After hearing of John Berquist’s passing last week, we wanted to take some time to look at his impact in Minnesota through his passion for folk music, storytelling and the history of the Iron Range.
An “Iron Ranger, born and bred,” Berquist grew up in Eveleth, Minn., and had recently moved to Fayal Township. Throughout his career, he spent time living in Chicago, Rochester and the Twin Cities. Family and friends remember his dedication to learning the history of the places he lived, and then telling those stories to others through his music and storytelling.
“He really cared deeply about place, and about the connection to what used to happen here. And he would go and seek the stories behind the music of whatever place he was in, whether it was a small town in Minnesota or an immigrant community in Chicago,” said his son, Andy Rosequist. “He would go and find the people that had interesting stories to tell and he would go and he would listen to them, and he would find them wherever he could. And he would collect those stories and then he would retell them to other people, sometimes in the same community, and that created communities and let people find each other and find a common ground.”
Berquist studied cultural geography at Macalester College and the University of Minnesota, and was an active member of the West Bank folk music community in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“He was well known on campus, because already, in his 20s, he was one of his kind. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of folk stories,” Michael Goldberg said.
Goldberg attended college with Berquist and later worked with him at Northern Community Radio (KAXE). There, Berquist created Jackpine Jamboree, a local show featuring live performances. As host, Berquist put an emphasis on celebrating the cultural history of the area.
“With John, it was never about ego. It was never about John Berquist, it was always about heritage and tradition,” Goldberg said. “You could see his love for the other musicians. You could see it in the way he treated them and how thrilled he was to be involving people of older generations. He was in his 20s when he was doing this show. He often was able to bring on to stage people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, and you could just see his love for them and his appreciation of what they had to share.”
Berquist often wrote folk songs about miners, lumberjacks and the early Scandinavian and Slavic settlers in the Iron Range. In the ‘70s, he composed “I Like in Duluth,” which has been covered by several other bands, including Father Hennepin.
“One thing that my dad really enjoyed was that when people would record it or play it, they would call him and ask permission, and he was always really touched to hear that,” said his son, Jonah Berquist. “It wasn’t like there were a lot of royalties or things like that, but it was just the idea that people were playing it and people were still hearing it and getting enjoyment out of that song. He talked about that as his big hit.”
Berquist also was a field worker for the Smithsonian, and helped bring a Finnish American group from Palo to the 1980 Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C. He helped organize numerous ethnic heritage festivals, including “Ethnic Days” at Ironworld, which is now the Minnesota Discovery Center. He was also a labor organizer, Rosequist said, and was active in Chicago’s International Workers of the World.
“Someone told me a story earlier this week about how up here on the Range during the mining downturn during the ‘80s, my dad started putting together these concerts and festivals recognizing the ethnic history of the place and how the Iron Range has this unique blend of immigrant culture,” Rosequist said. “And it was empowering for all these young parents who were losing their jobs and worried about how they were going to provide for their kids, to know that they were in a place that was special and had meaning.”
As a musician, Berquist toured Europe multiple times and was active in many groups, including the Moose Wallow Ramblers, which he founded; the St. Paul Swedish Men’s Choir, where he served as director for a period; and the Nodding Wild Onions, which he helped found several years ago and had rejoined in the past year, said band member Phil Wheeler.
“When he sang and performed music, there was no halfway. He was just 100 percent into it,” said Mike McMullin, who performed with Berquist in the Nodding Wild Onions. “And when he would do storytelling, if you looked at the audience, the adults looked like children. Everyone was just mesmerized. He would make the sounds of the wind or the sound of the animal and everybody was just fixed on him. He was that kind of storyteller.”
A celebration of John’s life in music and storytelling is planned for August 6.
“He connected with people and he empowered people,” Rosequist said. “He left people with the recognition that the place they were from or where they were living was special.”