Michigan Heritage Awards
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Giovanni "Johnny" Battista Perona
2002 awardee, Calumet (Houghton County), bones
Giovanni Perona (1920-2009), known locally as "Johnny," has been a farmer,
laborer, custodian, and always a musician. He is regarded as a virtuoso
on the concertina, accordion, violin, mandolin, and guitar, instruments
on which he has played old-time dance music for Italians, Finns, Slovenians,
and Croatians at house parties and community dances for more than 60 years.
According to Oren Tikkanen, he is considered "a one-man Yooper multi-ethnic
festival." (Yooper is the term for residents of the Upper Peninsula). It
is his mastery, repertoire, and performance style with bones and spoons,
however, that is most widely appreciated. Musician Randy Seppala said of
Johnny, "He just may be the greatest bones and spoons player in the country.
He is certainly a great master, playing with an intensity and technical
precision unequaled by anyone I am aware of." (1)
Johnny's preferred instruments are four rib-shaped bones crafted of smooth,
curved ebony wood by a Finnish immigrant carpenter. His introduction to
the bones began in 1948. Johnny was playing his concertina in a local tavern
that a bones and spoon player often frequented, playing to the music of
the jukebox for drinks. He also kept time to Johnny's music, using spoons.
He showed Johnny how to hold the spoons, but fearing competition, he was
not encouraging when Johnny found them awkward. At that time, Johnny happened
to find a set of bones, and he also made a set from horse ribs. Thus Johnny
began his love for the bones.
Although Italian-American, it is not surprising that in this densely Finnish
American area of the Upper Peninsula Johnny is well acquainted with Finnish-American
music. In the early 1980s he began playing traditional Finnish music with
local Finnish American musicians. Consequently, in this region of the country,
traditional Finnish American music includes bones and spoons. Johnny explains
about himself, "Johnny's bones were made by a Finnish immigrant, so, although
he has not Finnish blood in his veins, he does have Finnish bones in his
As a native and resident of the Keewenaw Peninsula, Johnny, b. 1920, also
is a treasure trove of stories, ethnic jokes, knowledge about the history
of the area and butterflies. He has always been fascinated with butterflies,
and since 1961 he has compiled a large scientific collection of lepidoptera.
Whether it is music, butterflies, bugs, musical instrument refinishing projects,
or gardening, Johnny continues as master of his lifelong interests.
Johnny passed away on February 1, 2009. Many of his friends spent time with
him in the last few days, playing music to ease his final hours.
(1) Seppala, Randy. Nomination letter to panelists. 1 December 2001.
(2) Tikkanen, Oren. "Johnny Perona. Butterflies & Bones." Peninsula People
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