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Sarah Larsson Sews Stories of Ancestry into Modern Folksongs

Red Thread, Photo by Michelle Bennett

Last updated on February 27th, 2024 at 06:39 am

As a recipient of the 2024 Cedar Commissions and bandleader for Red Thread, traditional folk and inter-cultural artist Sarah Larsson is stitching appreciation back into the past. On the cusp of her February 10th commissioned performance, along with a debut album from Red Thread on February 23rd, Larsson is honoring ancestry and the hardships woven into the history of immigration.

We caught up with the singer-songwriter to discuss the Cedar Commission show, her two newest releases, and the importance of connecting with one’s heritage. Larsson also talks about the significance of the 100th anniversary of the 1924 Immigration Act and the importance of preserving and celebrating immigrant cultures in America.

Photo by Drew Arrieta

Music in Minnesota: Congrats on the Cedar Commissions show coming up on February 10th. Can you give us a little insight into what these shows are about and what we should expect with your portion specifically?

Sarah Larsson: They are showcases of works that are just being birthed out into the world right now. The room is always really supportive because that’s the context. On this particular night, I’m actually going third, and so earlier in the night, there’s going to be a straight-up pop-punk party performance and then a set by Lady Xøk, whose music is going to be somewhere in between blues and electronic and visual arts and indigenous Central American traditional instruments.

Then my piece is all string and vocal ensemble playing music that I have written, setting Yiddish poems to music. This is a bit of me exploring what is it like to write my own folk music in Yiddish, which obviously is not a super widely spoken language, but it is my family’s mother tongue on my mom’s side of the family. So I started learning Yiddish during the pandemic and I have been singing folk songs and studying with teachers.

MIM: I want to go back to “Sailor’s Lullaby,” the first release from your upcoming album Immigrantke on February 23rd. It feels like the first spark to some deeper themes and intention with the rest of the album that’s coming out. I read this song was partially inspired by your own long distance relationship, tying into the experience of someone that has left someone else on the other side of the ocean. Can you share your path in creating this song and how that played into the full theme and concept for the new album?

Photo by Drew Arrieta

Larsson: You know, I’m sure, how so many traditional songs are just so evocative and so perfect in their encapsulation of some of those experiences, whether it’s an Irish folk song or an Eastern European song or an Appalachian song, the tales that they tell, especially of someone who is your beloved who is far away is so crystalline and wonderful. I’m trying to write music that’s in lineage with those songs. I feel very much my connection in this kind of thread of people coming down the line.

The pure inception of that song was me sitting by the lake and emotionally taking in that kind of back and forth: it’s constantly moving, but it’s this kind of slow pace. The lick and the melody of the song just came out of being there by the water. But as soon as I started having words to it, it really appeared to me fully formed as a lullaby. So I leaned into that and said, “Okay, so what are the ways that my current experience is the same? And what would I be singing to my beloved if this was a hundred years ago instead of right now?”

My Swedish immigrant ancestors came right around 1901-1902, and then my Jewish immigrant ancestors a little after that. They couldn’t call each other and video chat. It’s really feeling the way you just have to imagine. So I think that’s where that word comes from in the lyrics; you can’t actually know what they’re doing right now. You can’t call them, you just have to picture where they might be at any particular moment.

Photo by Drew Arrieta

MIM: Can you share your own personal story and path of finding a connection to your ancestry?

Larsson: There was always this feeling when I was a younger person that I didn’t really experience culture. There are so many Minnesotans who are like, “Oh, we’re Norwegian, so we eat lefse, and we wear these sweaters.” I felt like more of the odd kid out compared to that. And certainly, for communities of color who’ve done so much work around cultural sovereignty, Native American communities, and African American communities, we need to learn our roots and teach it to our kids. I certainly witnessed that, but I felt that was something my family didn’t really have.

We were more of an assimilated white American cultural family. Then, when I was in college, I started learning traditional and folkloric music from Eastern Europe. So I sang in a choir called the Yale Slavic Chorus. We would go to a senior center, and there would be a bunch of seniors who were all Armenian, and it reminded me of home. And that was when it started to click. They’re actually these nests of little places where culture is really alive in that way, and I can actually access them.

That’s when I really started learning and feeling actually connected, and then also feeling kind of crazy because it’s like, well, that stuff was out there this whole time, and I wanted it so badly when I was a teen, and I just didn’t know where to find it.

MIM: The second song you released, “Što Morava Mutna Teče,” is a Serbian folksong telling the tale of two sisters, in which one drowns in the river, and the other one survives. There’s this compelling tie-in with this song with your own great-grandmother. Tell me about that connection.

Larsson: The way I learned that song is so amazing, but I was originally really drawn to the harmonies. When the second voice comes in, it’s like, whoa, that is so cool. The connection I was making with the story felt like it was about these macro-level stories of war and displacement or even colonization of North America. Given people who otherwise would be part of the same family, why should one survive and one drown? So I was singing it for a long time, kind of almost like an environmental justice kind of song, and that was what made it really powerful for me.

Then later I was like, oh, duh, my great grandmother, Sarah, whom I’m named for. She moved to the U.S. from Poland under bizarre circumstances. It wasn’t the Holocaust yet, but it was like programs and laws being implemented, barring Jews from certain occupations. It was not a great time for anybody in Poland, let’s be honest. She had an uncle whose daughter was unable to travel because she got smallpox.

This daughter was the same age as my great-grandma. She took her spot and traveled undocumented. Rose stayed, and they exchanged letters for 20 years. We have a bunch of those letters, including the last one that she sent, which was returned because their whole community had been liquidated when the Nazis came into Poland.

Red Thread, Photo by Michelle Bennett

MIM: You’re making music in a new group named Red Thread. The name fits perfectly in these themes of pulling stuff from the past and weaving these stories together.

Larsson: I mean, it is perfect, you’re correct. Red thread is traditional embroidery used on shirts. But honestly, the first occurrence of that phrase for me was seeing wild strawberries growing, and if you can picture how strawberries grow by sending runners along the ground. I was up in the mountains, and these strawberry runners were just the brightest fire engine red contrasted with the grass. The way that they grow also feels like that metaphor: you get transplanted to a new place, and then you’re going and reaching out to try to find your people and connections.

MIM: 2024 is the 100th anniversary of the 1924 Immigration Act. I know you’re touring through Europe and the U.S., pointing back to this anniversary. What’s your hope in tying its significance to 2024?

Larsson: It is kind of wild to realize that anniversary is here. Those were laws passed in a time of quite a bit of xenophobia and panic about “foreigners taking all our jobs” and stuff. But those were my ancestors; the panic was about my people. So on one level, it feels like the right thing to do. If we’re singing and playing music that’s connected to these traditions that have been carried here from immigrants, it just makes sense to me to hold that identity in relationship with other folks who are immigrants now.

In 1924, people who were Yiddish or Russian-speaking Jews in America were all having conversations, “Should we speak English or keep speaking Yiddish?” And today, it’s like if you’re Somali in America, “Should we teach our kids Somali? Or should we only speak English?” It’s the same question. I think that past generations, at least as far as my family was concerned, compromised that identity piece and that connection and culture piece for the sake of success in America.

MIM: That’s springing to mind the phrase “America is a Melting Pot.” When something melts, something is lost. I think America is proud of that phrase, but ultimately, a lot of culture and traditions can be lost.

Larsson: I’m not here to force anybody to go learn Swedish, but it can be really fun. There are all these other people who do similar work, and I think part of it’s also building community around this.

Written by Smouse

Having spent 13 years recording and producing Minnesota artists, along with running a small record label, Smouse is a passionate advocate of musicians and artists in Minnesota.


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