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Popular Finnish singer celebrates 'Oulu, Wisconsin'

The translated lyrics make it clear he's visited the Bayfield County town.

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A musician who has been called the “Bruce Springsteen of Finland” released a new single this month. The name of the song by Finnish singer-songwriter J. Karjalainen may sound familiar to readers: “ Oulu, Wisconsin .”

The lyrics make it clear that this is no long-distance homage. It appears Karjalainen has traveled through the Bayfield County town, population 560.

The song makes references to U.S. Highway 2, the big white Oulu rock and a glass shop where the singer stopped for a cup of coffee. 

“He must have stopped at Oulu Glass Shop,” said Duane Lahti, board president of the nonprofit Oulu Cultural & Heritage Center.

The familiar birch and ash trees, the hay barns, the Finnish flags scattered through the community all struck a chord with Karjalainen.

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“Oulu, I’m thinking this place could be in Finland,” the lyrics say.

Karjalainen started his recording career in 1981 in rock music and his popularity spans decades. Various websites compare his music to Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, as well as Springsteen.

Mirva Johnson, a graduate student from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is pursuing her doctorate at the University of Turku in Finland, said articles about the new song have appeared in smaller Finnish newspapers, including Rumba.

“J. Karjalainen had previously released music related to Finnish America and this song is based on some of his travels in the area. I’ve heard pretty positive opinions on the song, though also questions about the title because few have heard of Oulu, Wisconsin,” said Johnson, who is well-acquainted with the Bayfield County town.

The Aho House at the Oulu Cultural and Heritage Center
The Aho House, an original pioneer home built on a Maple farm by John and Johanna Aho in the early 1890s is the most recent building to be donated to the Oulu Cultural & Heritage Center. Volunteers began renovation work on the home in the summer of 2018.
Contributed / Duane Lahti

Johnson volunteered to teach Finnish for several years during summer school sessions at the Oulu Cultural & Heritage Center. She also produced an award-winning film on the center as part of her master’s thesis in Scandinavian studies.

Joe Autio posted a link to the Karjalainen song on the Friends of Old-Brule Heritage Society’s Facebook page Jan. 8.

“I have met J. Karjalainen one time, maybe 2007, during my time at the University of Minnesota at an event at Andersen Library,” Autio said of a screening for a series of short films about Finnish Americana.

He said Karjalainen has done extensive traveling and performing in this part of the world, visiting many of the old Finnish communities between Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to meet elderly Finnish American musicians.

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Lahti said he just learned about the song a week ago when Johnson forwarded it to him.

“We didn’t know we were getting literally on the roadmap again here,” he said.

The heritage center, which transports visitors to the past with more than half a dozen restored buildings, already pulls international attention to the town, both online and in person.

Piece by piece, Oulu's Finnish history is being picked up, dusted off and rebuilt for a new generation. On a plot of land along Muskeg Road, the Oulu Cultural and Heritage Center now includes a homestead, a log house, a store, two saunas and a lo...

“Our visitation has been growing. We’ve had several people from Finland there ... the Netherlands and Israel, and most of the states, the contiguous United States,” Lahti said.

There has even been interest from Oulu, Finland, a city in central Finland with a population around 200,000, in creating a sister-city connection with the Bayfield County town.

Lahti was glad to hear Oulu is getting attention in the international music scene.

“It’s pretty good to get a pretty high visibility singer from Finland that highlights us,” he said

Activities at the center, including summer school and weekly coffee and conversation gatherings, have been shuttered since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The board holds its monthly meetings online.

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“We hoping that, if we can ever get this seems-never-ending pandemic behind us, we can get to normalization again,” Lahti said.

The volunteer-run heritage center relies on donations and grants to continue its work.

“Without the many hands that helped out, we wouldn’t be able to have accomplished what we have there,” Lahti said. People are amazed at what we’ve done there.”

Related Topics: MUSICHISTORYBAYFIELD COUNTY
Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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