Utah History Encyclopedia


By William A. Wilson
Austin (1909-1986) and Alta S. (1912- ) Fife, one of America's most successful husband-and-wife research teams, played important roles in validating the study of Utah and western American folk culture. The Fifes began their work in the late 1930s, when Austin was a graduate student at Stanford University serving as a research assistant to the distinguished student of Hispanic-American folklore, Aurelio Espinosa, Sr. In an attempt to apply the methodology of folklore research to their own Mormon and western cultural heritages (an endeavor that would last most of their lives), Austin and Alta began crisscrossing the West during breaks from school and during vacations, collecting and recording the traditional stories, songs, and practices that would illuminate the everyday life of ordinary people. The results of their efforts fall into three broad areas: Mormon lore, cowboy and western verse and song, and material culture.

In 1940 Austin published "The Legend of the Three Nephites among the Mormons" in the Journal of American Folklore, an essay about eternal wanderers in Mormon tradition that quickly caught the attention of prominent American folklorists and would surely have led to further publications had World War II not interrupted the Fifes' research. Following the war and Austin's Fulbright Exchange Professorship in France in 1950, where he was strongly influenced by the French folklorist Arnold Van Gennep, the Fifes continued their research in Mormon lore, publishing in 1956 their monumental Saints of Sage and Saddle: Folklore among the Mormons. That work convincingly demonstrated that Mormon stories, songs, and customs are not just curious novelties of little consequence but are, rather, vital functioning forces in Mormon society. In a day when many folklorists still devoted much attention to digging out Old World antecedents of American folk traditions, Saints of Sage and Saddle also demonstrated, as did all of the Fifes' subsequent publications, that a vigorous American folklore could develop from dramatic events enacted on native soil.

From Mormon traditions the Fifes next turned their attention to the cowboy verses and songs they had also been collecting. In 1969 they republished N. Howard "Jack" Thorpe's 1908 Songs of the Cowboy, adding comparative analyses, cultural/historical commentaries, notes, and lexicons--an effort that illustrated the Fifes' exacting scholarship and enlarged the original work containing twenty-three songs from 50 to 350 pages. During the next decade they published Cowboy and Western Songs: A Comprehensive Anthology (1960), which Austin considered their most important work and which must remain the starting point for serious study of cowboy and western lore; Ballads of the Great West (1970), and Heaven on Horseback: Revivalist Songs and Verse in the Cowboy Idiom (1970). Combined, these works bring to life a full range of experiences from life in the West before the cowboy's arrival to the fading of the frontier and his virtual disappearance from the scene. They also help us better understand the mythic cowboy, that rugged individualist who has come to symbolize many values we like to call American.

The Fifes' passion for documenting western cultural patterns extended also to material culture. In 1948, with his cousin James Fife, Austin published in Western Folklore an article entitled "Hay Derricks of the Great Basin and Upper Snake River Valley." Thus began another phase of the Fifes' research which two decades later led to their publication, with Henry Glassie, of Forms upon the Frontier: Folklife and Folk Arts in the United States (1969), a work that played a seminal role in the rapidly developing field of American material-culture studies. It also led them to document through hundreds of color slides western material objects from ranch fences and gravestones to quilts and stone houses.

During his career, Austin taught at Santa Monica City College and at Occidental College, served in the U.S. Air Force, and served as a program officer for linguistic research with the U.S. Department of Education. In 1960 he returned to Logan to teach at Utah State University, where he and Alta had first met and where they established the Fife Folklore Archive. The archive contains the primary documents that are the foundation of the Fifes' published works--slides, sound recordings, and manuscripts, as well as published materials relating to these primary sources. All these documents have been indexed, cross-referenced, catalogued, and archived and are available for use by serious researchers. The archive may thus prove to be the Fifes' most enduring contribution.