Conference: Song Genres in Social and Cultural Contexts

Girls and young women singing ballads at the local festival of Ritvala village at Whitsun 1945. Photo: Finnish Heritage Agency, Kansatieteen kuvakokoelma KK5079:3.SAAK.6. CC BY 4.0.
Girls and young women singing ballads at the local festival of Ritvala village at Whitsun 1945. (Photo: Finnish Heritage Agency, Kansatieteen kuvakokoelma KK5079:3.SAAK.6. CC BY 4.0.)

Song Genres in Social and Cultural Contexts
51st International Ballad Conference
of the Kommission für Volksdichtung

29 May – 2 June, 2023, Helsinki, Finland
Finnish Literature Society SKS (Hallituskatu 1)

See the Programme and Abstracts


”Words are always situated; they cannot naturally occur but in context, and they cannot naturally recur without reference to prior occurrences and prior contexts” (Foley 1995: xi). In a performance of a song, the genre conventions provide much of the information that make that song anticipated, understood, and relevant in the given performance context. For example, the audience of a ballad will be able to situate the murders and miracles in the narrative realm of the genre and interpret motifs and symbols as part of the specific language of that genre.

Song genres direct the coding and decoding of meaning in performance because they lean on shared understanding of the anticipated thematic area, function, interpretation frame, and expressive means – which are carried over by the performance history. Genres are thus intrinsically social and cultural constructions, and a singer’s choice of a genre, such as ballads, also pertains to what that genre stands for in the community. Yet genres are not monoliths but co-exist in interchange with other genres, they change in time and through creative individual acts.

Today, some singers continue a long-standing oral tradition while others participate in revival movements which often also involve new elements such as formal education, archive work, new stylistic features, and new kinds of performance platforms. Study of contemporary singers’ practices and trajectories can bring significant knowledge of the unchanged elements of a song tradition as well as of its changes.   

Our focus on the song genre is methodological rather than theoretical: we hope that contributors will frame their presentation with reflection on how the specific subjects studied (a song, a theme, a performance, a singer’s repertoire, etc.) are related to the genre and what that genre represents in its social and cultural context in the chosen time, area, society, and/or singing community.

The subthemes of the conference are:

  • HISTORY: songs, song genres and their conventions in a given country, area, or language;
  • SIGNIFICANCE: how and why a song genre is meaningful in/representative of a community;
  • SINGERS: the role of a song genre in a singer’s repertoire or trajectory;
  • CHANGE: how new styles, environments, performers, etc., challenge or change genre conventions;  
  • REVIVAL MOVEMENTS: the role of a song genre and its changes in singing revival movements.    


The Finnish Literature Society in cooperation with the University of Helsinki organises the 51st International Ballad Conference of the Kommission für Volksdichtung (International Ballad Commission).

The conference is held in 29 May – 2 June 2023 in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, at the Finnish Literature Society (SKS, which is a learned society and non-governmental organization founded in 1831. SKS consists of an archive, library, publishing house, research department and Finnish Literature Exchange organisation FILI. University of Helsinki is Finland’s largest and oldest academic institution, founded in 1640 (in Turku), with the world’s first professorship in Folklore Studies established in 1898.

The history of folklore scholarship in Finland is closely intertwined with the collection and study of the alliterative, unrhymed kalevala-meter runosong poetry that employed the same meter for many genres, such as epic, lyric, charms, lullabies, and ritual poetry. This oral poetry was lively in eastern Finnish-speaking areas and Karelia until the late 19th century, and international ballad themes had become one integral part of its narrative song-types. Along with rhyme, the Scandinavian-style stanzaic ballads entered through the Swedish-speaking west coast much later. They remained a more isolated phenomenon in the wider Finnish-speaking areas, where, instead, the genre of short rhyming couplets (rekilaulu) became incredibly popular during the long 19th century. In Finland, the adoption of ballads has thus varied in terms of meter, language, and cultural influences. This diversity underlies the conference theme in which we wish to focus on ballads as a socially and culturally embedded genre.   


The conference is organised by the Finnish Literature Society (SKS, in the centre of Helsinki Hallituskatu 1), in collaboration with the folklore studies and history at the University of Helsinki and folk music at the Sibelius Academy of the UniArts Helsinki. It is supported by the Oskar Öflunds Stiftelse sr.

Conference main page:

Kommission für Volksdichtung (International Ballad Commission) home page: