St. Olaf College | News

Student presents digital exhibit of Wild West’s musical history

As a vocal performance major at St. Olaf College, Siriana Lundgren ’19 was compelled to look at the musical history of the American West.

She didn’t have a clear goal when beginning her research, but she was inspired after learning that the Wild West was much more than cowboys playing guitars and fiddles around the campfire — it was the expressive experimentation of new musical art forms that empowered the silenced.

“Once I knew this music wasn’t the only musical history of the American West, I wanted to find out more,” Lundgren says.  Her research led her to create “The Music that Built the West,” a digital exhibit that focuses on the overlooked influences of music in the American West. It’s an impressive compilation that has been offered as curriculum to educators in the largest school district in Montana.

“Once I knew this music wasn’t the only musical history of the American West, I wanted to find out more,” Siriana Lundgren ’19 says.

Lundgren presented her digital exhibit at Bucknell University in November and will present at St. Olaf on Tuesday, January 15, at 7 p.m. in Christiansen Hall of Music Room 233. In addition to her exhibit being offered as curriculum for 7th to 12th-grade public schools in Montana, Lundgren hopes that her work will inspire people and be used for activism.

St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein helped Lundgren develop this research project after working with her on a term paper for Race, Identity, and Representation in American Music, a class that Epstein teaches. Epstein specializes in digital exhibits. Having worked with him on his most recent project, “Musical Geography: Mapping Place and Movement Throughout Music History,” Lundgren began to compile her work in a similar way.

With Epstein’s support, Lundgren applied for and received the Steen Fellowship and the Magnus the Good Fellowship at St. Olaf, which enabled her to travel all over Montana and to Washington, D.C., and Bucknell University to conduct her research.

Exploring the West
While gathering information in her home state of Montana, Lundgren took the liberty of looking beyond folk music. This past summer she discovered the different ways women and children used music to express themselves in the 1870s. “As a musician and a woman, I was interested to find out how women, specifically, constructed their identity in the frontier,” she says.

“Girlhood in the Gulches” is a section of Siriana Lundgren’s digital exhibit highlighting Flora McKay, a young girl from Virginia City, Montana and her love for music.

She probed articles and personal journals from libraries and databases. “I had to comb through hundreds of primary sources to find the smallest shreds of historical musical evidence, but it was worth it,” she says.

What she learned would fundamentally change the way the history of music in the West is viewed.

In addition to the traditional folk music, she discovered that ragtime and an early version of jazz were very prominent in the West. Not only was this nontraditional music prevalent, but they were at odds with classic folk music and Western classical music, causing a fierce dichotomy.  

One example: “The Salvation Army was in conflict with a ragtime saloon. The saloon would play their music in the street and the Salvation Army would protest by marching through the streets singing hymnals,” Lundgren says, “and the saloon was owned by a woman named Chicago Joe, the wealthiest person in Helena, Montana, at the time.”

In “Battle of the Bands, Helena 1889” section of the exhibit explores The Salvation Army and Chicago Joe’s musical confrontations.

Lundgren found numerous accounts indicating that women and children consumed, influenced, and made all varieties of music, but learned they were squelched by history. “I had to give them a voice,” Lundgren says. “It opened my eyes up to so much diversity in the West that often gets overlooked. There’s too much evidence for them not be given an opportunity to be heard. That’s why I created my digital exhibit; it gives them the respect they deserve.”

Opportunities at St. Olaf
At St. Olaf, Lundgren is studying vocal performance with an interdisciplinary elective major encompassing women and gender studies and the Great Conversation, a St. Olaf program that introduces the major epochs of Western civilization to students via great works of human achievement. On top of her course load, Lundgren is involved in the St. Olaf Choir, Lyric Theater, St. Olaf Cantorei, Awareness Inclusivity in Music, Program Notes Project, and the Student National Association of Teachers of Singing.

Lundgren has been passionate about opera from a young age. “I’ve always loved music and a good story since I was little, and opera does both,” she says. “I was torn between a conservatory school and St. Olaf, but I’m glad I chose St. Olaf.”

She says her favorite part of St. Olaf is the faculty and students. “The willingness of instructors to help me in my studies and encourage me to conduct my research is priceless,” Lundgren says, “and there are so many students who are passionate about activism and making the world a better place. It’s hopeful and inspiring.”

The willingness of instructors to help me in my studies and encourage me to conduct my research is priceless.Siriana Lundgren ’19

On top of her vocal performance major, she has an elective studies major, which combines many different practices into one major. “I really value my liberal arts education. I appreciate being exposed to a wide variety of subjects,” she says. “It inspired me to create my elective major, which has allowed me to combine my vocal performance major with women and gender studies and the things I learned from the Great Conversation.”

After graduation, Lundgren hopes to be accepted into a musicology doctorate program and continue to combine her love for opera and activism.

Siriana Lundgren ’19I really value my liberal arts education. I appreciate being exposed to a wide variety of subjects.”