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Although Dutch musicians enjoy only modest international success, there is still a vibrant Dutch music scene in the country itself. And whilst for many years Dutch pop stars sang in English, these days popular bands are just as likely to sing in Dutch as the traditional ‘Levenslied’ (Dutch ballads) performers.
The Birth of Dutch Song
Until the 20th century Dutch songs were predominantly folk songs of unknown origin, that were passed down from generation to generation in an oral tradition.
The oldest recorded Dutch songbook, the ‘Antwerps Liedboek’ (Antwerp Songbook), originated in 1544 and was the first in a series of songbook releases in the Netherlands. Yet it was only after the invention of the gramophone, that Dutch musicians were able to capture a wider audience. The first true Dutch ‘stars’ emerged before the Second World War and included singers such as Lou Bandy and Louis David.
By the end of the war, the Dutch youth were already immersing themselves in the latest music coming from the UK and the US. This popular music made a massive impression on them and ignited the country’s own pop scene in the fifties, resulting in a wave of home grown pop bands such as Max van Praag and the Skymasters.
During the sixties Dutch pop music really came into its own and some Dutch singers, including Eddy Christiani and Willy Alberti, even managed to achieve chart positions in the United States. The first Dutch rock bands also formed around this time and began to revel in countrywide acclaim. Peter Koelewijn and his rockets got to the top of the Dutch music charts with ‘‘Kom van dat dak af’ (Get off that roof). And through the power of music, Dutch cabaret artists and comedians such as Rob de Nijs, Anneke Grönloh, Toon Hermans and Boudewijn de Groot became well known Dutch celebrities.
During the seventies pop and rock bands began to steer away from the Dutch language, as it was particularly associated with the melancholic songs of the ‘Levenslied’ and therefore, not ‘cool’. As increasing numbers of Dutch musicians sang in English, so their chance of outside fame grew. Shocking Blue made it to the top of the foreign charts with ‘Venus’ and Golden Earring had an international hit with ‘Radar Love’.
This trend for singing in English began to reverse during the eighties. Bands such as Doe Maar, Toontje Lager, Het Goede Doel and Frank Boeijengroep used controversial lyrics to win over new teenage fans who quickly adjusted to their guttural native tongue. Many bands, not content with performing in Dutch, elected to sing in a regional dialect. Rowwen Hèze for example, sang in Limburgs.
By the nineties many famous pop stars and successful bands routinely sang in Dutch. The biggest stars of the decade were Marco Borsato, Ruth Jacott, Rene Froger, De Kast and Bløf.
Today Dutch pop musicians tend to follow global trends giving some, such as top house music DJ Tiesto, a global following.
The ‘Levenslied’ (Ballad)
The term ‘Levenslied’ was first used by Jean-Louis Pisuisse (Max Blokzijl) in 1908, to describe a much loved form of Dutch music comparable to the French ‘chanson’. Levenslied are simple ballads, typically with a poignant theme such as unrequited love. These tender, often emotionally charged songs were made fashionable before the Second World War, by Dutch artists including Willy Derby and Louis Davids. The genre remained popular until the early eighties, thanks to the likes of Willy Alberti, Johnny Jordaan, Andre Hazes, Zangeres Zonder Naam and Corry en de Rekels, whom the Dutch public adored.
Enthusiasm for the Levenslied waned in the late eighties, in part due to the proliferation of Dutch pop and rock bands singing in Dutch. It wasn’t until the mid nineties that the love affair with the Levenslied was rekindled and artists such as Frans Bauer, Jantje Smit, Corry Konings and Marianne Weber took the country by storm.
The Levenslied is still central to the Dutch music scene and a new breed of singers perform to sell-out crowds, bask in celebrity status and are sought after guests on the nation’s favourite chat shows.