The Wild West of the early 1900s conjures up images of dusty saloons, hardened pioneers, and cowboys plucking twangy guitars around a campfire. Few envision well-dressed musicians performing classical music at formal venues to townsfolk dressed in their Sunday best. But a group of Montana musicians has revealed a nugget of state history that until recently was tucked away in a drawer of old photographs. And instead of the cowboy guitar, this history revolves around the mandolin.
“Not many people can say a photo changed the course of their life,” says Dennis White, professional musician and director of the Bozeman-based Montana Mandolin Society, “but that’s just what happened.”
Mr. White spent much of his childhood sitting at the knees of old-time fiddlers and banjo pickers while growing up in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, where he caught the music bug. In 1997, he moved from Nashville, Tenn., the capital of country music where he worked as a road musician and in music publishing, to the “cow town” of Bozeman to work for Gibson Guitar. His goal was to help the company reintroduce mandolins into the schools. But right after he arrived, Gibson moved their mandolin department back to Nashville.
“I put all that on hold,” White says.
He opened a studio, teaching the banjo and mandolin. “People would come in from all walks of life,” he says. “One of my banjo students came into my studio one day with this photograph.”
It was a faded, black-and-white photo of the 1902 Bozeman Mandolin and Guitar Club. The staid, well-dressed musicians were holding their instruments: a variety of mandolins, some guitars, and a few banjos.
“I hung it up in my studio, and when people came in they would always ask me about this picture,” White says.
Some digging revealed the group comprised an eclectic mix of local business owners, college students, cowboys, government officials, and some city founders. From different walks of life, they shared a love of music, performing together at the Bozeman Opera House and smaller venues and social gatherings from 1902 until 1906.
On “Valentine’s Day 1902, the renowned mandolin virtuoso Samuel Siegel came to Bozeman and played with these gentlemen,” White says. “And when he did, they inspired all the mandolin playing in this state.”
Mandolin orchestras were “in” all over the country from 1894 until 1924, eventually fizzling as jazz gained popularity. But Montana was a hotbed of mandolin history, White says.
“One of the reasons is that they’re little instruments and could be easily carried out West by the pioneers,” suggests Lori Brockway, Montana Mandolin Society business manager. A native Montanan, Ms. Brockway has a mandolin from the early 1900s from her homesteader grandfather, the case worn from being strapped to his horse. “It’s a paradox that such beautiful, bright-sounding instruments came here strapped onto big animals and through the roughness that was the Wild West,” she says. “I love picturing these big, tough men trekking through the mud holes on Main Street in Bozeman wearing fancy leather boots, formal clothing, and starched white collars, carrying these funny little instruments.”
Mandolin clubs formed in many small Montana towns at that time, including one all-female, Native American basketball team and mandolin club in Fort Shaw. These women would change during halftime and put on a brief mandolin concert before changing back into their sport clothes to finish the game.
“It was kind of a social thing,” White explains. “In the 1880s, there were banjo clubs, where the majority of the players were women … something very similar to the mandolin clubs. In the early 1900s, because women had been put in this place – playing banjos in these big groups, where they would wear their bonnets and their big gowns and play in the park on Sunday afternoons – for them it was a status symbol to play a mandolin. Young women of marrying age would carry empty mandolin cases around for show.”
After weeks of studying the photo, White decided to resurrect the club and Montana’s mandolin history, as well as his plan to bring mandolins into schools. In 1999, with Brockway, he formed the nonprofit Montana Mandolin Society.
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“Playing in front of Mike Mansfield [the late former Senator from Montana] in Washington, D.C. was a high point,” White says, recounting the 2001 trip to play in the Capitol and at the Kennedy Center.
In nine years, the group has completed regional and national tours, educational outreach, four CDs, a tour of Japan as musical ambassadors, and hosted the Classical Mandolin Society of America’s annual conference.
Instead of cowboys and government officials, members have included a ski patroller, librarian, fly fisherman, computer “geek,” school counselor, luthier, and professional musicians, among others. “Occupationally we are coming from different places, but also musically,” White says, adding their talents range from rock and jazz to bluegrass and classical.
The music has also evolved. “We took a lot of the elements and diversified,” White says. “We’re not diehards or sticklers.”
White blends music from the 1902 club, traditional Italian ensembles, and modern songs. The Montana Mandolin Society began by playing Mandolin era classics – “The Flying Wedge,” “The Texas Foxtrot,” and the “Evolution Rag” – as well as originals White composed, like “The Bridger Waltz,” named after Bozeman’s surrounding mountains. Variations on current songs, such as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” by the Allman Brothers, are also played.
“I’ve always thought of music as paintings,” White says. “Each song has different texture, rhythm, and each is unique. I’ve tried to display that with this music.” The band’s other stringed instruments – the cello, violin, banjo, guitar, hammer dulcimer, and traditional mandolin variations such as the mandola and octave mandolin – create “another texture, another layer.”
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When many think “mandolin,” they recall high-pitched sounds emitted from flat-pick players accompanying bluegrass bands. But when it’s the focal point of classical mandolin orchestras, it takes on a different sound – “clear and vibrant,” says Brockway – “Meditative and mind-expanding,” White says. (EDITOR'S NOTE: The original version of this story incorrectly identified mandolin players as commonly employing a fingerpicking style.)
Linda Wertheimer of NPR called Montana Mandolin Society “The Montana Sound.”
“It’s the sound between the notes,” White says. “There’s that space that happens. It’s a direct reflection of the Montana landscape.”
If the sounds are unexpected, so are the musicians, says Brockway. Audiences “think they’re getting cowboys. And boy are they surprised when they get tuxedos and classical music!”