back of their throat. The first time I heard him singing, last summer, I thought our teacher was putting us on. This morning I found streaming audio of Garrison Keillor singing Svantes lykkelig dag (on which more later) in his smooth, crooning style, and I found myself almost physically aching to hear Dissing's weird hoarse raspiness.

The album was not well received at first because Danes did not instinctively embrace Povl Dissing. "Brilliant!" cheered some. "What the hell was that?" wondered many others. (Again, this is stuff I'm remembering from our teacher's introduction to the album on Tuesday.) Emperor's new clothes or not, Dissing eventually won himself a place in the Danish pantheon.

The album itself is one of the best-selling albums of all time in Denmark, and no song on the album is better known, more widely song, or more beloved than the aforementioned Svantes lykkelig dag, or "Svantes Happy Day."

It's a shining example of Andersen's brilliant poetry of small things. It also communicates a lot about Danish culture.

In the song, Svante is simply sitting and eating his breakfast while his girlfriend (or wife) Nina showers. He's looking out the window, or possibly just sitting on the terrace, observing the morning around him. And he's waiting for the coffee to brew.

Here's the text, first in Danish, then in English.

Svantes lykkelige dag
Se, hvilken morgenstund,
solen er rød og rund,
Nina er gået i bad,
og jeg spiser ostemad.
Livet er ikke det værste man har,
og om lidt er kaffen klar.

Blomsterne blomstrer op,
der går en edderkop,
fuglene flyver i flok,
når de er mange nok.
Lykken er ikke det værste man har,
og om lidt er kaffen klar.

Græsset er grønt og vådt,
og bierne de har det godt,
lungerne frådser i luft,
ah, hvilken snerleduft.
Glæden er ikke det værste man har,
og om lidt er kaffen klar.

Sang under brusebad,
hun må vist være glad,
himlen er temmelig blå,
det kan jeg godt forstå.
Lykken er ikke det værste man har,
og om lidt er kaffen klar.

Nu kommer Nina ud,
nøgen og fugtig hud,
kysser mig kærligt og går
ind for at red' sit hår.
Livet er ikke det værste man har,
og om lidt er kaffen klar.

Svantes Happy Day
See, what a morning,
the sun is red and round,
Nina's gone into the bath
and I'm eating bread and cheese.
Life is not the worst that one's got
and the coffee's just about ready.

The flowers are blossoming,
there goes a spider,
the birds are flying in flocks,
when they number enough.
Joy is not the worst that one's got,
and the coffee's just about ready.

The grass is green and wet,
and the bees are doing fine,
the lungs exult in the air,
ah, the scent of morning glories!
Happiness is not the worst that one's got,
and the coffee's just about ready.

Song beneath the shower,
she must be happy,
the sky is terribly blue,
which I can well understand.
Joy is not the worst that one's got,
and the coffee's just about ready.

Now Nina's coming out,
naked and damp-skinned,
she kisses me lovingly and goes
in to fix her hair.
Life is not the worst that one's got,
and the coffee's just about ready.

My translation is accurate but obviously clunky, because I tried to translate as literally as possible. The song rhymes very well in Danish, and is evenly metered and much more natural-sounding.

There's a fair sample of the melody online.

Benny Andersen was once a guest on A Prairie Home Companion, and there's streaming audio from his performance of this very song. Andersen is playing the piano in the clip, but Garrison chose to translate and sing the song himself. (He therefore went for a more figurative translation, since he needed the rhymes.) This is an extremely inappropriate rendition of the song, and should by no means be interpreted as at all representative of how it should be sung. But it is Benny Andersen himself on the ivory, so I thought I ought to include the link. Here it is (RealAudio format).

* * *

I'm not going to deconstruct the text or wax philosophic about the song, but I think the last two lines say about as much about the Danish outlook in general as can possibly be said.

Benny Andersen is not the worst that Denmark has got.

Lawrence and Balzac

Seventy years ago today, on May 19, 1935, Thomas Edward Lawrence was killed in a motorcycle accident. Lawrence was a British officer who rose to prominence during the Arabian campaigns of the first World War. He can also be seen in "The Lion in Winter," "Becket," "The Stunt Man," and "My Favorite Year."

Honore de Balzac was born in France on either May 19 or 20 in 1799. Balzac created a vast body of literature that he called La Comédie Humaine ("A Vast Body of Literature"). Set almost entirely in Paris, it consisted of dozens of novels, short stories, and plays interwoven with many of the same characters and events. One of his most popular characters was the brilliant and great-hearted Dr. Bianchon. Balzac's dying words were reportedly, "If Bianchon were here, he would save me!" The anecdote is probably apocryphal, however, because Balzac didn't speak English.

Pete Townshend turns 60 today, and will hopefully be distracted enough by the milestone birthday to ignore the Turkish holiday of Youth and Sports Day. Balzac and the legendary rocker share their birthday with Grace Jones (1952), Nora Ephron (1941), Malcolm X (1925), and Ho Chi Minh (1890).

Happy Thursday!

© 2005, The Moron's Almanac™

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