“The longest running advertisement ever”

In Atlantic Mine, the Range Snowmobile Club prepares for a big snowmobile race to be held December 4th. During the month leading up to the race, no snow falls, and with just a few weeks left before the event, organizers get increasingly nervous. Turning to local radio station WMPL in Hancock, Club members ask for an advertisement, and WMPL worker and musician David Riutta takes the job. He uses a tune he had been working with on his guitar and the “Heikki Lunta Snow Dance Song” airs on the radio waves within an hour.

The song, bearing a strong local flavor and an amusing story line, captures listeners’ attention, and the station receives numerous requests to play the song. After repeated play, the snow comes, and in such a fury that, according to popular legend, the race is cancelled.

David Riutta, creator of Heikki Lunta. August 6, 2005, Tom Stiglich Day, Cliffview Inn, Phoenix, Michigan. Photograph by Hilary Virtanen.

David Riutta says of Heikki Lunta that he chose the name, meaning “Henry Snow” in Finnish because of his favorite musician at that time, country singer, Hank Snow. “I had thought about how Hank Snow was Heikki Lunta… [in Finnish] I had thought… I kind of liked that, and so it inspired this.” While certainly Riutta’s songs have given him fame as the creator of the “Finnish Snow God,” he says that he is happy to see others use the character in their own ways.

Country musician Hank Snow, the English-language namesake of Heikki Lunta. Photo used with permission from the Friends of Hank Snow Society.

Heikki Lunta’s namesake, Hank Snow was born in rural Canada and made his fame in Nashville with such country music hits as “I’m Movin’ On” and “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Folklorist James P. Leary highlights Snow’s importance to Upper Midwestern and Finnish-American music when he says that Snow was a “performer quite well known to many Finnish Americans and Yoopers from roughly the 1940s into the 1960s. Indeed polkabilly music, fusing Anglo American and non Anglo European American musical strains, was the bedrock Yooper genre for much of the 20th century, spawning such lyrical hybrids as this takeoff on Marty Robbins’ “El Paso:”

Out in the West U.P. town of Toivola
I fell in love with a blonde Finnish girl.”

This polkabilly style, and indeed, even the play on “El Paso,” lives today in the musical stylings of Conga Se Menne, with their own song, “West U.P. Town:”

Here in the west U.P. town of Republic
I fell in love with a beautiful girl.

The legacy of Snow and mid-century country music remains, fused with traditional Finnish sounds and even world music beats, as Conga Se Menne will demonstrate later.

Part of the reason for Heikki Lunta’s instant popularity lies in the fact that the song was performed in the local dialect. Strongly influenced by European immigrant languages including Italian, Cornish-English, Croatian, German, and especially, Finnish, the local dialect is one of the strongest markers of regionality recognized by residents and non-locals alike. It was the first time such an identifiable song was performed on the local radio.

Range Sno-mobile Club Race, December 4, 1970. Photo by the Daily Mining Gazette.

Although legend says that the races were cancelled, The Daily Mining Gazette ran an article the weekend following the scheduled event indicating that it took place as planned. This collective memorization of events occurring differently from how they happened helps to build legend and myth in the popular imagination and further its growth among a given community. Giving Heikki Lunta extraordinary beginnings cements his place in the community as remarkable and valuable.

Winter sports events in Upper Michigan, and throughout much of the Upper Midwest, are central to the annual community calendar, and participation is widespread. The advertisement for the Range Sno-mobile Club’s races reflects the high level of involvement in this small but close-knit community in such festival events.

Advertisement for the Range Sno-mobile Club event,
Daily Mining Gazette, December 1, 1971.

After the release of the “Heikki Lunta Snow Dance Song,” the snow continues to fall and fall and fall. Some locals wonder if Heikki Lunta had anything to do with the weather. Some get mildly hostile to WMPL employees: one man hints that Riutta’s character is a result of witchcraft or bad magic, and Riutta’s coworker Bob Olsen said in a 1987 interview that, “It was getting dangerous for Heikki and Dave…people started throwing rocks at them…well, not really rocks, but snowballs filled with rocks.” It was decided that he should write a follow-up song. Using the same tune as the first song, “Heikki Lunta, Go Away” is an apology to the community for the havoc the character had caused. Heikki promises to stop dancing until he is needed again.

WMPL produces an album featuring “The Heikki Lunta Snow Dance Song” and “Heikki Lunta, Go Away.” The first 3000 albums sell immediately, and more are made. “The Heikki Lunta Snow Dance Song” is said to have been aired- and caused snow- in Georgia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and points between. The album is still a bestseller in the Copper Country, and Dave Riutta still plays the songs- with a little coaxing depending on the season- during his regular musical performances as a lead guitarist in several bands throughout the region.

Original 45 rpm recording of “Heikki Lunta’s Snow Dance Song”

After the release of both the “Heikki Lunta Snow Dance Song” and “Heikki Lunta, Go Away,” people were interested in hearing more details about the character. While Dave Riutta never created stories about Heikki Lunta, two of his coworkers, Dick Storm and Bob Olsen, did. Olsen told people that Lunta lived on a backroad near Tapiola, where he lived alone in a shack. He knew about nature and homemade devices, including a phone system made of Dixie cups strung together.

Storm was called Heikki Lunta by his neighbors in Toivola, some of whom did not like this new character. To this day, Riutta’s coworkers are remembered in the community for their roles in the development and promotion of the early Heikki Lunta stories.

In the first few years following Heikki Lunta’s creation, it became a popular tradition at winter sports events and celebrations for a man to dress as the character who came to be known as the Finnish Snow God. Dave Riutta was among the first to do this, although as he reveals, it was not necessarily by choice:

“I went up once to the Range Snowmobile Club. A friend of mine, a good friend of mine, asked me if I would go and make the rounds dressed like an old man with some fur clothes on, in a black fur hat, and a big old woolly coat and I rode around on the back of a snowmobile. I can’t remember now if this was the same winter [1970- 71] or the following winter… that’s the only thing I’ve ever done. I felt so ridiculous doing that[…] I did it as a favor to my friend.” (Riutta, 2004 interview).

COPYRIGHT:© Hilary Virtanen 2006
Accessibility concerns to sjziemen@wisc.edu