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Giovanni "Johnny" Battista Perona
2002 awardee, Calumet (Houghton County), bones player
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 hands." (2)
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 September/October 1991):12
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