The ensemble Laulava Unioni (The Singing Union) offers fresh interpretations of music written by the Finnish members of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World). Formed in 2017, the group consists of Karri “Paleface” Miettinen, Timo ”Tipi” Tuovinen, Ossi Peura, Anssi Nykänen and two alternating accordionists, Harri Kuusijärvi and Niko Kumpuvaara. The group gave their first performance in April 2018 and was named after the IWW’s moniker The Singing Union.
The IWW was an international anarcho-syndicalist union movement, which was founded in 1905 in Chicago. Finns were active in the movement from the 1910s onwards and published three songbooks of their own: Proletaarilauluja (Proletarian songs, 1918), Raatajain lauluja (Songs of the drudgers, 1920) and Palkkaorjain lauluja (Songs of the wage slaves, 1925). The Finnish Wobblies’ songs, however, have remained largely unheard in Finland, with the exception of a 1975 recording titled Joe Hillin lauluja (Joe Hill’s songs) by the Turku Student Theatre Singers. Swedish American Joe Hill (1879–1915) was the IWW’s most prominent songwriter, and some of his songs were translated into Finnish as well.
Each of these Finnish songbooks includes some 80 songs, out of which roughly half were written by Finns, a quarter are translations from the IWW’s most important songbook titled The Little Red Songbook, and the rest were borrowed from a publication by the Finnish American socialists titled Työväen laulukirja (The workers’ songbook). The songs describe the poor working conditions of the working class, and demand better treatment for workers in the name of equality and solidarity.
The song tunes include famous American tunes and Finnish dance tunes, marches and folk songs. In addition, some songs were influenced by popular workers’ march songs of the time, such as Free Russia, The Internationale, La Marseillaise and The Red Guard’s March. Also included is a Finnish nationalistic tune titled Porilaisten marssi (March of the Pori Regiment), which was utilised in the songbook not only as a familiar Finnish melody, but also as a vessel for irony.
In spring 2018, the ensemble Laulava Unioni released a live single titled Uniossa on voimaa (There is power in the Union). A studio album is currently on its way.
More Finnish-American tales with a new twist
Songs related to Finnish immigrants in North America have also been performed by other artists in Finland, such as Aija Puurtinen and J. Karjalainen.
On the album Brooklynin satu (Brooklyn fairy tale, 2015) by Aija Puurtinen & Rytmiraide, the lyrics written by Perttu Hemminki are based on stories collected from Finnish-American immigrants. The music is by Aija Puurtinen and Esa Kuloniemi. At the moment Puurtinen is working on the follow-up album. Other musicians in this project are Esa Kuloniemi, Eero Grundström, Selina Sillanpää and Mooses Kuloniemi.
J. Karjalainen combines Finnish and American traditions in a freeform blend on his album Lännen-Jukka (Jukka of the West, 2006). The album is built around a fictional character created by J. Karjalainen, ‘Lännen Jukka’, a Finn who goes out West to America and is inspired by blues and other old-time music.
Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham
Featured photo by Tomi Westerholm: The Singing Union on a gig at Juttutupa bar in April 2018.