Butte, when nothing else will do

BUTTE — During the opening ceremonies of the Montana Folk Festival on Friday night, a woman on the Original Stage was signing for the hearing impaired while a speaker welcomed everyone to Butte.

Wow, I thought, what an unfortunate place to be deaf, at a three-day festival with dozens of bands playing music from all over the world. Then it occurred to me that I had written a long story about the festival, and here I am now writing a column about it, too.

I hope my words aren’t completely futile, and maybe the photos will help, but this exercise is akin to printing a recipe instead of providing you with a good meal.

But bear with me. This is more about Butte than about the festival anyway.

I first stopped in Butte in the mid-1970s. I was driving with a friend from Missoula to Cody to pick up a tire for a Douglas DC-3 airplane. It’s a long story, but for college kids we had pretty cool jobs.

He was from New York, I was from Minnesota. All we knew of Butte was a handful of slanders passed on to us by people from elsewhere in Montana, back when people loved to hate Butte, for all kinds of reasons including envy. We’d thought we’d pull off the highway just long enough to confirm the slanders.

But no. When we hit the first incline, beginning our ascent to Uptown Butte, I was hooked. We’re all hardwired to like certain things, I guess. I’m a sucker for old buildings, crooked streets, rough edges, hand-painted advertising and industrial leftovers.

It was a short visit, but all these years later it hits me the same way. A friend who used to live here described it many years ago. He said he might be feeling down in the dumps but then would go for a walk. In half a block he’d pass five or six houses, all of them very old and none of them built on the same level, and each borrowing elements from a handful of different architectural styles.

And suddenly, almost before he noticed the change, he would be feeling not merely good but weirdly ecstatic, and life seemed to consist of endless interesting possibilities.

He couldn’t describe it any better than that and neither can I. But I’ve taken that walk and I have been assailed by that feeling.

We’re back again this weekend for the folk festival. I’ll take any excuse to get back to Butte, but there is none better than the festival. Besides the smorgasbord of really fine music on multiple stages on the streets of Uptown Butte, there is something else.

There is the realization, which I feel again and again over the course of the festival, that hundreds and thousands of people from all over the country, from all over the world, are here for the first time. Chances are good that many of them are being flooded with the same emotions as I was during that first visit to Butte, which thrills the hell out of me all over again.

I feel so good that I find myself looking down at my chest, wondering whether people can see my heart beating under last year’s festival T-shirt.

I also wonder whether it is a good idea to be writing this in the Butte Public Library when I should be out exploring the city and enjoying more music. So let me cut this short and get back to it. The attached photo gallery will, I hope, express some more of what I’ve been trying to say.

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