Photo by Jim Leary
Photo by Jim Leary
1985 awardee, Mass City (Ontonagon County), Finnish American accordion
Michigan's western Upper Peninsula (UP) is home to the nation's largest
concentration of Finnish Americans and is locally referred to as "the
sauna belt." Art Moilanen is the dean of Finnish-American piano accordionists
in this region.
Art Moilanen (1916-2005) has lived in Mass City most of his life. He has
been a logger and tavern keeper, while all the time playing the accordion.
He began to "fool around" with his brother's accordion in 1930 and to
imitate what he had been hearing from first-generation Finnish-American
farmers and lumberjacks, and he "picked up alotta these Finn songs from
a record that we had on an old phonograph at home." (1) He has
been playing ever since. His musical repertoire embraces Finnish-American,
country western, and regional dance tunes, reflecting influence of other
local ethnic musics, the media, and the UP environment. Two significant
influences were Viola Turpeinen, an accordionist and icon in Finnish-American
culture, and Frankie Yankovic, "the Polka King." Because of Viola Turpeinen,
Art acquired a piano accordion and learned her style and her songs, which
he still plays even today. Art also plays "a pretty good polka," some
of which he attributes to Frankie Yankovic. One of Art's specialties is
parodies of pop songs in English. The lyrics are UP or Finnish-American
specific and often are about locals; they are expressions of regional
values and attitudes or Art's assessment of situations. Art is something
of a cultural mediator, communicating both Finnish-American and UP culture
values and history to outsiders through the medium of his songs.
Art's musicianship has been acknowledged by many. He received Michigan
Traditional Arts Apprenticeship awards in 1991 and 1992 to teach piano
accordion and Finnish-American music. He has played at music festivals
throughout the Great Lakes region and in Finland, for ethnic dances in
the region, at local bars, and has participated in music and cultural
conservation workshops. In 1987 he participated in the Smithsonian Institute's
American Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. and the Festival of Michigan
Folklife in East Lansing. He has been featured on recordings of traditional
music of the Upper Peninsula by James Leary and in the film Tradition
Bearers (1983) by Michael Loukinen. In 1990 Art received the prestigious
National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Although retired but still playing, Art says, "After 70 years of music,
why quit now!" (2)
Art Moilanen also received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990.
(1) Moilanen, Art. Quoted in James Leary, "Reading the 'Newspaper Dress':
An Expos? of Art Moilanen's Musical Traditions," in C. Kurt Dewhurst and
Yvonne Lockwood, eds. Michigan Folklife Reader, East Lansing, Michigan:
Michigan State University Press, 1988:213.
(2) Moilanen, Art. Personal communication with Yvonne Lockwood, 2002.
Back to top of page