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Viola Turpeinen, the first recorded woman accordionist?

March 8, 2011
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Today is International Women’s Day, and I’ve been writing about Viola Turpeinen.  We’ll feature her on Accordion Noir’s annual women’s show tomorrow night.

Viola Turpeinen, antique posed photo playing piano accordion Viola Turpeinen was probably the first woman accordionist to record, and certainly the first female accordion star in America.  A second-generation Finnish-American, starting in the 1920’s she played the Finnish dance circuit in the upper mid-west region of Michigan / Wisconsin / Minnesota.  Eventually based out of New York, she toured widely and it became a tradition for dancers to see her headlining travelling shows every summer.

She played mostly at Finnish halls, but other folks came to see her – an example of how “crossover” musicians reached across ethnic lines to gain larger audiences.  In New York she recorded and also trained at accordion entrepreneur Pietro Deiro’s academy.  Combined with her initial instruction by Italian immigrants, this led her to join the American shift to piano accordions (away from the Finnish chromatic button tradition for instance).  She made at least 90 records, and was one of the rare ethnic artists who were in enough demand to continue recording after the stock-market crash in 1929 devastated the recording industry.  “The number of records produced dropped from about 100 million in 1927 to only 6 million in 1932.” [Greene, 114.]

Carl Rahkonen described her repertoire, “They performed a surprisingly wide variety of music, certainly Finnish and Finnish-American tunes, but also classical music, standard American popular tunes, Scandinavian tunes, and other ethnic American tunes. They performed mostly dance genres: polkas, schottisches (jenkkas), waltzes, foxtrots (humppas) and tangos, but also concert pieces and songs.”

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Turpeinen retired to Florida in the 50’s and lived with her husband in their, “House that Polka built.”  She died of cancer in 1958 at age 49.  Sadly her place as an American virtuoso and folk-and-ethnic-music pioneer is almost forgotten.  Even some accordion-historians inexplicably leave out her remarkably sustained and successful career.  She exemplifies how ethnic folk-cultures which eventually assimilated as “white,” seem to have been selectively excluded from the American folk revival.  If some sincere Finnish-American folk balladeer in the early 60s had asked her grandparents about folk music their parents had listened to, she might have walked in Turpeinen’s footsteps and become the Joan Baez of the accordion.

So in hopes of a new revival in memory of the first woman accordion star – Viola Turpeinen, “The Accordion Princess.”

I’ve learned about Ms. Turpeinen from:

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A Passion for Polka: Old-Time Ethnic Music in America, by Victor Greene. An incredibly rich and detailed book about how ethnic music influenced American culture, from the poorest immigrant bands up to the very top of the popular music charts.

A substantial Finnish American Reporter article on Turpeinen, by Carl Rahkonen (reprinted on the Mining Gazette site).

There’s some nice stuff about her in connection with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula music scene here.

And to get her complete works, with detailed notes in Finnish and English, go to:

The Finnish Fifty-Records label. (Click on “HISTORIALLISET LEVYT – HISTORIC.” How’s your Finnish?)  They were very, very kind and helped us get a large stock of historic Finnish folk and jazz recordings for the Accordion Noir show, so be friendly with them!  More from them when we talk about the “Bomb-Squad Polka” in a future post….

Her recordings are also distributed by Music for Accordion (who have most of the notes from her CD’s on their site.)

And I just found the wonderful photo site of the Finnish Institute of Migration, where they gather information on Finns who, migrated.

Finally, I see you can get one of these t-shirts!  They’re from the Mesaba Co-op Park, which sounds pretty cool.  Founded by progressive Finns in Minnesota in 1929, we could have gone dancing and heard Viola there.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Juha Niemelä permalink
    June 6, 2011 9:50 pm

    Artie Music http://www.artiemusic.com has published all recordings of Viola Turpeinen as Viola Turpeinen – American hanuriprinsessa Vol. 1 1928-1929, Viola Turpeinen – American hanuriprinsessa Vol. 2 1929-1945, Viola Turpeinen – American hanuriprinsessa Vol. 3 1947-1949, Viola Turpeinen – American hanuriprinsessa Vol. 4 1949-1951 . The booklets are having the story also in English.

    Juha Niemelä, Folklorist, Turku, Finland

  2. April 14, 2014 2:27 pm

    Interesting article- wonder if you have any information on a Welsh Lady who performed concerts across the world in the 1930’s. She retired to the area around Abergavenny and I believe passed away approximately 17 years ago. Unfortunately I have no idea of her name

    • August 21, 2014 8:52 am

      Oh my John, I just found your comment four months later! I don’t know the Welsh woman you mention, though it sounds like I should, and I’d like to learn more. I’ll post here if I stumble across anything. Anybody know her? or even what kind of music she played? (Classical, folk-tunes, polka, popular?)

      Again, sorry for missing this.

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