The Discovery of Finnish American Folk Music

By Leary, James P. | Scandinavian Studies, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Discovery of Finnish American Folk Music


Leary, James P., Scandinavian Studies


BETWEEN 1880 and the onset of World War I, more than 300,000 Finns emigrated to the United States variously fleeing evictions from peasant homelands, a population surplus, unemployment, class strictures, a domineering state church, and the political oppression of Swedes to the west and Russians to the east. Roughly half settled in the Lake Superior region, while others took root in New York City and Chicago, in rural Maine and upstate New York, in Fitchburg, Massachusetts and Ashtabula, Ohio, in Rock Springs, Wyoming and Butte, Montana, and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Their "Finn Towns" often jostled and overlapped with immigrant enclaves of Italians, Slavs, Irish, Cornish, Swedes, and Norwegians. And they toiled as miners, loggers, fishers, small farmers, millhands, craftsmen, cooks, maids, and buffers.

Like other newcomers and their descendants, Finnish Americans continued their old-country musical traditions. Hymns, ballads, patriotic, class-conscious, and sentimental songs--rendered a capella or accompanied by a pump organ or a plucked kantele--echoed from homes. Polkas, waltzes, and schottisches -- performed on fiddle, harmonica, and button accordion--dominated house parties and lumber camp frolics. Institutions fostering music soon thrived. Suomi Synod Lutheran Churches, aligned with Finland's state church, established sedate choirs with standard part-singing, while members of the charismatic, democratic Finnish Apostolic Lutheran Church--amidst constant sectarian schisms--composed new hymns and adapted American gospel songs to be rendered in exuberant full-throated unison. Temperance societies and socialists built halls, formed brass bands, put on musical plays, and sponsored dances.

Vibrant and ever-present, such musical activities hardly needed discovery by the first and second generation Finnish Americans who lived them. Yet we would know little about these traditions were it not for the persistent efforts of cultural outsiders, of third and fourth generation Finnish Americans, and of folk music scholars from Finland to document and thereby "discover" Finnish American folk and vernacular music through sound recordings, fieldnotes, publications, photographs, and film. In broad terms, the discovery of Finnish American folk music may be divided into three phases--each fragmentary with regard to the folk musical whole, each with its own peculiar history, cast of characters, expectations, and limitations.

The first phase, spanning roughly the first half of the twentieth century, involves 78 rpm discs made for American commercial record companies by Finnish American musicians, and has been capably documented by such scholars as Pekka Gronow, Simo Westerholm, Richard Spottswood, Toivo Tamminen, and Juha Niemela. The third, extending roughly from the 1970s through the present, involves a configuration of scholars, musicians, and organizations in Finland and America--notably involving Finnish and American partisans in "folk music revival" and "new ethnicity" movements--and is plentifully evident in my own work, in the programs of North America's annual Finn Fest, and in the columns, features, and advertisements of such Finnish American newspapers as The Finnish American Reporter, New World Finn, and Raivaaja. The second phase occurred in the 1930s amidst a confluence of federally-supported folk music specialists and regionally-based song collectors. Least known and bound up with the work of Marjorie Edgar, Sidney Robertson, and Alan Lomax, it begs elaboration and is the focus of this essay.

Federally sponsored folksong collecting flourished as never before just prior to World War II as fieldworkers labored for the Archive of American Folksong at the Library of Congress, the folklore division of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writer's Project, and even the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration. Guided by the populism and pluralism that undergirded the progressive wing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's economic and cultural New Deal, these agencies and their workers extended previous folksong collecting emphases beyond the American Indian bent of the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology and the prevailing focus of the Archive of American Folksong on English-speaking Anglo and African Americans to include Francophone Lousiana "Cajuns" southwestern Hispanics, and a host of "foreigners" in California and the upper midwest. …

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