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.
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.
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
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.