Music for Butte Montana: Shamrock City

TRAVEL MUSIC

Destination: Butte, Montana, and history

Music: Shamrock City by Solas

by Kerry Dexter

As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, Butte Montana was a place of contrasts: wealthy mine owners with Victorian mansions, miners digging the copper that fueled that wealth, saloon owners and saloon girls who catered to all, children who played in the grass at Columbia Gardens, men who did bare knuckle boxing to make a few extra bucks, all of them seeking a better life in this wide open town that became known as the richest hill on earth.

Butte Montana 1896

The Old Alice Mill, 1896, Photo from Butte-Silver Bow Public Library

You’ll meet many of these folk in the songs and tunes the musicians of Solas have created for their album Shamrock City. That name gives a nod to another aspect of Butte: it was a magnet for immigrants from places including Finland and China — and Ireland. In the early years of the twentieth century, so many from Ireland lived in Butte Montana that it was known as the most Irish place in America, and came by its other nickname: Shamrock City.

Solas

Solas

When Solas was invited to play at a music festival in Butte, it sparked the memory of a family story for Seamus Egan. Egan, a founding member of this top band of Irish American and Irish musicians, through fifteen years and ten albums has been an anchor for the creative twists on tradition, reinvention of Americana songs, and original music the group has created. (Read more about the band at Music Road )As he and band mates Winifred Horan, Mick McAuley, Eamon McElholm, and Niamh Varian-Berry began looking into the story of Egan’s great great uncle Michael Conway and the Butte Montana that Conway knew, their imaginations fired.

The music on Shamrock City begins with a bittersweet story framed in voices of those back in Ireland thinking of those they’ve sent off. ’Then as the song unfolds Varian-Berry sings:

With five and twenty shillings
We sent him on his way
Now my blood runs through the mountains
Of far Americay

 

Butte Montana brochure

Cover of Butte Montana brochure, 1915, from Butte-Silber Bow LIbrary collection

The rough and tumble times and the wide open spirit of the miners and those who filled their days and nights come into the music on  Tell God and the Devil, Girls on the Line, and Lay Your Money Down (the latter with guest vocals by Rhiannon Giddens). The chink and tap of a miner’s tools rings in. McAuley takes on the voice of Michael Conway to tell his story, a story which turns out to have an unexpected ending. The children of Shamrock City come in for their own somewhat bittersweet story in the song Arbor Day, while Winifred Horan’s original instrumental piece, well told through the voice of her fiddle, illuminates a continuing aspect of the immigrant experience expressed in her title: Welcome the Unknown.

Labor songs, spirituals, and music such as Michael Conway might have known or played in Shamrock City weave their parts in this story as well. The band brings things to a thoughtful and thought provoking close with a song which is grounded in the time when Butte Montana was Shamrock City while asking questions about community, immigration , and change which are as relevant now as they were a century ago. It is called No Forgotten Man.

This story comes across creatively and thoughtfully on record, and in performance. I was fortunate to be present at a concert at The Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow, Scotland, during Celtic Connections at which Solas played all the music on the album. Here is a clip from that concert.

Kerry Dexter

Kerry Dexter is a regular contributor to A Traveler’s Library, bringing her knowledge of music and musicians who share a sense of place and travel. Her work also appears in Journey to Scotland and the Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, among other places. Check out her bio on the contributor’s page to learn more and see her site at Music Road.

Kerry Dexter – who has written posts on A Traveler's Library.


Kerry Dexter

About Kerry Dexter

Kerry Dexter is a regular contributor to A Traveler’s Library, bringing her knowledge of music and musicians who share a sense of place and travel. Her work also appears in Journey to Scotland and the Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, among other places. Check out her bio on the contributor’s page to learn more and see her site at Music Road.

4 thoughts on “Music for Butte Montana: Shamrock City

  1. Fascinating. I wondered if this was where Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (their characters, that is) settled in “Far and Away,” but just checked and that was Oklahoma circa 1893.

  2. I knew there were a lot of Irish and Chinese immigrants that made it to Montana. Anywhere, it seems the railroads were going into attracted immigrants. It’s fascinating to learn of the culture they brought with them and that includes the music. Great piece.

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