- Folksongs from the Beehive State: Early Field Recordings of Utah and Mormon Music by Elaine Thatcher and Randy Williams
On June 30, 1958, a group of prominent folklore scholars and enthusiasts gathered for the first meeting of the Folklore Society of Utah. Featured there was an address titled "The Material Culture of the Utah Pioneers" by Austin Fife—then just completing his tenure on the faculty of Occidental College in Los Angeles. In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of that occasion, and to draw broader attention to Fife's extensive collection of regional folk songs and stories now housed at Utah State University, the USU Press has released Folksongs from the Beehive State: Early Field Recordings of Utah and Mormon Music. Fife hailed from the "Mormon country" area of southern Idaho and northern Utah, and early in his academic career realized the rich legacy maintained by the purveyors of his own Mormon culture. Accompanied by his wife and able research assistant Alta Stevens Fife, he subsequently undertook a seemingly endless series of research expeditions throughout Utah and the American West for the purpose of collecting folk songs and stories. The fifteen selections on this CD are drawn from the field recordings that they made. According to the valuable liner notes compiled by Elaine Thatcher, director of the Mountain West Center for Regional Studies at Utah State University, and her colleague Randy Williams, the Fifes documented their activities "to the best of their ability" (p. 2) with extensive field notes and transcripts of words and melodies. The complete collection of field artifacts and data are housed in the Fife Folklore collection in Utah State University's Merrill-Cazier Library Special Collections and Archives, of which Williams is curator.
The quality of the field recordings reproduced on this CD is quite satisfactory. Digital noise reduction techniques have been successful; only minimally and rarely does aural debris from the original acetate recordings obscure the voices and words. In addition to revealing the textual meaning of the stories and song, this recording shows much in terms of vocal characteristics, emotive style, and even nuance. I was struck by the beauty with which these performers told their stories and found it unusual that many sang with what could be characterized as a "refined" vocal quality. This is notable in that most of them were living in remote regions and were not formally trained.
As a historical artifact alone, Folksongs from the Beehive State is a remarkable collection. But the recording becomes especially compelling when we realize that a majority of the people recorded on the disc are elderly; theirs are the voices of second- and sometimes even first-generation Utah pioneers. We hear the actual voices of those who toiled to carve out for themselves a niche in the West, many of whom found personal and religious freedom that had eluded them elsewhere. An idiosyncrasy of Utah history is that the bulk of its European American story is very recent—barely 160 years old. The origins of that history were extraordinarily well-documented by a literate society that not only valued record-keeping but consistently maintained a unique perspective on its own role as founding fathers and mothers. As producers, Thatcher and Williams bring this distinctive quality to the fore, as they have chosen recordings with texts by community poets and lyricists who were moved—and sometimes commissioned—to capture their time in poetry and song. A case in point is "Blue Mountain," a richly descriptive tribute to the history, inhabitants, and environs [End Page 215] of remote Monticello, Utah, that was penned in the early twentieth century by the town's poet laureate, Judge Fred W. Keller; he is also the singer on the recording. Another example is "The Boys of Sanpete County," a ballad describing a local tragedy in 1868 in which six boys drowned during a ferry crossing. Along with a transcript of the song text, the liner notes corroborate this footnote in history with a...