Documentary discs: Finnish music

The Upper Midwest has long been home to many significant folk musical traditions. Often existing outside of the mainstream commercial recording industry, their performers—hailing from diverse cultural backgrounds—have not only sustained old sounds and styles but also composed new songs and tunes. And nowadays, fortunately, once rare recordings are becoming increasingly available on compact disc. In future issues we will consider the powwow music of Woodland Indians, polka bands, Scandinavian dialect singers, Irish fiddlers and pipers, and more, but let’s turn this time to the Finnish American homeland amidst the mines, woods, and small farms of the region’s northernmost reaches.

In 1928 Viola Turpeinen (1909–1958) made the first of many stellar commercial recordings that would establish her as the Upper Midwest’s, indeed North America’s, most influential Finnish American musician. Born to immigrant parents in the mining hamlet of Champion, Michigan, just across the border from Wisconsin, the teenage Turpeinen was playing accordion for local dances when “discovered” by John Rosendahl, a traveling musician. Soon the pair was barnstorming throughout Finnish America, matching Viola’s driving squeezebox with “Jukka’s” searing fiddle. In the words of her contemporary, Antti Syrjaniemi, she played “like a heavenly bell.” And I might add that her occasional vocals on songs like “Unelma Valssi (Dream Waltz)” were equally celestial.

Seventy-five years after her first recordings, nearly fifty years after her death, Viola Turpeinen still sets the standard by which all other Finnish American dance musicians are measured. Her tunes and style are widely emulated from the Copper Country of Michigan, to the Wisconsin shores of Lake Superior, to the Iron Range of Minnesota. In 2002, fittingly, the Finnish Folk Music Institute (Kansanmusiikki-Instituutin, Suomen) reissued the entire corpus of 78 rpm recordings made by Viola Turpeinen from 1928–1945. The two Turpeinen compact discs, available through Artie Music in Turku, Finland (http://artiemusic.com), feature superb sound, especially considering the age of the original recordings, and are accompanied by authoritative bilingual notes and abundant rare photographs.

Finnish American old-time music also remains remarkably vibrant in the contemporary Upper Midwest, thanks in part to Viola Turpeinen’s influence, but perhaps more so to the sustained efforts of musicians like Al Reko and Oren Tikkanen who have been in the forefront of a renaissance of Finnish American musicians, including: the kantele player Joyce Hakala; singer Tanya Jurvelin Stanaway; singer-songwriters Diane Jarvi, Eric Peltoniemi, and Kip Peltoniemi; the brass band American Poijat; and such dance bands as Conga Se Menne, Keskilannen Pelimannit, the Northern Stars, the Oulu Hotshots, Sulo and the Musikaats, Thimbleberry, the Third Generation, and more. In the 1980s and early 1990s Oren Tikkanen, whose learned columns about these and other Finnish American musicians have graced such regionally-based newspapers as The Finnish American Reporter and New World Finn, matched his guitar, banjo, and mandolin with Al Reko’s piano accordion to produce four cassettes combining inventive arrangements of old tunes, deft musicianship, and engaging vocals: Dance at the Finn Hall, Life in the Finnish American Woods, American Boys in Finland, and Reunion at Finntown. Happily these titles have now been re-mastered and reissued on a pair of double compact discs available by contacting Oren at orentikk@up.net.

Jim Leary is co-director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.

Published 2003 by the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. Do not reprint without permission.