Fieldnotes – Tongue River Stories

I had heard about Martha Scanlan, and had heard some of her music, before I decided to make the slight (OK, fairly significant) detour from Sheridan, Wyoming to her cabin near Hanging Woman Creek in the Tongue River drainage (a few miles from the hamlet of Birney, Montana.) The drive is only about 65 miles, but takes a good two hours on the rough road that follows the Tongue. The landscape is gorgeous (as John Lambing’s fantastic photos show), but, as I drove, I wondered what would make someone live in such an isolated place. Let me rephrase that: I can easily imagine why lots of folks – myself included – would want to live in the Tongue River Valley. But for a successful singer/songwriter – nationally acclaimed, award-winning, etc. etc. – to take a break from that semi-glamorous life in order to live in isolation and spend long hours chasing cows was intriguing to me.

When I had finally found my way to her cabin, and we sat in the shade of the low, overhanging roof of the cabin where she lives, and started to talk and, later, play a little music together, her choice made more sense to me.

She talked mostly about landscape, and about community, and tradition, and cultural continuity and integrity, and about the purifying and unifying power of hard physical work, and about her efforts to use all of those things as raw material for music, (please check out Tongue River Stories) or to use music as a way to connect with and understand those things.

She talked about “…four and five generations of people working together on the same piece of land…in a way that’s really mutually beneficial to everybody…and there’s something that’s really lovely and something that puts aside individual beliefs or ideas in simple work, or in music, or in caring for a place, or in belonging to a place…or sharing common stories…that I think is really unusual anymore, and something that’s really important. And I think there’s something about this place that is…kind of important to all of us in that sense…there’s a heritage here that’s kind of common…to all of us, and it’s really worth…holding up…and learning from…and preserving…”