Monday, August 20, 2007

Folklore research project seeks info on local Finnish-American musicians

By Hilary Virtanen

Hilary Virtanen, Copper Country native and graduate student of Scandinavian Studies and Folklore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will be coming to the Upper Peninsula this month to interview descendants and acquaintances of Finnish-American musicians as part of an album compilation project conducted by Professor James P. Leary, also of the University of Wisconsin.

MADISON, WIS. -- Do you have traditional Finnish musicians in your family tree? Do you have any recollections of a musical neighbor from decades past? If you do, then I may be looking for you! My name is Hilary Virtanen, and I am a graduate student of Scandinavian Studies and Folklore at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, as well as a Copper Country native. In the last weeks of August, I plan to come to the Upper Peninsula in order to interview descendants and acquaintances of thirteen Finnish-American musicians recorded in 1938 by folklorist Alan Lomax, famed for his work with blues legends Huddy “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and Muddy Waters.

Housed in the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, Lomax’s 1938 field recordings were known to a few and not widely available -- until now.

My research is part of an album compilation project conducted by Professor James P. Leary, also of the University of Wisconsin. Folk Songs From the Other America: Field Recordings From the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946 is Leary’s latest effort to preserve and promote the unique musical traditions that exist in the region. In this compilation, Leary will make previously unreleased recordings from three important folklorists who were contemporaries and colleagues: Lomax, Helene Stratman-Thomas and Sidney Robertson. This recording will not only add to the body of scholarly work on these collectors and the music they preserved, but it will also help to highlight the importance of the musicians themselves, both to their home communities and to the wider public.

The ultimate goal of this project is to include biographical details of all of the performers, as well as photographs when possible, in the record compilation. This research combines genealogical and archival research, but public involvement will provide the most human details to help bring these people and their music to the present. I have found many clues about these people and the lives they lived, and I hope to find more.

Here are some brief details of each of the performers. I invite the public to contact me if they would like more information on a given individual or if they have more information for me.

Selma Ilona Halinen of Allouez, possibly called Ilona, was born in the late 1870s, possibly in Finland. She married Moses Halinen and had two children, Lempi M. and Arthur Isaac. Aina Pitkänen Pohjola was born c. 1891 in Kuusamo, Finland. She married Santeri Pohjola, and had five children, one of whom, Robert (born Reuben), is known to have had a child, also named Robert.

Hjelmer Forster [possibly Yalmer] of 47 Pine Street in Calumet, was born c. 1893; and his wife was named Lillian. Another musician who lived with the Forster family is identified as Aapo Juhani. While Lomax was in Calumet, Aapo Juhani also performed a water ritual, showing Lomax that, as late as 1938, the skills of the legendary Finnish noita, a healer or wizard in Finnish folklore traditions, could still be found in the community.

Amanda Harkonen of Calumet was born c. 1887 and married to Herman Harkonen. Herman and Amanda had at least one child, named Lempi Amanda, in 1915. Henry Mahoski of Amasa served in World War II and passed away on May 14, 1986. It is possible that he had a son also named Henry. Frank Maki, is also of Amasa, but nothing else is known about him.

Kalle Kallio of Newberry was born c. 1884. Emil Maki, also of Newberry, is possibly Emil J. Maki, who lived from 1893 to 1957 and had a wife by the name of Jannie M. Maki. Pekka Aho of Calumet performed with his daughter, Lillian Aukee. In her book, Memento of Finland, Joyce Hakala featured Aho as one of the immigrant generation of kantele players that helped to bring the tradition to America.

The last two Finnish performers to be included in Leary’s compilation are Waino Hirvela and Kusti Simila. Hirvela, born in Tyrnava, Finland in 1880, lived in Iron Mountain, later moving to San Francisco. He played the kantele. Simila’s first name varies in the following forms: Kusti, Kustaa, August and Gust. He lived at some point in Corbin, Minnesota, of which he sings in the song recorded by Lomax. He was likely born c. 1881 and had a wife named Esther.

I will be in Upper Michigan in late August, and I hope to make contact with the descendants and acquaintances of these performers before this time so that I may meet them while I am visiting. This project is, however, ongoing; and I plan to continue this work as I come home for visits. Any and all information on these performers is of interest and greatly appreciated. I can be contacted by mail at 4208 Hegg Ave. Madison, WI 53716, by telephone at 608-223-0811, or by email at

1 comment:

rachel said...

This looks like a great project! I'm happy to hear you're doing it. I am sorry I don't have any names or leads for you, but I am a Finnish-American from the U.P. and also a supporter of local music. Best of luck!