Povel Ramel – pulling down the idyll

Published: 2006-11-30 by Sebastian Tiger

"I was lucky to arrive at the right time," says Povel Ramel, and we wonder which of his many decades Povel is referring to. He has now reached the grand age of 84 and is in his seventh decade as one of Sweden’s most beloved song writers and entertainers.

Povel Ramel grew up in an upper-class family in the neighbourhood of Östermalm in Stockholm. His parents were not markedly musical but Povel says that his father had "a great way of acting" and was very interested in vaudeville. He took his entire family, including the household servants, to Södra Teatern to see Thor Modéen and other great performers of the time acting on stage.

“At first, I didn’t understand much of it at all, but when I got older I was envious of the artists and the appreciation bestowed upon them.”

Povel’s first stage was the kitchen at home, where he performed his own ballads and rhymes. The two or three servants in the household were a discriminating audience who did not accept repeat performances but wanted to see new acts every time. If he succeeded in satisfying his choosy audience, he was rewarded with sweets and cakes.

Povel realised early on that it was possible to use music to poke fun at all sorts of phenomena. He quickly learned that it was also possible to make fun of music. His earliest recollection of this is when he was given a record on which Elof Ahrle sang "Morfars snusdosa" (Granddad’s Snuff Box) – a parody of the sentimental national scourge "Den gamla spinnrocken" (The Old Spinning Wheel). In the late thirties, when he visited London Palladium, he listened to Harry Roy poking fun at the popular songs of the time. It was a genre that he grew to appreciate.

School’s out, music’s in
Povel’s school days were not much fun. To put up with school, he took on the role of class clown.

“I wasn’t a fighter, but being funny can also be a good weapon. School completely drained me and I didn’t give a damn about it in the end. I skived off to Skansen to look at the animals and after a while I felt as confined as the monkeys in the apery there.”

Povel never passed his leaving exams. His parents died after being involved in a car accident in 1937 and he had to go and live with his aunt Elsie Virgin. Povel describes her as a fantastic person who was aware that he was interested in music and drawing. She arranged for him to have piano lessons and go to drawing school.

He recalls that the piano lessons weren’t very fulfilling. Jazz had crept into his life like a new and thrilling element, and he had started to learn how to play the piano by himself. His aunt Elsie fixed a number of gigs for him using her network of contacts and she was, one might say, his first manager.

After his debut at the talent competition "Vi som vill opp", run by the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, where he performed "En sömnig serenad" (A Sleepy Serenade), Povel’s breakthrough came with "Vårt Eget Blue Hawaii" (Our Own Blue Hawaii) which was a massive hit for Alice Babs in the summer of 1942. Two years later, he had a formidable success with "Johanssons Boogie Woogievals" (Johansson’s Boogie Woogie Waltz).

Since then, Povel’s career has moved along the highway of success, with radio and TV programmes, his ‘Unbutton’ variety shows, books, films and an impressive list of songs and lyrics. Povel has more than 900 song titles registered in STIM’s database of works.

“My relationship with STIM has always been good. Some time in the late 1940s, I received a phone call from an old school friend who was working at STIM. She told me they had a five-figure sum of money waiting for me there. Since then, the payments from STIM have been coming in regularly.”

Vivacious and melodious
Povel describes his composing as a self-generating urge. He feels he is privileged in that it has nearly always been up to him to decide what he should write about. However, it doesn’t follow that writing is entirely without its problems. When a new song is in the making, it will brew inside him constantly – and he says he’s not particularly good company when that’s happening.

“It is easy to write a complicated tune and difficult to write a simple but original one. I think I’ve only pulled that off perfectly a couple of times, with songs like "Ta av dig skorna" (Take off your shoes) and "Underbart är kort" (Wonderful is short).”

Povel says that he is a slow composer. He often writes the music faster than the lyrics, as he carefully weighs every word, and he is sure his slow style sent Hasse Alfredson and Beppe Wolgers crazy when they were working together.

As Povel is not particularly enthusiastic about notating his music, he has used tape recorders or the services of experienced music notators to document his songs. When he was younger, he could sometimes create word orders to help him remember a tune he had thought of. He used this technique with his song "Köp inte en zebra" (Don’t buy a zebra), the title of which is in fact the phrase he used to remember the tune.

A key ingredient in Povel’s creative process is the collisions. He explains that it is the collisions between the music and lyrics, rhythm and language, stage and audience’s expectations that make the music entertaining. In his music, he builds up idylls which he then gleefully knocks down with collisions. From a purely musical perspective, he describes his music as vivacious and melodious.

“I like it to rock a bit too. Not necessarily swing, but rock. What’s most essential is that the lyrics and the music make a perfect match.”

Nowadays, he very seldom composes anything. He says that it costs him too much and he feels that after so many years in the business he can allow himself to take it easy.

Let pop go
Povel has his roots in blues, jazz and swing (he mentions that Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael have also had a tremendous influence on his work). However, he didn’t stop there but has always embraced contemporary musical influences. When he has composed music for new artists, he has tried to write with an eye on their previous work.

“But I let go of pop music somewhere on a level with the Rolling Stones.”

Povel has recently toured with his show, the Renewed Povel Chat – Now with Music! Povel mesmerises audiences as he talks about his long career, answering questions put to him on stage by Stephan Lundin. His story is interspersed with musical numbers that he performs together with a trio of musicians – Niclas Sundén (accordion), Mikael Ramel (guitar) and Backa Hans Eriksson (bass).

Povel, who seems keen to carry on "ruffling the idyll", says it is likely that the tour will continue after the summer.

Mattias Franzén


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