In Bannack, Jaye Christensen keeps the music alive 

Five days a week, Bannack State Park is a quiet place. Tourists talk and rattlesnakes rattle, but there aren't many of either. Visitors are usually left to listen to the wind whistle through the narrow valley and the burble of nearby Grasshopper Creek.

On Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, however, the silence is broken by the sound of old-time piano music, singing and even yodeling ripping out of the old one-bedroom house of Dr. Robert H. Ryburn. Most visitors think the music is coming from a player piano until they see the frame of Jaye Christensen swaying with the melody just inside the door.

I'm only human, I'm just a woman.
Help me believe in what I could be
And all that I am.

Christensen carries herself with a welcoming demeanor and openness. She's been gracing the same bench for 39 years, playing at the Bannack Days festival and off and on during the week for more than half her life. She specializes in music from the 1850s to 1950s, a period that saw the birth and death of Bannack, the state's first territorial capital. Christensen knows the history of the house, and she mixes it with her own history when she talks to tourists.

Show me the stairway, I have to climb
Lord for my sake, teach me to take
One day at a time.

Christensen is transgender, a fact she readily shares with guests. Born and raised just 15 miles down the road in Grant, Christensen is a member of the Wisdom High School class of '62. After high school she worked as a clerk for the Forest Service until a psychiatrist sent her to St. Patrick in Missoula and prescribed shock therapy to "cure" her condition. Her psychiatrist told her the treatments would make her "just like a normal guy." They didn't. The doctor later admitted he'd been wrong and the hospital forgave her bills, Christensen says, but her life since has never been the same.

"They did 11 brain shock treatments and I couldn't remember a damn thing," she says. "I couldn't remember what the work was, or how to do anything. I couldn't remember how to type."

click to enlarge Grant resident Jaye Christensen plays piano at the Dr. Robert H. Ryburn house in Bannack. - PHOTO BY PEREGRINE FRISSELL
  • photo by Peregrine Frissell
  • Grant resident Jaye Christensen plays piano at the Dr. Robert H. Ryburn house in Bannack.

So, at the age of 29, she went on disability. Soon after, a neighbor gifted her an old piano, and Christensen taught herself to play. Since then, she's been making extra money playing in bars in Wisdom, Darby and Dr. Ryburn's house in Bannack. She can't read music, but she writes her own Montana-inspired lyrics. She takes requests and has her own list of favorites, like this one she played on a recent Wednesday afternoon for a visitor:

One day at a time sweet Jesus
That's all I'm asking from you.
Just give me the strength
To do every day what I have to do.

She says she's grateful for her experience in Bannack, but admits that not everyone has taken kindly to her presence. About 11 years ago, someone tossed a stick of dynamite down the well at her house in Grant. She hasn't had running water since.

"I live in primitive conditions," Christensen says. "Just like Bannack."

Still, she's never seriously considered leaving Montana. She loves it here, and moving on her meager income would be a herculean task. She says she wouldn't trade the life she's lived here for anything. "God put me here for a reason," she says.

Several years ago, Christensen was trying to pull some firewood from a pile at her home in Grant when the whole thing came tumbling down on top of her. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and most of the town's families were gone. She laid there and prayed until a man she says looked like Jesus pulled up in a pickup and dug her out of the woodpile. When she was free, he said, "Jaye, your ties to earth may be pretty weak, but your ties to heaven are darn strong."

Since that day, she says, a figure resembling the man has arrived again and again, offering encouragement and advice. One day he told her, "You are my father's instrument of peace. Keep it going."

Experiences like that have bolstered her spirituality, but she's 79 now, and her health isn't what it once was.

Yesterday's gone sweet Jesus
And tomorrow may never be mine.
Lord help me today, show me the way
One day at a time.

"This will probably be my last summer playing out here," Christensen says. "People have treated me real well here in Bannack."

Jaye Christensen can be heard playing in Bannack from 3 to 5 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday through the end of September.

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