What is Frontier Music?

Picture the Wild West, circa 1880. What does it look like to you? What do you see? Cowboys, maybe. Sherrifs, vigilantes, a dusty road and a showdown at high noon.


Now, think about what you hear. What music do you think would be flowing from saloon doors? Would it be ragtime? Scott Joplin’s famous Entertainer, perhaps? Maybe a player piano plunks out mechanical notes to some old folk tune.

These conceptions of the Wild West are common. In fact, many of them were reinforced through popular culture: remember John Wayne? Spaghetti Westerns? Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman?

All of these depictions of the American West function not only as reflections of a cultural ideal but as projections of Western Identity. As this imagery was pushed over time, it seeped into historical consciousness, and other voices of the Wild West faded away.

In reality, the American Frontier not only contained cowboys and Native Americans, but was also home to a burgeoning population of women and children, Chinese workers, and Black Americans all seeking out the promise of Gold and the steady work offered by the railroad.

So what does music have to do with any of this?

Let’s start with a short anecdote.

Ming’s Opera House in 2012

One day in 1883, a gaggle of nuns took their seats in the front row of Ming’s Opera House in Helena, Montana. There are two details that make this anecdote particularly interesting. One: Ming’s Opera House was known to produce a variety of bawdy shows, including burlesque.  This means that either these nuns were very forward thinking for 1883, or, two: these nuns weren’t really nuns at all, but were, in fact, five of Helena’s most famous prostitutes. Having been banned from entering Ming’s Opera House on the request of wealthier patrons, this group of women took measures into their own hands – and the patrons reacted swiftly and decisively. What started as an innocent desire to take in a show resulted in the formal legal formation of a red-light district. Sprinkled throughout the history of the American West, anecdotes like this one point to the centrality of music and gender to the frontier struggle to define identity- an identity that doesn’t resemble the one so often peddled as the truth of the American West. Throughout the course of this exhibit, you’ll visit four historical moments in the history of the state of Montana, starting with the story of a pioneer girl in 1878 and ending with a Fourth of July Celebration in 1909. Each story offers a different depiction of how music was used to construct identity.



You can follow the exhibit chronologically, or jump in anywhere. Click on any of the four stories below to begin learning about the music that built the West. 

Click on any of the pictures below to enter the story. 

Girlhood in the Gulches: Virginia City, 1878