Cornets & Pickaxes

Northeastern Minnesota Book Award Recipient

The new book Cornets & Pickaxes: Finnish Brass on the Iron Range, by Paul Niemisto was released in June 2013.

Send orders,  inquiries, and comments to author Paul <>, or mail Paul Niemisto, 608 Zanmiller Dr W, Northfield , MN 55057. Retail Price $25, plus $5 postage. Call 507-645-7554.

C&P also available from the Finnish Wind Band Society (SPOL) website


Also available at North Wind Books:, New World Finn On Line Bookstore,  St. Olaf College Bookstore (, Minnesota History Center Bookstore, several Northern States bookstores, and on Amazon.


“Cornets & Pickaxes is rich, rare, illuminating, and triumphant fanfare to the remarkable musical communities of “ordinary” Finnish Americans, painstakingly yet exuberantly created from interviews, photographs, newspaper accounts, sheet music, reminiscences, and other mostly ephemeral sources that would have eluded a less dedicated and able researcher.”

James P. Leary
Birgit Baldwin Professor of Scandinavian Studies
Director, Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures
University of Wisconsin-Madison


“ I am one of the newer Finnish musicians in Minnesota. But we can look back more than a century to when hundreds of us came here to play in brass bands in the mining and lumbering communities “up north.” Paul Niemisto’s new book “Cornets & Pickaxes” is the first written history of that era of music making and these pages make a convincing case that the Finns made a great contribution to Minnesota culture. It is also a good overview of the band music history in Finland and a summary of contemporary musical life among Finnish Americans.”

Osmo Vänskä, Music Director and Conductor

Minnesota Orchestra


“It is with pleasure that I recommend this important work on Finnish and Finnish American bands by Paul Niemisto particularly as he shows their role as a part of American culture.  “Cornets & Pickaxes” includes exhaustive detail on the subject. In fact the book is encyclopedic in its coverage of those instrumental groups in both the old country and the US. Thus the work is a scholarly contribution to colleagues in the field as well as a stimulus to students interested in the subject. In that regard it is a model for others with its lengthy bibliography and its prolific original visuals.”

Dr. Victor Greene, Emeritus Professor of History

University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee

Author of “Passion for Polka”- Old Time Ethnic Music in America


Niemisto, Paul. 2013. Cornets and Pickaxes: Finnish Brass on the Iron RangeNorthfield, MN: Ameriikan Poijat. 243 pp., illustrations, appen- dices, index. $30.00. ISBN 9781467575270.

Prior to this book’s publication, I was asked to provide a back-cover blurb. Pressed for time, as a deadline loomed, I read the manuscript hurriedly and delivered:

Cornets & Pickaxes is a rich, rare, illuminating, and triumphant fanfare to the remarkable musical communities of “ordinary” Finnish Americans, painstakingly yet exuberantly created from interviews, photographs, newspaper accounts, sheet music, reminiscences, and other mostly ephemeral sources that would have eluded a less dedicated and able researcher.

The tasks of book reviewer and book promoter are typically distinct in tone and purpose. But in the case of Paul Niemisto’s work, they merge. This is by any measure a superb work of scholarship.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, brass musicians and bandmasters joined the mass migration of Finns to North America, forming musical ensembles to perform for concerts, dances, midsummer celebrations, and funerals, often in association with small towns and the “Finn Halls” of both temperance and working-class socialist organizations. Enjoying a vigorous “golden era” from 1900 to 1920, Finnish American brass bands were gradually displaced by emerging accordion ensembles and had all but vanished by the onset of World War II.

In the early 1980s, Niemisto—a Finnish American from the Lake Superior region, a longtime Minnesotan, and an accomplished brass performer and teacher—unwittingly yet happily commenced his salvage operation by attending a Finnish brass festival in Lieksa, near the Finland- Russia border. Captivated by the participants’ efforts to revitalize a century-old seitsikko (septet) style and repertoire, he soon formed a similar ensemble, Ameriikan Poijat (Boys of America). Initially emphasizing an Old World repertoire, Niemisto shifted his group’s focus as he began to investigate the once-thriving and distinctively New World existence of Finnish American brass bands.

Researched over a quarter-century, concentrating on the Minnesota Iron Range but also informed by the related presence of brass bands flourishing in such far-flung Finnish communities as Monessen, Pennsylvania, and Red Lodge, Montana, Cornets and Pickaxes is comprised of an intro- duction, seven chapters, an extensive afterword, and a series of valuable appendices. Niemisto commences with the emergence of brass bands in late nineteenth-century Finland, their roots in military band traditions, their relationship to labor unions and fire brigades, their significant place in the larger movement for Finnish independence, their dual emphases on social dance music and ceremonial marches, and their relationship to a larger European brass band phenomenon especially evident in the training of bandmasters outside of Finland and in the Russian, Swedish, Prussian, and Bohemian/Czech influence on instrumentation and repertoire.

Commendably, Niemisto consistently places his subject within larger historical, political, and social contexts as he traces immigrant bandmas- ters and brass performers to the New World, where they were a particular force in numerous Minnesota communities, forming bands in Bovey, Chisholm, Cloquet, Cromwell, Crosby, Embarrass, Eveleth, Hibbing, Nashwauk, Sturgeon Township, Virginia, and elsewhere. Attentive to the big picture, Niemisto’s approach is likewise finely grained. We learn about the lives and economic challenges of bandmasters, the rivalries between and schisms within sponsoring temperance and workers’ halls, the shifts from Old World to American instruments, the bands’ participation in Finnish midsummer and mainstream American events, the key presence of Italian and Slovenian performers in erstwhile Finnish bands, the steady decline of an overtly Finnish repertoire, the intersection of Finnish and school bands, and a good deal more. An impressive seventy-five selected historical photographs, painstakingly acquired from local organizations and individuals, and their often-detailed accompanying captions illustrate and amplify throughout.

The book’s impressive afterword and appendices, spanning more than sixty pages, convey the process, scope, sources, challenges, and rewards bound up with research into a once ubiquitous yet largely unstudied bygone grassroots phenomenon about which only elusive scattered shards of evidence survive. Indeed, the afterword might serve as a primer for anyone conducting similar historical research. Including but going well beyond the standard “bibliographic essay,” Niemisto engagingly reveals his reliance on the following various sources: interviews with Minnesotans knowledgeable about Iron Range bands; more than a score of large and small archival collections in the United States and Finland (e.g., not only the Immigration History Research Center in Minneapolis and the Finnish Military Archives in Helsinki, but also the archives of several Iron Range historical societies and Finnish brass bands); back issues of twenty-one Upper Midwestern newspapers, in both English and Finnish; the Internet sites of brass band and related organizations and aficionados; caches of rare recordings from the brass bands’ heyday; and the testimony of nearly 400 rare photographs scanned from the collections of many institutions and individuals.

Each of four well-conceived appendices provides details undergird- ing the book’s chapters. Appendix A itemizes scores and instrumental parts for eighty-two Finnish titles in the repertoire of Victor Taipale, an immigrant from rural Ostrobothnia figuring prominently in Niemisto’s narrative as “the most active and successful of the Finnish bandmasters in Minnesota” (90). Instrumental in founding and fostering bands in sev- eral Iron Range communities, Taipale was also known as poppimies (pop man) for running a soft-drink bottling business supplementing his insufficient musical earnings. Appendix B systematically identifies 250 Finnish American bandsmen in Minnesota, their affiliations with bands, and the confirming sources. Appendix C lists the names, locations, temperance or socialist affiliations, conductors, and chronological spans of twenty-seven Finnish American bands in Minnesota. And appendix D offers full citations for eighty-five newspaper articles on Finnish American bands published in English or in Finnish from 1890 to 1914.

Exemplary as both a significant reference work and an illuminating history, Niemisto’s book effectively conjures the lost world of Finnish American brass bands which were once a mainstay of Minnesota mining communities and beyond. Consequently, Cornets and Pickaxes parallels Pekka Gronow’s landmark Studies in Scandinavian-American Discography (1977), while echoing Joyce Hakala’s Memento of Finland, a similarly admirable illumination of immigrant kantele players wrought from scarce and scattered ephemera.


Gronow, Pekka. 1977. Studies in Scandinavian-American Discography. Helsinki: Finnish Institute of Recorded Sound.

Hakala, Joyce E. 1997. Memento of Finland: A Musical Legacy. St. Paul, MN: Pikebone Press.

James P. Leary University of Wisconsin