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Article Finnish American Song

John Soininen
John Soininen's songs in Finnish were recorded by ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell in Berkley, California in 1939.

Finnish settlers helped to found a colony named New Sweden along the Delaware River in 1638, located in present day Wilmington, Delaware, as much of present day Finland was part of the Swedish Empire at the time. Larger-scale immigration did not start until roughly two hundred years later. In the 1830s and 1840s, a few hundred Finns settled in Alaska, which at that time belonged to Russia. The Gold Rush lured others to California.

By the 1870s, large numbers of Finns had arrived in the United States, driven by unemployment and overcrowding in the urban centers. Mining and shipping companies also recruited Finns to work in the United States. They settled in Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts in mining, logging. and agricultural communities. The immigration of Finns to the United States reached its peak in the first few years of the twentieth century and slowed after the First World War.

Finnish immigrant communities formed social organizations to help preserve aspects of Finnish culture and identity. Finnish American music-making traditionally occurred in the context of these organizations. Finnish societies began to organize music festivals featuring singers and instrumentalists in the 1890s. "The Knights and Ladies of the Kaleva," an organization formed at the turn of the twentieth century to preserve Finnish customs in the United States, also sponsored music events.

In the 1939, ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell made field recordings of songs of Finnish immigrants in Berkeley, California. Among the singers she documented was John Soininen, who knew a variety of ballads and songs. He also knew songs from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. The Kalevala is a compilation of ancient songs assembled into an epic in the nineteenth century by Elias Lönnrot. This example is "Vaka vanha Vainamoinen" ("Steady old Vainamoinen"). Vainamoinen, the character in this song, is said to be the inventor of the kantele, a Finnish lap harp similar to a zither that was used in the singing of epics, and the song is part of the story of this invention. John Soininen also sang a related song, "Kanteleelle," a song praising the kantele.

Finnish folk songs were sung by Finnish immigrants, sometimes accompanied by the accordion or kantele. These were commonly ballads that told of Finnish historical events, heroes, villains, lovers and death. An example of such a ballad is "Velisurmaaja" (The brother murder), sung by John Soininen.

Vocal music accompanied by brass bands, became a popular type of vocal music among the Finnish American community in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. An example is the Finnish song, "Kulkurin Valssi," sung by Juho Koskelo for the Victor Recording Company in Camden New Jersey on December 1, 1920.

Finnish Americans adapted their song style as they assimilated into American culture. A study of Finnish American song in northern Michigan in the 1940s by folklorist Aili Kolehmainen Jonhson showed how Finnish American workers sometimes set Finnish lyrics they authored to Anglo American tunes such as "Casey Jones." Traditional Finnish song texts were also occasionally altered to include American references, or refrains in English.

Twentieth century immigrants helped to revitalize Finnish language and culture among Finnish Americans. Folk singer, songwriter, and poet Hiski Salomaa (1891–1957) is an example. He was noted for composing in "Finglish," a combination of Finnish and English used only by Finns in the United States and Canada, in order to speak to the immigrant experience of Finns in North America.

Perhaps the most popular genre of Finnish American song is choral singing. "Suomes Laulu," sung by the Finnish-American Elite Choir for the Victor Recording Company on June 16, 1913 provides an example of this. Choral groups such as this one helped to pass on aspects of Finnish culture and language to new generations of Finnish Americans.

Today, choral music continues to be sung in parts of the United States among the Finnish American community. The Naselle Finn-Am Choir, a community chorus that sings everything from Finnish folk songs to gospel songs in both Finnish and English, anchors the lineup of the biennial Finnish American Folk Festival held in Naselle, Washington. A modern day and creative expression of this continuing tradition is performed by the Seana Ensemble of five native Finnish women living in Minnesota who perform hymns, folk, and dance tunes at Finnish American events. The annual FinnFest USA also features performances by vocal music artists such as the singer and storyteller Ulla Suokko.


  • "Icelandic American Song" (Songs of America).
  • Finland Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture. Finding aid for collections held by the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (includes Finnish American).
  • "Finnish Songs in Minnesota," an article about Finnish American folk songs by ethnomusicologist Marjorie Edgar, part of a collection of her work at the Minnesota Historical Society. Reproduced online by the Minnesota Historical Society here.
  • "Scandinavian and Baltic Music" by Mark Levy, Carl Rahkonen and Ain Haas in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) pp 872 -- 875, Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. The Harvard Encylopedia of American Ethnic Groups pp362--370. (Harvard, 1980; Second printing, 1981)
  • "Swedish American Song" (Songs of America)
  • See more articles about Ethnic Song in America

About this Item


  • Finnish American Song


  • -  Immigration and Migration
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
  • -  Articles

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