Minneapolis artist sings her family’s immigration history

A person poses for a photo.
Sarah Larsson’s new ensemble Red Thread has released a debut album “Immigrantke” that combines traditional and original music in four languages, exploring stories of immigration.
Courtesy of Michelle Bennett from Wolfskull Creative

Minneapolis folk singer Sarah Larsson is having a big month. Earlier in February, she was one of six artists commissioned by the Cedar Cultural Center to perform new work, and she set Yiddish poems to music.

Now she’s releasing a new album that combines traditional and original music in four languages, exploring stories of immigration.

Larsson grew up hearing stories of how her family immigrated to America. Those stories shaped her, especially one about her namesake: her great-grandmother Sadie, who came from Poland as a teen in the place of a relative who was too sick to make passage. 

“My great grandma traveled on someone else’s papers,” says Larsson. “Sadie and her sister Rose or Reyzl, were around the same age. And [Sadie] went on this ticket and her sister stayed behind. They exchanged letters for years and years and years. And we have those letters. And ultimately, Reyzl was killed in the Holocaust. So Sadie’s last letter to her comes back, ‘Return to Sender.’” 

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Larsson says she’s always tried to picture that conversation between the sisters. Who would go? Who would stay?

Echoes of that tale of sisters separated are in a traditional song from southern Serbia called “Što Morava Mutna Teče.” It’s one of the songs Larsson and her new folk ensemble Red Thread perform on their debut album “Immigrantke.” In the song, one sister drowns, and we hear two women’s voices come together in sweet harmony before one voice fades away, leaving the other solo.

This election year, immigration conversations loom large as people debate old questions: Who should be allowed to come to the U.S.? From where? Why? And how many?  

100 years ago, in 1924, the U.S. Immigration Act’s answer to these questions was to drop the flow of immigration down to a trickle, severely reducing overall arrivals and barring immigration from much of Asia. Also barred were people from southern and eastern Europe, including Larson’s Polish relatives.  

Album cover art for "Immigrantke" by Red Thread
"Immigrantke" by Red Thread.
Album illustration by Sarah Hedlund

Larsson had that history in mind when working on "Immigrantke,” whose songs answer exclusion with inclusion by bringing together Yiddish, Serbian and English as well as tunes from Russia and Ireland.

She’s been studying and performing the folk singing traditions of her Jewish and Eastern European heritages for years. But this album includes original music, too. The challenge, Larsson said, was permitting herself to do so. 

“I think part of that came from feeling like I didn’t have enough of the qualifications or prereqs. You know, I didn’t grow up speaking any of these languages,” says Larsson.

She started learning Yiddish as an adult, during the pandemic. She worried: What if her pronunciation was off, or she didn’t have enough context for a certain song?

“We all need to kind of turn off those voices that are telling people that they’re not enough. Because all of us who participate in these communities of folk art and folk music, we want more people to be connected and be part of it. So even though I’m committed to that, as a community member and community organizer, I still had to come around to feeling comfortable enough on my own.”

One song Larsson wrote, “Sailor’s Lullaby,” picks up an age-old theme: yearning to be reunited with a loved one across the ocean. That was inspired by her years-long intercontinental relationship with her now-husband, who is from Brazil. With this song and others, Larsson is keeping traditional music alive, because traditions stay alive when everyone contributes to them.

"Immigrantke” debuts Feb. 23. Larson will performing this music on tours ofthe West Coast and Brazil for the rest of February and March.

Red Thread plans to have an album release celebration in the Twin Cities in May, with performances in Greater Minnesota during the summer and fall. 

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.