“A young man’s got to follow the way of the world.” The songs of Lännen-Jukka are a unique fusion of mountain folk songs from the southern United States, Mississippi blues and old Finnish sleigh songs.

I first met Lännen-Jukka in the summer of 1973. Back in those days I used to spend summers with grandma Elsa. She had a cabin at Pitkäaho in Haukivuori. I was 16 years old, a greasy-haired layabout with a love for old blues and country. I’d sit in the bedroom all day, playing the guitar. One day grandma asked me; “Why don’t you stop over and see Lännnen-Jukka one of these days, over there in Sojakka.” She was probably good and sick of listening to my strumming. “I’m not going to go see any Jukkas”, I replied. “Oh, you should go. He just sits there playing the guitar alone. He’s been to America and everything.” Lännen-Jukka’s cabin sat in a sunny clearing, next to an evergreen forest. There was a beautiful cast-iron rooster weathervane on the roof. A couple of lupins were still in flower. It was quiet. For a second I thought the old man had kicked the bucket, but then the door was pushed open and he staggered out, carrying a bucket in one hand. In the other he held a banjo. He seemed drunk. He ambled over to the well and started drawing water, using an empty can attached to the end of a long pole. He’d carefully set the banjo up against the trunk of a nearby birch tree before that. That’s when I stepped out and introduced myself. I told him what I was there for. “Well, I’ll be damned”, said Lännen-Jukka..

Lännen-Jukka sat on the steps of his cabin. He sang and played a song called A Crown Of Branches for me. I’ll never forget it. It was like Charley Patton, Howling Wolf or some other blues guy singing, but in Finnish. I knew nothing about playing the banjo back then. I’d never heard anything like it.

Lännen-Jukka left for America as a young man in 1920. He started out working an assortment of jobs in New York. After that he worked on the railroads and did some mining in the southern mountains, in Virginia and North-Carolina. Most of the time he travelled on the “road of freedom”, i.e. he engaged in the demanding profession of the hobo. He hopped freight trains and rode them across the continent, walked through countless pairs of shoes on endless stretches of road, hoboed with his banjo under his arm and the rest of his belongings in a cloth sack. He went “all over the place”. But wherever he went, there was music, singing and playing. Lännen-Jukka committed a wealth of American styles from hillbilly to blues to his musician’s memory, learned to play the 5-string banjo and even had the ingenuity to combine it all with the old-time songs he knew from back in the old country. He came back to Finland in the early 1930s, just in time for the depression.

The sun sank behind the forest and the evening cooled quickly. The air was suffused with the smell of freshly cut hay. The mosquitos were starting to make their presence felt. Lännen-Jukka was telling stories and he was on a roll. He invited me in, so he wouldn’t have to stop.

After that evening, Lännen-Jukka’s cabin, banjos and red rocking chair became very familiar to me. So did the songs and the stories. I’d visit the old man at least once a summer. He became a sort of father figure for me and I guess I was like a long-lost grandson. “We have a lot in common, believe you me”, he said more than once. Despite a couple of fallings out, we remained close friends until his death. In 1981, I buried him as his lupins bloomed.

The album I recorded is a collection of Lännen-Jukka’s songs. I’ve tried to be as faithful as possible to the originals: I play the banjo in the old style, from the knuckle side, and use a very rough style of singing. Be that as it may, it still ends up sounding like me. And that’s good. Having your own voice is what counts in this business. It may sound strange, but sometimes you find your self by emulating your idols. They say sometimes you need to stand on the shoulders of giants. My giant was Lännen-Jukka, all 168 centimeters of him.

J. Karjalainen

Translator’s note: Lännen-Jukka refers to a connection between Jukka and the West. ‘Lännen’ works as a prefix to the name of someone who’s been to, come from or is of the West, the mythical West. It’s the direction where people went to find a better life, far beyond Sweden and even Norway or the British Isles. Some found it, others didn’t. Some returned, others didn’t. What people knew about it was vague and mysterious, huge and promising.