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Iron Range musician, folklorist John Berquist dies at 69

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Iron Range musician John Berquist plays a mandolin in April 1988. Berquist died May 12 at age 69. (News Tribune file photo)2 / 2

A "champion of the Iron Range," folklorist, storyteller and musician John Berquist had a deep connection to its various cultures and ethnicities, a connection he was compelled to share.

Berquist, 69, of Fayal Township near Eveleth, died May 12 from pancreatic cancer.

Duluthians might recall him as a member of the Moose Wallow Ramblers, and the author of the song "I Like it in Duluth," covered occasionally by Duluth alt-country band Father Hennepin. But he also wrote folk songs about miners and lumberjacks as well as the Scandinavian and Slavic immigrants who took root on the Iron Range.

"As someone who largely made his reputation as a musician and a performer, he was quite amazing in his reliance on the traditions from which he came," said James Leary, professor emeritus of folklore and Scandinavian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and co-founder and director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. "He wasn't looking off to southern Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta. He felt there was something valuable to convey ... from his interaction with people in the region."

Part Norwegian and part Swede, Berquist had "a good feel" for all of the ethnic groups found on the Iron Range, said his wife, Carol Hepokoski.

"Growing up in Eveleth, I think he liked to say he learned to swear in six languages," she said.

Berquist told jokes with a local bent, and was an accomplished storyteller and a master of the "Scandihoovian" dialect, said Leary, who first met him in 1978.

"He had a great sense of pacing," he said, and would vocalize stories with a lot of detail that made them come alive in relation to places audiences were familiar with."

Berquist played the button accordion, guitar, mandolin and the autoharp. He toured Europe with his music and was a field worker for the Smithsonian, helping to bring a group of Finnish-Americans from Palo to the Washington D.C. Festival of American Folklife in 1980.

He helped organize Ethnic Days at what was then known as Iron World in Chisholm, and taught Jessica Lange a Finnish birthday song for the 1988 film "Far North," shot in Duluth.

Berquist was proud, Hepokoski said, of a time in the 1970s when he helped gather various choirs and bands of Italian, Finnish, Croatian and Slovenian descent to travel to Iron Range communities and perform together. That sharing of cultures, she said, "was really close to the heart of his work. ... He really wanted people to value the history of the land. And he loved to see people take joy in the music he was sharing."

He worked as a storyteller and musician for after-school programs in Chicago when the family lived there and he served as the director of the St. Paul Swedish Male Chorus. He was part of the well-known Eveleth clown band, always dressed for parades as Santa Claus with sunglasses and Bermuda shorts. He appeared on "A Prairie Home Companion" in its early days, and performed at the memorial service for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.

A dedicated father to two sons, "he had an intense curiosity about life and the people and the land," Hepokoski said. "He knew how to live in place."

Father Hennepin has been playing its version of "I Like it in Duluth" for about 15 years, receiving permission from Berquist in a phone call, said band founder Scott Lunt.

"It has the feeling of a song written in one sitting," Lunt said, and it usually gets played at the annual Homegrown Music Festival. "It's one of my favorite songs to sing."

Why did Berquist write a song about a city where he did not live?

"He liked it in Duluth," Hepokoski laughed.

She said the Moose Wallow Ramblers had spent a lot of time in Duluth and was one of the first bands to play at Grandma's Saloon and Grill when it opened in 1976.

"It was really fun for him to see how that song continues," she said.

Berquist is survived by Hepokoski, and sons Andy Rosequist and Jonah Berquist. A funeral will be held Thursday at 2 p.m. at Range Funeral Home in Virginia. An August 6 celebration of Berquist's life in Virginia has been planned.