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The Big Man and the Fairy - Children's music in Finland in the 1960s and 1970s

by Pekka Jalkanen

Children’s music underwent a huge transition in Finland in the 1960s and 1970s. Composer Pekka Jalkanen witnessed and contributed to this development. In this article from 2011 he discusses the history of Finnish children's music.

The major social upheaval of the 1960s in Finland extended even to areas as seemingly innocent as children’s music. The reconstruction of society undertaken by the baby boom generation left no corner untouched, not even children’s music, which was of course perceived as upholding an authoritarian, top-down, patronising cultural structure that was in itself a form of control.

Surprisingly, though, the genre that could be seen as the most indoctrinating of them all – school music – was overlooked in this clean sweep. This was because music in schools had reinvented itself in the 1950s and focused on music in its own right rather than as a tool for didactics and social conditioning. The new music books were good and popular with pupils in primary and secondary schools.

As music teaching in schools was expanded from singing to include general music studies, bringing in recorders and Orff instruments, one of the most significant additions to teaching materials was the introduction of chord symbols, the most important thing to learn for future generations of guitar players. Musical materials from beyond traditional genres also began to trickle in, as can be seen from what is now regarded as the epitome of 1960s school music, the Musica series of music schoolbooks by Erkki Pohjola. This was perhaps because Pohjola systematically excluded “anything that even remotely smelled of [old-fashioned] pedagogy.”

Recordings of children’s music were particularly savagely targeted. In 1969, Kari Vaijärvi and Tuula Ikonen published a pamphlet entitled Kulttuuririhkamaa lapsille [Cultural rubbish for children], based on the eponymous book published in Denmark by Gunilla Ambjörsson [Skräpkulturen åt barnen, 1968]. They declared that the two greatest bugbears in children’s culture were, firstly, the authoritarian 1930s approach to education, favouring conservative and conventional ideals; and secondly, commercialism, which force-fed consumers cultural rubbish that sold well but was artistically without merit. Moreover, commercialism drew on the same sources as authoritarian ideals, since in order to sell well the products tended to be old-fashioned, conventional, meant for good little boys and girls and suitably entertaining, following trails pioneered by Walt Disney.

Perhaps for the first time ever in Finland, the pamphlet highlighted children as discerning consumers in their own right: children should not be underestimated by offering them low-brow stuff calculated to appeal but instead challenged with new types of expression. What is more, the spontaneous games, songs, drawings, plays and stories generated by children themselves should be drawn upon. On the whole, Kulttuuririhkamaa lapsille presented a practical summary of a large portion of the newly introduced Summerhill ideology. 

Children’s department of the radio brings in the new

It was the children’s department of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) that, in the mid-1960s, became the vanguard of new ideals in children’s culture. Author Lea Pennanen, who had been appointed to head the department in the 1950s, took it upon herself to renew the genre of radio plays for children.

Music, however, had largely been neglected, and continued to be so. The rigid organisational structure of Yle traditionally prevented any cooperation between the music department and the children’s department, although there have been exceptions such as the composition competition for five-minute children’s stories which was organised in the 1950s and which yielded music by Bengt Johansson to Se on totinen tosi! [lt’s Quite True!, H.C. Andersen) and by Jorma Panula to Antti Fantti (Marjatta Kurenniemi). The budget of the children’s department has always been too small for it to produce any music itself. Some outlets for children’s music were found in the form of a number of programmes playing records in the 1950s and 1960s and a handful of concerts by popular request.

But there was something missing. Children's music programmes on radio were completely dependent on what the recording industry chose to release. There were of course plenty of records by the celebrated Georg Malmstén, the Kipparikvartertti male-voice quartet and a number of child singers – spunky small boys or moody little girls. The gender-based distinction of upbeat (male) vs. sentimental (female) was established as far back as in the popular music of the 19th century.

Some newer music from the USA began to make inroads: Pieni Ankanpoikanen [The Little White Duck] and the Disney songs written by Frank Churchill were the Ipanapa of the 1950s. This approach found an a appreciative audience in Finland, and new children’s records were soon alive with swing, country and Latin rhythms alongside the traditional sentimental, cosy children’s ballads. The grammar of the music, however, remained the same as before.

Godmother of children’s music

Children’s radio brought about a great transition in children’s music in the late 1960s, courtesy principally of Tytti Paavolainen (1937–2008). She was the key figure in the producing of four groundbreaking albums in the early 1970s: Iso Mies ja Keijukainen [The Big Man and the Fairy]; Oskari Olematon / Niemisen pojat ja naapurin äijä [Oscar Not-There / The Nieminen boys and the geezer next door]; Muusa ja Ruusa [Muusa and Ruusa]; and Kuka lohduttaisi Nyytiä / Kuinkas sitten kävikään [Who Would Comfort Toffle? / The Book of Moomin, Mymble and Little My].

Reciter and actor Tytti Paavolainen joined Yle as a producer of programmes for small children in 1966 and held the post until 1990. Her special interest was in bringing high quality to children’s storytelling, from both the classics and more recent literature. She paid particular attention to children’s poesy, which was an emerging genre in Finland at the time both in translation and in the contemporary work of authors such as Kirsi Kunnas, Eila Kostamo, Maila Pylkkönen and Eira Stenberg.

Music came into Paavolainen’s programmes through the back door, as it were. There were some early experiments in acoustics, to the extent allowed by the studio technology of the day. I myself first met Tytti in 1968, and this led to a collaboration lasting more than 20 years. Initially, I improvised music on the guitar and the recorder to children’s tales written and read out by freelance radio producer Pirjo Heikkinen; but Tytti soon invited me to investigate how the spontaneous expressive capabilities of small children could be utilised alongside songs and instrumental numbers. There was a wealth of potential there, as it turned out.

ln 1969, I wrote a suite setting texts from Pikku Marjan eläinkirja [Little Marja’s book of animals] by Laura Latvala, and in the following year l wrote the cycle Värssyjä ja viisuja [Verses and ditties]. Each movement in this cycle was a ten-minute collage combining my settings of texts by various poets with the endearing stream-of-consciousness outpourings of small children. This was nonsense in its purest and most undiluted form! I found the performers among family and friends.

Then Tytti hit upon the ingenious idea of commissioning M.A. Numminen, the enfant terrible of Finnish culture notorious for mixing the underground with both high and popular culture, to write six songs. He agreed. Two weeks later, the songs setting texts by poet Jarkko Laine, by singer Rauli “Badding” Somerjoki and by M.A. Numminen himself were ready for recording by a band led by Jani Uhlenius at one of the Yle studios. An important person in this production was Markku Romppanen, a five-year-old whom Pirjo Heikkinen had discovered among her relatives and who could churn out nonsense in the Savo dialect on any topic at all. 

The Big Man and the Fairy

Aired in summer 1970, the programme series attracted a fair amount of attention and also caught the interest of Atte Blom of Love Records. An album was made of the music in the series, entitled Iso Mies ja Keijukainen (The Big Man and the Fairy), and released in late autumn. The LP received the “Kritiikin kannukset” (Critics’s spurs) award in 1971.

The album was conceived as a narrative, detailing a journey from the country to the city. It was a stylistic kaleidoscope deliberately exploring new angles in children’s music: instead of underestimating children with commercial junk, the listeners were to be respected.

It was clear from the first that the new children’s music had to have layers, so that it would appeal to both children and adults. It was not even obvious that a line could be drawn between children’s music on the one hand and adults’ music on the other.

M.A. Numminen and Rauli “Badding” Somerjoki, the latter a leading and versatile performer on the Finnish rock scene, created a series of zany polkas, schottisches and rock songs for the recordings. Some felt that this was exactly in tune with the times, representing a brand of anarchism learned from children themselves. It is indicative that it was not until the neo-conservative movement of the 1990s that the validity of some of these songs began to be questioned.

As for my own songs, they reflect my interests and influences at the time: John Dowland in Haitula, the rhythms of the Andes in Pikkulintu valjasti hevosen [A small bird harnessed a horse], flamenco in Käärmetemppu [Snake trick] and Dilliä ja piparjuurta [Dill and horseradish], Medieval music in Ketsu and Kolme suurta suutaria [Three great cobblers], and Antonio Carlos Jobim in the triple-modulating Siilin kuutamo [Hedgehog’s moonlight].

The same eclecticism was reflected in the range of performers. The crazy dada of M.A. Numminen was accompanied by the somnolent rock vocals of Badding and the cheeky accordion of Jani Uhlenius. Roma musicians Feija Åkerlund and Taisto Lundberg from the band Hortto Kaalo gave inspired performances with flamenco guitar player Ari Salin. Tomi Päiväläinen, only 10 years old at the time, contributed his mesmerising fragile boy voice. And the naivist poetry of Kati Kirstinä, age 3, was immersed in a concoction of motif fragments and clusters.

The melodic grammar was dualist. Gently playful, M.A. Numminen did not shun the archetypal three-chord song – quite the opposite, in fact. This made the album delicious and entertaining, ultimately self-parodying its material and its styles. The self-parody aspect, of course, was never properly understood, and children’s albums published after Iso Mies ja Keijukainen went on to employ rock music and humppa (a Finnish derivative of the foxtrot) without giving them a second thought.

I aimed at being lyrical yet avoiding sensations of beauty in my music. Even back then, I had an aversion to functional harmony and turned instead to archaic modality.

More serendipitous experiments

Iso Mies ja Keijukainen was followed up by the Helsinki Festival, Seppo Nummi commissioning M.A. Numminen and myself to create a chlldren’s concert eventually titled Suutari Joonaksen iltapäivä [Cobbler Joonas’s afternoon]. This was recorded on the aforementioned Love Records albums Oskari Olematon and Niemisen pojat ja naapurin äijä.

After Suutari Joonas, M.A. Numminen went his own way. In the 1980s, however, he returned to delight children in the character of a hare which attained considerable popularity.

Tytti Paavolainen and myself created a storytelling album based on two children’s classics by Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins, Kuka lohduttaisi Nyytiä / Kuinkas sitten kävikään (1973), also referred to above. The first of these was underpinned by a fragile, multitracked field of recorder tones and tiny dumps of melody, while the latter was a cartoon-like, partly improvised story to guitar accompaniment, with plenty of quotes and stylistic allusions. (Read more about Moomin-inspired music here.)

My final children's album, Tutti, was released concurrently with Love Records filing for bankruptcy in 1978. It is a stream of conversation between Noora and Juli from dawn to dusk, interspersed with tiny, Baroque-ish songs accompanied by flute, oboe, cello and glockenspiel to texts from Aarteiden kirja (Book of treasures) by Martti Haavio.

Tytti Paavolainen also provided the impetus for the children’s album Muusa ja Ruusa (1971) by jazz musician and composer Eero Koivistoinen. His naivist miniature melodies and melodramas setting texts from the classic Tiitiäisen satupuu [Little tit’s fairy-tals tree] by Kirsi Kunnas had a skilfully arranged big band accompaniment with added electric midi-Moog sounds. With delicious vocals contributed by Vesa-Matti Loiri, the album was originally created specifically for the children’s department of Yle radio.

Yle was also the channel for the first children’s albums of Marjatta Meritähti, albeit this was in the entertainment department. Together with the Karviaiset Pioneer Chorus, she wrote and performed a cycle of settings of Russian children’s poems, Kissa Kehrääväinen [Puss Purring, 1977]. These were in an archaic and folklore-like style with a well-written Neo-Classical woodwind underlay. The same idea, although with more electric instruments and rhythmic accompaniments, was featured a few years later on Pikku Marjan eläinlauluja [Little Marja’s animal songs, 1980], an album of Meritähti’s songs to poems from the popular eponymous children’s picture book by Laura Latvala.

One further example of the experimental children’s music of the era is Onnimanni (1977) by Esa Helasvuo, yet another Yle collaboration.

Composer Pekka Jalkanen Photo By Maarit Kytoharju
Pekka Jalkanen
Photo: Maarit Kytöharju / Music Finland

A passion for children’s culture

We would be doing a disservice to the children’s music of the 1960s and 1970s if we were to focus solely on its innovative aspects. Traditional children’s songs old and new, often sanctified through a pedagogical application, continued to form the mainstream and remained dominant for years to come.

Works such as Mörköooppera [The Bogey Opera] by Marjatta Pokela and its sequels, as well as many songs by Kaj ChydeniusKari RydmanPetter OhlsMikko Alatalo and Markku Kopisto have become classics in the genre. Innovative children’s music was also created for the stage, as with Muumiooppera [Moomin Opera] by Ilkka Kuusisto and several works by Jukka Linkola, beginning with Peter Pan to a libretto by Jukka Virtanen. However, the real boom in children’s operas and music theatre was still to come.

The people making music for children in the early 1970s shared a genuine passion for children’s culture. This was not something undertaken casually on the side; it was motivated by a sincere desire to find something new and fresh that would respect children in their own right. Astrid Lindgren’s exhortation to “seek the child within” was often quoted. This was a new approach starting at the grass-roots level. Its key insight was that there is no point trying to delineate a target group and to shape one’s musical idiom to suit it; what was important was that the end result pleased its creator.

Visual artists speak of the “free line”, a spontaneous capacity that children have for creativity that is eventually lost as they grow up and takes a lifetime to rediscover. The same is true of music. A composer must, without pandering to anyone, seek to discover “the flute of childhood on which you can only blow a clear tone once”, in the words of poet Tommy Tabermann. It is a quest for spontaneity, delicacy and the power of simplicity. 

Pekka Jalkanen is composer, musician and musicologist. He was one of the leaders of the revolution in children’s music taking place in the 1970s. His output includes operas, musical fairy tales, orchestral music and film scores. His large-scale works for children include opera Tirlittan (1986), musical fairy tales Oi ihana Panama [The Trip to Panama by Janosch, 1989] and Satakieli [Nightingale by H.C. Andersen, 2005] for speaker and chamber orchestra, and Kolme jäälitsää (2013) for vocalist/speaker and chamber ensemble.

This article was first published in FMQ 3/2011 and is now (March, 2021) republished with the kind permission of the author.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: The cover art of the album Iso Mies ja Keijukainen