Moonshiner Bertie Brown immortalized in song

By: 
Charlie Denison
Reporter

Kerry Wallace’s latest album, “If We Knew,” features “The Ballad of Bertie Brown,” all about Central Montana’s most famous moonshiner.

Photo courtesy of Kerry Wallace

Wyoming singer/songwriter Kerry Wallace never knows where inspiration might hit, nor does she know where it’s going to take her, perhaps even to Central Montana.

On her third and latest album, “If We Knew,” Wallace takes a trip to a shack off the back roads of Central Montana where men used to go for “the best whiskey money can buy.”

That’s “The Ballad of Bertie Brown,” a new song immortalizing Lewistown’s moonshine queen, mixing fact with fiction by intertwining Brown’s tale with a canary-related Prohibition era story from Helena.

These stories came to Wallace during the two years she lived in the state capital, thanks to Ellen Baumler’s “History on the Go” radio show.

“I’d listen to Baumler’s show every morning on my way to work,” Wallace said. “It got me really into Montana history, especially the Prohibition era. Bertie Brown really struck me. I can’t believe a 20-something African American woman would come all the way to Montana by herself. Can you imagine?”

Shortly after hearing Baumler’s show on Bertie (Birdie) Brown, Wallace came up with a catchy little chorus about the Montana legend: “she makes whiskey, she makes wine, she is singing all the time, moonshine’s cookin’ in her shed, when the canaries are flying overhead.”

Wallace “played around” with the chorus for years, performing it occasionally. She liked the feel of the song but the verses hadn’t come to her yet.

That changed in Fort Worth, Texas, as inspiration hit Wallace shortly after a performance during the Academy of Western Artists Music Festival.

“I had played a little bit of the song and people enjoyed it, Then, that night, I went back to my hotel room and wrote out the rest of it,” she said. “Over time, I perfected the verses and, when I got back to the studio, I decided to record it.”

The song came to her quickly. As she wrote it, she thought of Helena, she thought of Montana; she heard Baumler’s voice. She went back in time, thinking about Brown and thinking about Helena’s unique history from that period. The canary story just kept coming back to her.

“People would line up outside Laura Duchesnays and – if there was danger that the revenue officer was coming – she’d bring out her cages of canaries,” Wallace explained. “It’s so funny: if you timed your visit right you wouldn’t just get a bird but you’d get some hooch, as well.”

Wallace combined these stories into one, putting the canaries in Brown’s hands. This combination impressed – and surprised – Baumler, who heard about the song by word of mouth.

“I’d just finished sharing a series of ghost stories at the Jefferson County Museum when a woman came up to me and told me a friend of hers had written a song based on one of my shows,” Baumler said. “I wrote down her name and found the song online. I loved it.”

Baumler said she’s appreciative that Wallace felt moved by the show enough to create her own interpretation.

 “I love how she combined these two ideas,” Baumler said. “It’s really neat my research can morph into something like ‘The Ballad of Bertie Brown.’ Perhaps the song can inspire others to get into the history of Montana.”

 

 

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