I don’t even remember when I have last time bought a Finnish record, I mean a new one. But when I read about the project that led to this album, I became more than interested. The album named Tie Vapauteen by Paleface & Laulava Unioni, is a collection of songs of the Industrial Workers of the World. One of the nicknames of this international labour union is The Singing Union, translated into Finnish as “laulava unioni”. Thus the name of the band.
Even though I write this review in English, this album by Paleface & Laulava Unioni is totally a Finnish sung record. I sent a copy to a friend of mine, a member of the IWW in England, and he seemed to have been able to enjoy of it because most of songs are originally written in English and are quite well known in labour movement. The title of album, Tie Vapauteen, means “a road to freedom”.
The album was released already in the end of November 2019 and I bought it quite soon after that and spent lots of time listening to it over and over again. I am sorry that I got round to write about this album only now, three months after its release. But better late than never. These songs are not ageing but are actual year in, year out.
The opening track is ‘Uniossa on voima’, originally called ‘There is Power in a Union’. The original lyrics were written by Joe Hill in 1913. The writer of the Finnish lyrics is unknown. On the video below you can see Laulava Unioni performing the song.
It was 2017 when music producer and expert on labour movement music, Timo “Tipi” Tuovinen wanted to start a band that would play the songs of Finnish Wobblies. Tuovinen had been collecting working class songs, but couldn’t continue with that project and the collected material was waiting decades for better days. Dr Saijaleena Rantanen had done research about the IWW songs in the Sibelius Academy (university-level music school) and when she found the two missing Finnish language IWW songbooks in the States, it was time to do something. (You can read what Rantanen writes about the music in Finnish American immigrant community here and also about Laulava Unioni. Both articles are in English. For my Finnish readers: Rantanen has written a long article about the same topic and you can read it here. Rantanen has also written a text for the album telling about the IWW, music in the union, and about Finnish Wobblies and their songs.)
Tipi Tuovinen contacted Karri Miettinen, a rap artist who is better known by his stage name, Paleface. He became at once interested in the project as he was familiar with some of the IWW songs and had played for example a song called ‘Siispä laulakaa’ (another song to which Joe Hill wrote the lyrics, the melody comes from ‘My Old Kentucky Home’) at gigs. The band was born.
‘Siispä laulakaa’ is also on the album. There are still two other songs from Joe Hill. He wrote both the lyrics and melody for ‘Workers Of The World Awaken’, which Finnish name is ‘Maailman proletaarit nouskaa’. The writer for the Finnish words are unknown, but the lyrics follows the original text. The fourth song with original lyrics by Joe Hill is ‘Karvajalka’. The original title is ‘Stung Right’ written for the melody of hymn ‘Sunlight, Sunlight’. The Finnish text is once again written by an unknown person. While Joe Hill’s song was an anti-war song (see here; the war that is mentioned in the original song is the Spanish American War that took place in 1898; there is a tiny lapse in the album’s liner notes), The Finnish lyrics are hard criticism against scaps (strikebreakers). The song is preceded by a poem ‘Rikkurin synty’, originally ‘The Scap‘, also known as ‘Ode to a Scap’. It might or might not be penned by Jack London. The author of the Finnish lyrics of ‘Karvajalka’ has obviously been very aware of the poem. The 2015 translation of the poem is made by Jorma Mäntylä.
‘Solidarity Forever’ is a real trade union anthem. If you don’t know the lyrics, you certainly recognize the melody! The lyrics were written by Ralph Chaplin and even though it was written for the IWW, other unions have adapted it as well. The author of the Finnish lyrics is unknown. You can listen the song ‘Solidaarisuutta aina’ below:
There are still three other songs that have international roots. ‘Long way and short way’ is sung in Finnish despite the English title and of course the melody composed by Williams and Judge is for a song ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’. These Finnish lyrics are again by unknown author). ‘Langenneen laulu’ (“Song of the fallen one” as translated in Saijaleena Rantanen’s article where part of the song is also translated into English) is a story seen as a prostitute’s point of view. IWW considered and still consider prostitutes as workers among workers and they were entitled to join the union. The Finnish lyrics for ‘Säälikää herroja’ (you can translate it as “have a mercy on gentlemen”) was written by Henry Jokinen, who worked in the printing shop of Raivaaja. The melody is borrowed from a Methodist hymn.
Of the remaining four songs ‘Lännen lokari’ (“The Western Logger”, which seems to be a semiofficial translation) must be familiar to every Finnish citizen… or maybe the young generation don’t recognize it. The song is by Hiski Salomaa, who immigrated to the States in 1909. He was pacifist, tailor and singer-songwriter/performer, who was performing also in the IWW’s events. But if he was a member himself, I cannot say as the information is very contradictory. But as a songwriter he was great. And ‘Lännen lokari’ was his most popular song. (Here you can find an English translation of the song.)
Salomaa visited several times in Finland and his records were sold in Finland, too. I have a concrete proof as one of his records (‘Laulu taiteilioista’/’Vanhanpiian polkka’, recorded in 1928) ended up to my grandparents and is now in my possession. They obviously played that and other records with their Majestrola gramophone….
Anyway, back to this album. As you have already noticed the melodies were usually borrowed from other tunes. ‘Hoopon laulu’ (‘a song of a hobo’) borrows its melody (by Oskar Merikanto) from a song called ‘Tuulan tei’ from a Finnish stage play (1890). The other song with a melody composed by Merikanto (the provincial song for Lapland and North Ostrobothnia) is called ‘Pontevat mahat’ that is laughing at gourmandizing capitalists (and their adipose bellies). ‘Kirkkopotpuri’ (“church potpourri”) consists of three pieces that have a little bit different kind of angles to the stories in the Bible and the melodies are borrowed once again from different sources.
I wanted to write here a little bit about every song as the songs are in Finnish. The album is worth purchasing even if you don’t understand Finnish but have an interest in the IWW and its musical history.
The release of this album is an important cultural achievement and it was well noticed in Finnish media. In fact I read about the project on the Yle’s (Finnish public service media company) website, where there was a long article (in Finnish) about the project. Yes, this project needed to be noticed. It’s part of our history. And what’s the best thing, the album is fantastic. The songs are uplifting, funny, even sad. I hope to catch Laulava Unioni live one day.
Laulava Unioni is:
Karri “Paleface” Miettinen, vocals and guitar
Ossi Peura, vocals, piano and charango
Tipi Tuovinen, vocals, double bass and guitar
Harri Kuusijärvi, accordion
Anssi Nykänen, drums and percussions
On the album there are besides them a bunch of guests artists including female voice choir Helsingin Työväen Naiskuoro Elegia.
So far the album is available as CD, but as far as I know the vinyl version is planned to be released later this spring.
Text © Katriina Etholén
You can follow Laulava Unioni on Facebook.
There is also a Wikipedia article about the album.
You might be interested in my other article (book review) on the Finnish hobos. You can find it here. In June I will publish here on my blog my old university study about the Industrialisti magazine (Finnish language IWW newspaper).