It seems appropriate that a series on Songs about Places should include a piece called A Song to a Town, a track by the Norwegian singer/songwriter Kari Bremnes that first appeared in English on her Norwegian Moods album. Like Everyday is Like Sunday, the author no doubt had a particular place in mind but it is not named. Instead, the description of the town become a way of exploring other themes-in this case, changes and moving on but with the pull of the past ever present.
Generally speaking Norway has not figured much in the British music scene. There’s A-Ha, a quarter of Abba, a quarter of Aqua. Devotees of the Eurovision song contest might also recall Jan Teigen as being the first act to gain the prized nul points, in 1978. However, more artists are becoming known internationally and some of Kari Bremnes’ work has been available in English for the past ten years or so. A Song to a Town, like much of her work, has a haunting, melancholic atmosphere, with words and music that mix dark with the occasional light and suits exactly the landscapes of western Norway. The town in the song could be Bergen or any of a number of places where red-roofed wooden houses line the cobbled streets to the harbour, the smell from the fish market hangs in the air and boats come and go endlessly on travels.
Change and the passing of time figures in a lot of Kari Bremnes’ songs: it is perhaps inevitable that she recorded a memorable version of Sandy Denny’s Who Knows where the Time Goes. One of her songs, You’d Have to Be There is one of the most poignant expressions of this-‘Everything changes and nothing can last.... The days may have names you can call, but they never come back to you, The days are like children, they change into years as they grow’.
But there is also a strong sense of the past ever present. Moving on and travel frequently occurs: she has done songs about Copenhagen, Berlin, Montreal, Athens and the Hurtigruten, the Norwegian coastal voyages. However, moving on can also mean looking back rather than forward. In You’d Have to Be There, there is a return to a childhood memory of home-‘I’m seeing a garden, a place I keep longing to show you’. The same thought was explored by Judy Collins in her Secret Gardens song: ’Secret gardens of the heart where the old stay young for ever’. The past is there but it isn’t the same when you revisit it.
In A Song to a Town, these themes come together. In one sense the song reflects the truism that you should never go back, the subject of Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer (‘I saw a deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, a little voice inside my head said, Don’t look back, you can never look back’). In the Kari Bremnes piece, the narrator gets off the boat and enters a once familiar town as a stranger.
There is another layer, however. Anyone who has returned after many years as a visitor to a town they once lived and felt at home-maybe still think of it as ‘home’ – would also recognise the references to the secrets, images and stories hidden from current gaze. The past is there, like a sepia toned image underneath a colour photo. There’s the market still there, with the stalls selling cheese and broken biscuits. There’s the Odd Spot cafe-I can almost see myself sitting there.There's the square outside the municipal library where the busker used to sing Bob Dylan. But you also remain a stranger and those about you don’t see what you see.
In her song Day, Kari Bremnes used the lines, ‘You're stranded in time, a ghost that is lost in the twilight. And the curtain is woven from the memories of time gone before’. A Song to a Town is a reminder that places too can be viewed through the memories of time gone before, where the past jostles with the present and where a stranger seeks familiarity again.