Neither Rod Maki nor June Johnson of Merrill, Wisconsin, can pinpoint why they wanted to start playing the accordion, but each grew up surrounded by music. Listening to accordionists while dancing to polkas and schottisches were regular past-times in their Finnish-American communities. Theirs were two of many that were established across the Upper Midwest as Finns migrated to the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries–one of many groups to settle land that was already inhabited by Indigenous peoples. They established co-op stores, meeting halls, and churches in towns they named “Kaleva” or “Palo.” In addition to these official acts, they continued to take saunas, bake traditional foods, speak Finnish, and carry on their cultural traditions within the communities they created. A number of these traditional practices involved music and many songs were sung in Finnish, English, or a combination of the two. Still others were learned from neighbors and sung in other immigrant languages. Rod and June both grew up in communities that embraced these cultural traditions, especially music. They each learned to play the accordion in their youth and continue to engage with their Finnish cultural heritage through music.
LEARNING BY DOING
June was raised in Brantwood, Wisconsin, and estimates that about 95% of the community was Finnish back then– most owned and ran small farms. She recalls how her mother loved to turn on polka music every morning.
JJ: Well, there was music in the home. My mother, early mornings… I can remember this so distinctly because I wouldn’t have had to get up so early to go to school, but she turned on this polka music at maybe 6 o’clock when I could have slept till 7. But then of course I woke up to all that music.
June eventually picked up her brother’s accordion and worked out how to play a couple of tunes. She never took lessons, working out the fingerings for tunes as she heard them—just as her mother and brother had. She added percussion instruments like the tambourine, maracas, cymbals, knockers, and others to her repertoire after an arm and shoulder injury left her unable to play accordion for a couple months. June admits, “I can play the rhythm instruments really well,” and she now enjoys switching between them and the accordion during performances.
Rod grew up on a farm about 6 miles south of Eveleth, Minnesota–another Finnish farming community. When his family did their Saturday shopping at the co-op store in nearby Virginia, Minnesota, everyone was speaking Finnish. Rod remembers his family often played Finnish records at home and his mother liked to sing Finnish songs. Some of their favorite records were by Viola Turpeinen—a well-known Finnish-American accordion player who toured the Upper Midwest during the 1920s–1940s:
My parents worked hard on the farm and the only thing they did on the weekend on occasion, they would go to a dance. And if Viola Turpeinen was playing, they were going! I can remember going as just a little kid, watching her play and just sitting there and just watching and watching, and never really thinking, ‘I wonder if I could ever play that?’
Rod’s first experience playing the accordion was trying one at a friend’s house just for fun, and he could already play back a short tune. He took a handful of lessons, after which his father bought him a small accordion and Rod figured out how to play songs on his own.
Rod worked out how to play a few of the songs his mother sang, as well as many songs that weren’t Finnish. Frankie Yankovic was a big influence, as were his Slovenian friends:
RM: There were a lot of Slovenian people up in that area also, in Virginia, Minnesota. A lot of my friends were Finnish and Slovenian. And I kind of taught them how to do some of the Finnish songs and they taught me how to do some of the Slovenian songs. So we knew a variety of songs.
This trading of knowledge and blending of traditions was common practice in the Upper Midwest. Immigrants from across Europe moved to the region and added their music and other traditions to the area’s rich history. Performers adapted old tunes as they learned new ones from others, even creating new songs together. Weekly dances at local halls were commonplace throughout the early 1900s, often featuring polkas, schottisches, and waltzes. These were spaces that allowed the community to come together to enjoy the music, and each other’s company.
Some Finnish-American songs addressed the hardships of moving to America and sorrow for those left behind. Others were humorous, reclaiming stereotypes of Finnish immigrants’ accented English. A number referenced past-times like taking saunas, dancing, or making traditional foods. One commonly referenced food is mojakka–a Finnish-American meat or fish stew.
Both June and Rod picked up their accordion skills and love of music over the course of many years of attending concerts, jamming with friends, and listening to records at home. It would still be years, however, before they began playing together.
Rod played accordion with different bands throughout junior high and college. After moving to Merrill, Wisconsin, he visited Harold’s Bar with a friend. He played his accordion for the other patrons on a whim to such positive response that he got a weekly gig. Rod played there for many years and other musicians joined in.
RM: So, for many, many years we played there Friday and Saturday night. Various other people joined in– guitar players and drummers and stuff. My parents came there and they said, ‘What’s the name of your band?’ I said, ‘We don’t really have a name.’ My dad says, ‘Hang on a second.’ He goes out to the vehicle and he brings a sticker and it says ‘Finn Power.’ He put it on an amplifier and he says, ‘You guys are called Finn Power.’ So that’s how the name Finn Power got started. I guess it’s been Finn Power ever since.
The band played for gigs around Finnish-American communities and Rod noticed June in the audience at a couple performances. He soon heard that she could play the accordion, but it took several performances in and around Brantwood, Wisconsin, for Rod to convince June to come up on stage and play a couple songs with the band. It wasn’t long after that June decided to officially join. The two have been playing in the Finn Power band together for 18 years now.
It was a couple of years after June first joined that she and Rod got together. Rod says that, “Because we were Finnish, that was the kicker that kind of drew us together.” The two speak a mix of Finnish and English at home, as Rod says, “we kind of embellish it, call it Finglish.”
Finn Power has performed for weddings and festivals and traveled all over Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. They have played at Finnish and non-Finnish events, catering to the crowd’s tastes. Rod recalls that back in the 1980s, they played a lot more rock and roll than Finnish songs, and that they used to travel with limbo sticks, always prepared to host a limbo contest at a wedding. They still play lots of polkas, schottisches, and various types of ethnic music from German to Slovenian, though Rod notes, “Our specialty is kind of Finnish stuff.”
For many years we played over 150 jobs a year. And I was still teaching school, I don’t know how we did it. But I think, when you’ve got music and rhythm in your system or something, it just kind of works.Rod Maki
Music fills the space where it is played, whether in a concert hall, neighborhood bar, or family living room. For Rod and June, music filled their communities and became embedded in their day to day lives. Each has chosen to embrace and engage with their cultural identity by playing music not just for themselves, but sharing it with others. They used to travel across the Upper Midwest for performances, frequenters of FinnFest and IronWorld. These days they prefer to play closer to home at local celebrations and retirement homes, with plans to keep performing as long as they can.
JJ: I’ll quit playing the accordion when I pull it out and I can’t push it back in again.
While they continue to play many of the songs they heard in their childhoods, they have also learned new ones and changed others by trying out new lyrics or adding techniques learned from friends. This blending and changing of musical styles is found across ethnic music of the Upper Midwest and speaks to the flexibility of the genre, allowing for both innovation and the sustaining of tradition. Music connects Rod and June to their Finnish heritage and memories of their Finnish-American communities in the same way it connects them to years of celebrations and performances together in the Finn Power band. As Rod says, “This has been a fun ride. We’re still riding.”
Old photos courtesy of Rod & June
Exhibit, Interviews, Videography, and Photography by Mirva Johnson
Meet the Traveling Traditions Artists
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