|Les Ross Sr., in rehearsal for the Lumber Jäkki performance at NMU, February 22, 2014. |
Photo by James P. Leary.
Hear Les Ross Sr. on “Slakkijarven Polka,” accompanied by Bob Guidebeck, bass; Oren Tikkanen, banjo; and Randy Seppala, rhythm bones, February 22, 2014. Video courtesy of Northern Michigan University.
Les Ross Sr. was born in 1923 on a farm in Eben Junction in Michigan’s north central Upper Peninsula, an area heavily populated by Finnish Americans. He would have been a teenager in 1938, when Alan Lomax traversed the U.P. in search of folk music for the collections of the Archive of Folk-Song at the Library of Congress. Les’s style of playing (using “tongue blocking” to play both melody and harmony on a single harmonica) was still widely performed at the time Lomax recorded in the region’s Finnish enclaves. Les had learned as a boy from family elders, old 78 records, and from the Finnish-speaking lumberjacks who would hang out at the Blue Moon Tavern in Les’s home town of Eben Junction.
|The New Moon Tavern (painted blue!) in Eben Junction has replaced the Blue Moon of Les’s youth, and the old lumberjacks who sang, drank, and passed their traditions on to the young Les Ross are long gone. |
Photo by Laurie K. Sommers, 2014.
The recording was a labor of love by Finnish-Americans Randy Seppala and Oren Tikkanen, each a U.P. musical institution in his own right. Randy met Les Sr. through his good friend, the late Les Ross Jr., who had encouraged his father to play in public. Oren had a Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship with Les Sr. in 2002 to learn his style of harmonica playing. Both Randy and Oren played with Les Ross Sr. and the Finnish American All-Stars, the band that featured Les Sr. and his repertoire in recent years. As Randy describes it, the more Les played, the more he seemed to remember old songs learned from the lumberjacks he heard as a youngster. Most of these songs had bawdy lyrics—not surprising, given their origin with a male occupational group that spent weeks if not months away from female companionship. (Lomax also collected his share of off-color songs from former lumberjacks and lakes sailors in 1938.) Les had rarely sung these songs in public. But Randy and Oren understood their importance to the Finnish folk culture of the region, and began performing with Les as the Lumber Jäkki.
Cover image from the Lumber Jäkki CD, courtesy of Randy Seppala.
Hear Les Ross Sr. on “En Minä Kaikkia Rahojani Juonu” (I Didn’t Drink All My Money), a selection from the 2014 CD, accompanied by Bob Guidebeck, bass; Oren Tikkanen, banjo; and Randy Seppala, rhythm bones and washboard, February 22, 2014. Video courtesy of Northern Michigan University.
Few people knew that Les was terminally ill at the time. His wave to the audience after the final tune marked the end of an era. He died four months later, June 26, 2014. With the Lumber Jäkki that night, he played his last waltz.
Hear Les Ross Sr. play the well-known “Vagabond Waltz,” accompanied by Bob Guidebeck, bass; Oren Tikkanen, banjo; and Randy Seppala, rhythm bones, February 22, 2014. Video courtesy of Northern Michigan University.
To order the CD Lumber Jäkki: Les Ross, Sr.—Old Finnish-American Songs & Harmonica with Randy Seppala & Oren Tikkanen, contact Copper World in Calumet.
Special thanks to Randy Seppala, Oren Tikkanen, Dan Truckey, and Jim Leary.
In memory of Les Ross Sr.
This post was written by Laurie Sommers in conjunction with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts.