Hundreds of thousands of migrants came from Finland to the United States beginning in the 1870s. Some sought religious freedom, others economic opportunity. Some followed family, friends, and lovers. Others fled Russification. Still others simply sought adventure. All of them brought with them their language, their culture, their traditions.
Today, we see that culture sustained, yet changed, in myriad ways throughout the Upper Midwest. There’s Finnish American Juhannus festivals and bonfires, Finnish American homes and saunas, and Finnish American baked goods, to name just a few. And, of course, there’s the music.
In Finland, songs by and about Finnish migrants to the United States have lived on in a variety of ways, including through Simo Westerholm’s groundbreaking collection Reisaavaisen laulu Amerikkaan: Siirtolaislauluja. Originally published in Finnish in 1983, Westerholm put together a volume of songs of the Finnish migration from archives, broadsides, recordings, 78s, and anywhere he could get his hands on a tune and lyrics. Today, those 85 songs have been translated into English and can be found in Songs of the Finnish Migration: A Bilingual Anthology, edited by Thomas A. Dubois and Marcus Cederström.
An album by Tallari of the Finnish Folk Music Institute, Lähtölaulu. A Song of Departure features eight songs from Westerholm’s collection that speak to the Finnish American immigrant experience.
Closer to home, Laulu Aika, a Finnish American band from Minnesota, recently recorded six songs from the same collection, when they met on November 4, 2020, in St. Paul, to perform songs from Songs of the Finnish Migration: A Bilingual Anthology.
The six songs performed and presented below offer an interesting snapshot of the reality for many musicians during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Laulu Aika, it was a year of cancelled gigs, including one here in Madison, Wisconsin, for the Traveling Traditions: Nordic Folk Arts in the Upper Midwest exhibition. But it was also a year of learning new tunes and of finding creative ways of coming together. So what in a pre-pandemic year may have been indoor gigs with a crowded dance floor became distanced outdoor sessions, with masks, and a virtual audience. The songs, however, are the constant.
Performed by Laulu Aika, these six songs provide insight into the lived experiences of Finnish migrants to the United States. They speak to love and loss, old homes and new, challenges and triumphs. They remind us of the difficulties of immigration 100 years ago, but also of the difficulties of immigration today. The songs carry another layer of meaning during a pandemic year as the challenges of distance, isolation, and loss can resonate even with those who have spent a year staying put.
Many Finnish migrants made their way to Iron Range of Minnesota and to the Copper Country of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There they found employers eager to exploit newly arrived migrants looking for work. The deadly working conditions were met with organized resistance from many migrants who joined unions like the Western Federation of Miners or, later, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Workers came together in 1907 on the Mesabi Range, in 1913–1914 in the Copper Country, and again in 1916 on the Mesabi Range, to fight against continued exploitation. Many of those workers came from Finland and Italy.
First published in 1909, just a couple of years after the 1907 strike on the Mesabi Range and just a few years before the 1913–1914 strike in Copper Country, Santeri Mäkelä’s song “Kaivantomiehen laulu” [The Digger’s Song] appeared in the socialist songbook Työväen laulukirja [Songbook of the Working Class] printed in Hancock, Michigan. The song describes the dangerous working conditions in the mines and ends with the hope that there may be a better future:
“Oh I crave the freedom of humanity
The crushed working class is near dead.
I look to blood red roses so longingly
And prepare for the battle ahead.”
First recorded for Columbia Records in 1930, Hiski Salomaa’s “Lännen Lokari” [Logger of the West], also describes the working conditions that many Finnish migrants faced in the United States, though much less stridently than “Kaivantomiehen laulu.” Instead of the coal-covered miner, we are introduced to the experiences of an itinerant lumber jack, traveling the country to find work, while ensuring that he has (or at least claims to have) a woman in every town. The lumberjack, with wandering eyes and wandering ways, boasts his way from Alaska to Florida and everywhere in between, but Salomaa’s recognition of the difficulties of that type of lifestyle are hinted at in the song’s final stanza:
“Now Frisco I’ve seen, Oregon I have been
Where there’s summer and mountains cold.
To Dakota I’ve come, at Palm Beach I’ve swum,
Greeting friends both young and old.
When you build your house, settle ‘neath the pine,
That day for joy you’ll shout.
Though the storms of life can cause us strife,
Freedom finally does win out.”
“America widows,” the women left behind in Finland when their husbands or boyfriends traveled across the Atlantic, offer another perspective on what migration from Finland meant. “Amerikan leski” [America Widow], published in 1905 as a broadside, is one such song. Credited to Elisa Valkama, who was herself an America widow, the song offers a woman’s perspective on what it meant to be left behind. For some, it was just a matter of time before they joined their husbands or boyfriends in the United States. But for others, the letters slowed to a trickle before finally stopping, any money earned and meant to be sent back home never arrived, and, eventually, it became unclear if the men who had left had found someone else or possibly died. No matter the reason, the Finnish women for whom this was a reality had effectively become widows, their men lost to migration. Left alone at home, these women, who were sometimes blamed for their partners’ disappearances, endured gossip by neighbors, all the while dealing with their own isolation and struggles. “Amerikan leski” is a stark reminder of the effects of migration on not just the migrant, but on the people that the migrant left behind.
“My dear husband he has gone and left me, he’s been away for eighteen long years.
For America he jilted me, oh he has left me to my tears.
He’s been gone my scoundrel of a husband, it’s coming up now on year twenty
He has left me weeping, all alone, with my cares and sorrows plenty.”
Rife with the humor that make many of Arthur Kylander’s songs still popular today, “Lumber-Jäkki” [Lumber Jack] takes a different approach to working in the woods than does Salomaa’s “Lännen Lokari.” Like Salomaa, Kylander’s songs often spoke to the experiences of working class immigrants and were popular among Finnish labor activists. But rather than focus on the itinerant lifestyle of the lumberjack, Kylander here describes life in the camp comparing the romanticized views of the poets who write of the sublime forest in which the men work, the beautiful aspen, the fresh meat every day. Kylander, who worked as a logger and carpenter across the United States for years, quickly corrects the unnamed poets who glamorize the work in the woods. Instead of fresh meat, for instance, it’s beans, with expected results.
“In the evening late at night
When the men have gone to sleep,
Here and there, all out of sight,
A melody does seep.
Gentlemen who heard that sound,
Would believe a band they’d found,
Or a hidden orchestra, performing somewhere round.
It’s the beans they ate you see, now tooting musically.
And the concert goes all night, it’s absolutely free.
Aspens sigh with gas fumes nigh, the moon shines bright and full,
Its poetic, yes, indeed, on evenings warm or cool.”
Muistatko vielä illan sen
Ernest Paananen and Antti Kosola’s orchestra recorded “Muistatko vielä illan sen” [Do You Still Remember That Night?] for Columbia in 1930. While Paananen is sometimes credited as the composer, the song was well known in Finland around the same time. Just as “Amerikan leski” sings of separation and loss, although tinged with the pain and suffering by the woman left behind, “Muistatko vielä illan sen” describes the difficulties of leaving loved ones behind. Listened to alongside “Amerikan leski,” we hear another side of the story, that of a person who left their love behind, never to return. The migrant remembers the shores of Finland, as so many homesick Finns do, but also fondly recalls the night the couple shared their first kiss. Of course, as we quickly learn, that first kiss, those memories, were not enough to reunite the couple. And while the ending is ambiguous, it would not be absurd to realize that we are hearing the song of a man who has left yet another America widow behind.
“I left old Finland’s shores behind,
So started our time apart.
But sometimes those lingering memories,
They warm my lonely heart.”
Another song written by Hiski Salomaa, “Tiskarin polka” [The Dishwasher’s Polka] is somewhat unique in that it describes the working conditions of a young woman, specifically a dishwasher. Just like “Lännen Lokari” above, “Tiskarin polka” was recorded for Columbia Records, this one though a few years earlier, in 1927.
Many of Salomaa’s songs, “Tiskarin polka” among them, appealed to the working class as well as Finnish labor activists. The IWW, in fact, at one point commissioned him to write two labor songs for them. In this song, the young domestic servant describes a typical day of serving coffee, washing and scrubbing, sweeping the floor, changing the baby, feeding the cat, letting the dog out, and generally ensuring that the house is running smoothly. All the while, she yearns for Thursday night and the dance at the local Finn Hall. Thursdays were, traditionally, a day off for many domestic servants working in the United States, and while that was an improvement for many who had worked similar jobs in Finland, the work was tough with long hours and little pay. The dance at the Finn Hall was a treat, a place to meet friends young and old, and maybe meet someone new, before heading back to work and doing it all over again the next week.
“Fellas they take their gals to café
For a drink after dancing the night away.
Coffee cups clinking this way, that way,
It’s like Härmä’s wedding day.
We spend the night like that a’chumming,
Then rush home a polka a’humming.
Time to change clothes for work is a’lacking,
Got to send your boyfriends packing.
In the back room I wash and scrub up and
Sweep off the floor boards and then wipe up
Tee-lee tee-lee tee-lee tee-lee tee-tat yes and
Thursdays we take it easy.”
Together, these six songs give a snapshot of the lived experiences of the men and women who left Finland for the shores of the United States. Some suffered, some struggled, some succeeded. Some did all three. And through the songs of the Finnish migration, we can better understand what life was like for those hundreds of thousands of migrants. The Songs of the Finnish Migration playlist can be found on YouTube.
For more from Laulu Aika, check out their website.
All English lyrics are from Songs of the Finnish Migration: A Bilingual Anthology, edited by Thomas A. Dubois and Marcus Cederström. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2020 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.