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Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo of Leslie "Les" Victor Ross, Sr.
Photo by Mary Whalen

Leslie "Les" Victor Ross, Sr.
2009 awardee, Marquette (Marquette County), Lumberjack style harmonica player

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. When Les was about seven, his grandfather gave him a used "mouth organ," and he learned tunes from family elders, old 78 records, and Finnish-speaking lumberjacks taking leave of their paychecks at the local Blue Moon tavern. He has been playing some of these songs ever since.

Les plays in the "lumberjack style," an old time method in which the melody and pronounced rhythmic chording are played simultaneously. This style was once common in rural Finnish American communities, especially in northern Michigan and adjacent Wisconsin and Minnesota, and Les recalls that his mother, sisters, and some of his cousins also played harmonica in the same style. Today, however, he is one of the few remaining masters.

While Les insists his playing the harmonica is just a hobby, his 1998 recording Hulivili Huuliharppu (“Rollicking Harmonica”) of Finnish American traditional and dance music-some previously unrecorded songs from his youth-created a sensation and has led to numerous radio, television, and festival appearances. He also is the only Finnish American traditional musician from the Northern Great Lakes area ever invited to participate in the prestigious National Folk Festival.

Les has generously shared his music with seniors in senior residences and with children in public schools. He has taught harmonica to locals and has had a number of apprentices under the auspices of the Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program to teach his distinctive harmonica style.

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