“The music and dancing was what we went for. And there was Viola on the bandstand, a big woman with her accordion strapped to her chest. And always a big smile on her face. And you know when I think about it, maybe that song is right. The way we danced, it’s a wonder anyone survived!”
Oren Tikkanen plays guitar and now lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Beginning in the mid-80s, he and Minnesota accordionist/singer Al Reko released four cassettes of traditional Finnish and Finnish-American music, recorded in Tikkanen’s home studio. He has now remastered and re-released these in two double CD volumes. Volume 1 contains Dance at the Finn Hall (1985) and Life in the Finnish American Woods (1986), while volume 2 has Reunion At Finntown (1988) and American Boys In Finland (1990).
I first heard Reko & Tikkanen very recently on Smithsonian-Folkways Deeper Polka, which presents various hot polka musicians from the Midwest. These boys aren’t the stereotypical polka band, but they do play a folky version of the Euro-polka spectrum of mazurkkas, valssis, jenkkas, and of course polkkas. The first recording Dance at the Finn Hall is almost all dance music direct from Finland, with a simple but reasonably authentic mix of piano accordion, guitar, plenty of mandolin, and sometimes spoons or banjo. Tikkanen had a tendency to multitrack guitar chords and mandolin, so that the band seems bigger than the duo it really is, but usually it is Reko’s reeds that are showcased. Many of the tunes sound minor or “eastern,” especially with so much mandolin. Play “Kovinlahden Masurkka,” the song “Talikkalen Markkinoilla,” and “Suninaken Valssi” as they are, all in a row, you could find yourself sliding down to St. Petersburg. Sometimes a folky polka or waltz will pull you into central Europe, but often the polkas sound eastern as well.
Also in Volume 1 is Life in the Finnish American Woods, which contains more traditional songs from Reko, whose father had immigrated from Ikaalinen in southwestern Finland. It is also the only CD here that contains English spoken word, a piece about frost on the window, and the comment on “Viola Turpeinen Tanssit Kiipalla,” part of which which begins this review (Turpeinen is the Elvis of Finnish-American music). Reko’s voice is true, but as with many Finnish singers, modest and straightforward, almost like a children’s singer. In addition to the songs, Finnish American Woods contains ten Finnish dance tunes like those in Dance In Finn Hall with accordion and plenty of mandolin (one is actually from Swedish/Norwegian Finns!)
Volume 2 is similar to Volume 1, but has a lot more songs. Most of the tracks in Reunion At Finntown are songs brought to America by immigrants. Whether composed or traditional, most of these songs show a “normalizing” influence from western popular music. Reko’s singing style suggests some goofy lyrics! The oompa style and title of “Vaarit Saunassa” (“Old Guys in the Sauna”) in fact suggests some hot lyrics! And a waltz by J. Alfred Tanner (“the father of Finnish comic song,” in fact) could almost be German.
American Boys In Finland begins with a bouncy Russian sounding song “Heili Karjalasta”(“Heili from Karelia”). In this recording, most of the songs and tunes are directly out of Mother Finland; perhaps on the whole they are more melancholy and have a finer, more minor tone. “Lato-Matin ja Rekon Polkka” (the “Rekon” or “Reko’s” means that Reko added a part of his own composition) darts between major and minor and, with Tikkanen’s banjo and mandolin, you could imagine instead Peter Ostruschko playing Ukrainian tunes. Here again the American Boys have gone to fewer vocals and more dance tunes, including two waltzes composed by Tikkannen. There is also a very authentic and surprisingly perky and melodic recording of Reko’s father singing at his 80th birthday!
All the songs are in Finnish and there are no lyrics in the small liner notes, though it may be possible to beg a copy of them. This is what I did, and spent a lot of time translating two and a half songs, and not too well either, so I could play them in my Finnish class. One was “Matalan Torpan Balladii” which may translate as “Ballad of the Low Croft.” “I was born in Finland in beautiful Karelia…” It is a sad love song. I tried “Isontalon Antti ja Rannanjarvi” and my head spun in confusion. The track I did play in class was “Lumper-Jakki,” an American song by Arthur Kylander reminiscent of Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song.” It outlines the “joys” of living rough like monks in the north woods and eating canned beans. Tikkanan’s liner notes call the song “irreverent.” I showed my teacher, who is from southern Finland, the lyrics and my translation. “A lot of that is dialect and Finnglais,” she said, almost as mystified as me. Out of the frying pan into the fire for aspiring Fennophones! Closer to the source, Reko gave these dance hall and minor traditional songs a respectable whirl, like an old guy in the Dew Drop Inn in Ironwood, like an accordion player come out of the Finnish metsa to sing in a Kaustinen pub …
One of the younger college students in the class had just been to Finland. Hearing my preliminary “mood music” from Volume 2, he shook his head. “I was in a bar one night and they started playing that stuff. All the old people [sic] were going crazy and dancing.” This collection provides a wonderful and charming view into the worlds of the old Finnish-American immigrant music and of “Finnish country music” in Mother Finland. What a contrast to the cutting edge of Nokia folk!