A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Last Waltz for Les Ross Sr. and the Lumber Jäkki

I wanted to be there because I knew it would be something special. This past February, at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, the great Finnish American harmonica player, Les Ross Sr., was performing as part of the group Lumber Jäkki (Finnish for “lumberjacks”). Les was now 90 years old. I knew I wouldn’t have many more chances to hear him.
Les Ross Sr., in rehearsal for the Lumber Jäkki performance at NMU, February 22, 2014. 
Photo by James P. Leary.
The performance almost didn’t happen. The Polar Vortex was wreaking its havoc with gale force winds and white-out conditions pummeling Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Mackinac Bridge was closed for 13 hours. All flights to Marquette were cancelled. Les lived in Marquette, but Oren Tikkanen—one of the Lumber Jäkki who lives in the Keweenaw Peninsula―carried his instruments down to his neighbor’s the previous night, for fear of being snowed in. But it takes more than a snowstorm to thwart a U.P. event. The show went on, but without me. After spending the day in the Detroit airport listening to cancellation notices, I gave up and returned home. It turned out that I missed the last public performance of Les Ross Sr.

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.

The Lumber Jäkki were featured that night as part of “Folksongs from Michigan-i-o,” a Michigan Humanities Council-funded program commemorating Alan Lomax’s 1938 folk music collecting trip across Michigan. Although there were four men on stage—all tremendous performers in their own right—Les was the star of the evening.

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.
While Lomax recorded a rich variety Finnish of music in 1938, he never documented the Finnish American lumberjack harmonica style that became Les’s specialty. Fortunately, Les’s skills and the tradition he represented did not go unnoticed by later generations of folklorists and Finnish American musicians. He received a Michigan Heritage Award from the Michigan State University Museum’s Michigan Traditional Arts Program in 2009 and a 2010 U.P. Folklife Award from the Beaumier Heritage Center at Northern Michigan University. Over a decade earlier, his first recording was released: Hulivili Huuliharppu (“Rollicking Harmonica”), a 1998 compilation of Finnish American dance music and songs learned in his youth. There had been radio, television, and festival appearances over the years. And on this cold February night at Northern Michigan University, Les Ross Sr. would perform repertoire from his second and latest recording, Lumber Jäkki: Les Ross, Sr.—Old Finnish-American Songs & Harmonica with Randy Seppala & Oren Tikkanen. The CD had just been finished.

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.
On February 22, the audience of about 130 lucky souls got to hear Les Ross, Sr. perform a selection of songs from the new CD, plus a few other favorite dance tunes. I hope they took Oren’s album notes to heart as they listened: “Imagine that you are sitting by the woodstove in a logging-camp bunkhouse on a winter’s night. Perhaps someone has smuggled in a forbidden bottle, and it’s making the rounds. The boys are in good humor, and Les Ross, Sr., begins to play and sing…”

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.