Rod Maki and June Johnson

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.


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.

Both June's and Rod's love of music started already during their childhoods. Here, June shares a picture of a young Rod with the first band he was in out of high school, "The Drifters."
Rod took a few accordion lessons at the music store in Virginia, Minnesota, but mostly played by ear. Rod is pictured here playing on his first accordion of his own. He remembers that some of Viola Turpeinen's songs were particularly tricky to figure out because she played in minor keys.

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.

‘Tervetuloa!’ means ‘Welcome!’ in Finnish and this sign greets visitors to Rod and June’s home.

A number of these spaces where also places the heritage language could be spoken and maintained. Rod and June recall not speaking much English until starting school because they spoke Finnish with their parents at home, as was the case for many of their classmates. 

JJ: But there were other Finnish kids that didn’t speak English either. And I can remember our first grade teacher, she would bounce a ball for us. When we’d say yksi she’d say ‘one.’ Kaksi then she’d say ‘two.’ And so we kind of learned it slowly, and just by listening to the English language.

Rod and June’s love for music was similarly picked up slowly over time, as were many of the songs they learned to play on the accordion. A number of these songs were in Finnish, others were in English, and some were sung in a combination of the two. 

An example can be seen in this video of Rod and June’s performance of “The Vagabond Waltz” or “Kulkurin valssi” with lyrics in both English and Finnish.

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.

This plate is decorated with a poem written in Finnish and English, "The Finn and Sauna Time," explaining how to properly take a sauna.
Rod and June comment that there are few things more Finnish than sauna, and they even have one in the basement of their home. The vihta June is holding is a whip traditionally made from birch branches and used to stimulate blood flow in the sauna by hitting the back and legs.


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.

Rod has performed with a number of musicians in different bands over the years. Since Finn Power got started, many have come and gone from the group. Pictured here is a group photo from the band's early days.
Rod shows how their music book doesn't include standard musical notation, but rather their own color-coded charts with lyrics and chords for each song.
Finn Power's costumes have also changed over time, changing colors and style over the years. In this performance, band members are sporting matching collared shirts.

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.”

June is holding the knockers, one of many percussion instruments in her repertoire, decorated to match the band's aesthetic. Her bongos read "Choonie," which she jokes is the way her mother used to pronounce her name.

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


The two have a tradition of performing at Little Finland’s Viola Turpeinen Day celebration in Hurley, Wisconsin, in honor of the Finnish-American accordionist.

In this video, Rod and June perform a popular Finnish-American tune, “Kuka sen saunan lämmittää?” or “Who’s going to heat up the sauna?” Some of these lyrics may not have been meant for younger ears. Changing the lyrics, reworking others, and adding their own style to existing songs are a few of the ways that Rod and June make a performance their own.

While they played several Finnish songs at the event, they also performed many popular polka and rock songs. This video is an excerpt of one of their favorite popular tunes to play. As Rod says, it’s got “a little shake, rattle, and roll.”

Sign for Little Finland with American and Finnish flags
Little Finland is a cultural center in Hurley, WI, with restored Finnish-American farmstead buildings, a large hall, and outdoor pavilion.
Two women dancing to left of band's set-up
Dancers of all ages had fun taking to the dance floor for a variety of songs.
Audience in front of Finn Power band's set-up
It was a full house that came out to enjoy the music and celebrate Little Finland's Viola Turpeinen Day.
Rod and June's performance set-up is decorated with many Finnish flags and "sisu" signs.

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

A shot of Rod and June taken at a performance a few years ago.
Red accordion sitting on the carpet
The Maki/Johnson home has many accordions. As Rod jokes, "We started off with one, and then two, and then they had a couple babies."