Folklore comprises the artistic, interactive dimension of Utah's cultural heritage, including forms of conversational expression, narrative, music, dance, customs, and the making of physical objects. Generally learned in informal ways (by personal example, by word of mouth, or by repetition within a community), folklore is typically passed along from generation to generation, from individual to individual. "Folklore" as a term has historically been limited to traditional narratives, songs, dances, and customs; by extension it has also come to include such actions and behaviors as material culture (vernacular architecture, crafts, and decorative arts); calendrical observances like holidays, family celebrations, rituals, and festivals; modes of behavior (folk medicine, traditional foods, and occupational practices); and the arts of display, in yard decorations, fence and gate construction, and the arrangement of buildings, lawns, and gardens.
All of these forms of expression occur in infinite variety, each individualized by the musician, storyteller, or craftsperson, the particular version dependent not only on the performer's mood but on the composition of the audience and the nature of the setting. This characteristic variation suggests that folklore is dynamic and constantly changing; a local legend or contemporary joke may be told in dozens of different ways; a family recipe or cowboy song may be slowly modified over the years. Thus, folklore is not confined to the old-timey, the quaint, and the rustic; city-dwellers, professionals, children, and teenagers all invent, share, and transmit folklore of many kinds.
In addition, folklore is generally group-specific, manifesting itself within particular ethnic, occupational, community, religious, and special-interest groups. Utah therefore has not one but an enormous diversity of folk cultures, with particular combinations of folk traditions observable in any group of individuals who come together out of common interest or proximity. Families, for example, have special holiday traditions as well as stories and songs passed down through time, plus significant antiques and keepsakes that reflect family heritage. Occupational groups circulate special expressions, slogans, initiation and farewell rituals, and cautionary tales. Native Americans maintain narrative, song, dance, and crafts traditions over hundreds of years. Immigrants retain, modify, and adapt aesthetic expressions from the old country. All of these forms of personal, family, and group expression constitute the folklore of Utah, and each of them is best studied and appreciated within the context of the group, the setting, and the cultural heritage in which it occurs.
Beginning at least 10,000 years ago, Native Americans living in the Great Basin have carried on highly distinctive traditional practices and forms of expression. The oldest archeological finds suggest nomadic and cave-dwelling groups that created tools for hunting from local materials. The Anasazi, Fremont, and Sevier cultures created forms of folk art and craft ranging from sandals and animal-skin clothing to the highly sophisticated and beautifully decorated basketry and pottery found at sites throughout the state. Many surviving examples of stone architecture, including granaries, domestic housing, and centers of religious observance, testify to the economic and cultural success of these peoples. The widespread occurrence of petroglyphs and pictographs throughout the state also suggests a complex of religious belief, observance, and narrative only speculatively understood today.
Contemporary Native Americans have preserved some aspects of these older cultures such as basketry and (like all folk groups) have imported, developed, and adapted other expressive forms as well. Utah's Great Basin tribes--the Uto-Aztecan-speaking Goshute, Northern Ute, Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Ute Mountain Ute--share a number of material traditions, including basketry, leatherworking from deer and elk hides, the construction of drums and other musical instruments, and the decoration of clothing with intricate patterns of small glass beads, European materials that in the nineteenth century supplanted the use of dyed porcupine quills.
Great Basin native peoples also share a mythology centered on the figures of Wolf, the culture hero who made heaven and earth, and Coyote, the trickster responsible for the origination of many plants, animals, and natural features as well as the human use of fire and the knowledge of arts and crafts. Traditional narratives based on these figures are still popular; Coyote stories depict him as creative force, as mischievous tease, and as tester and sometimes critic of human institutions.
Dance traditions are based primarily on round dances, such as the Bear and Sun dances of the Northern Ute, but the widespread pow-wow phenomenon has brought to all of these groups a pan-Indian web of cultural expression found throughout the western United States. A typical pow-wow lasts two or three days, is hosted by a group of Native Americans on a reservation or in an urban area, and features one or more "drums" (a group of singers surrounding a large drum who accompany the dancers). Besides individual and group dances, there are competitions for elaborately decorated pow-wow regalia and for both traditional and "fancy" dancing. Pow-wows also feature honors, awards, and gifts to elders, as well as the trading and sale of clothing, regalia, recordings, foods, and traditional and contemporary artwork.
The Athabascan-speaking Navajo people, a portion of whose reservation occupies the southeastern corner of the state, share with the Great Basin tribes Coyote narratives as well as music and dance forms disseminated through the pow-wow circuit. The Navajo, however, have a distinctive material culture in the rounded architecture of the hogan, in clothing, in silversmithing, and in rug weaving learned from Spanish colonists and from missionaries. The cosmology, ceremonials, and medicinal and religious practices of the Navajo are also markedly different from the cultural practices of the Great Basin tribes.
Euro-American and Mormon Folklore
The arrival of substantial numbers of Euro-Americans in the Intermountain region in the 1820s had an enormous impact on the cultures of the native peoples. The trappers, explorers, prospectors, and traders brought with them trade goods and firearms, along with devastating epidemics that decimated many of the tribal groups in the region. From the Native Americans, the newcomers learned some hunting, fishing, and trapping practices as well as the use of certain local plants for food and medicine, skills which were passed on to the first permanent settlers from the East.
The decades of Mormon immigration to Utah that commenced in 1847 brought to the region new cultural elements from New England, the Midwest, England, Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia. The result was a complex of folkways, some specific to particular immigrant groups, some contributory to the distinctive Mormon folk culture that grew up in the years before the railroad, a culture animated by infusions of religious doctrine and elaborated by the experiences of building the Mormon state in an unfamiliar landscape and climate.
In vernacular architecture, the Latter-day Saints primarily maintained familiar European forms and building practices. Beginning with dugouts, log huts, and frame structures, the Saints soon adopted adobe techniques brought to the territory from the Southwest by the Mormon Battalion, later adding stone and fired brick to their repertoire of available building materials. Barns and outbuildings of log, frame, adobe, and stone were also erected, again on Euro-American models. Villages and towns were often laid out on the basis of the "plat of the City of Zion" envisaged by Joseph Smith in the early 1830s, a plan which placed homes and outbuildings within a rectilinear framework surrounded by fields and pastures, an arrangement testifying to the Mormon commitment to community and social organization.
The cultural landscape was distinctive in other ways, too, as colonization of outlying regions progressed. The development of irrigation technology and the multiplication of the territory's domestic herds led to the building of fences, corrals, and hay derricks; grain storage necessitated the construction of granaries; local stonecarvers produced gravestones and decorative carvings for public buildings that featured traditional and popular European motifs as well as newer LDS symbols like the beehive. After 1850, immigrants from Scandinavia and central Europe brought new architectural forms to the Utah landscape, as exemplified by the Scandinavian house and barn forms of Sanpete County.
Other aspects of material culture in nineteenth-century Utah included the making of pottery, basketry, and furniture as well as blacksmithing, stonecutting, and toolmaking. Based on widespread American practices, domestic arts such as straw braiding of bonnets and hats, clothes making, weaving, quilting, knitting, and decorative needlework often incorporated distinctive Mormon symbols, as in the "temple quilts" still presented to newly married couples. New dietary patterns combined familiar European foods with wild resources like camas and sego-lily roots, berries, pine nuts, "Mormon tea," and wild fish and game. Drying fruits and vegetables and smoking and drying meats were common methods of food preservation before the advent of modern canning.
Material culture has remained a vital part of contemporary Mormon life, in part because of its powerful symbolism. Needlework and food items, represented most noticeably by quilts and by homemade bread and canned goods, continue to be created by women throughout the state, along with articles of clothing (often with a "pioneer" look) and of household decoration, the latter sometimes the result of Relief Society projects. Similarly, wood carving, the making of yard decorations, and blacksmithing and horseshoeing are still practiced, largely as contemporary hobbies with a traditional slant.
Expressive culture, too, has been an especially rich part of Mormon life, and both early Mormon settlers and present-day Utahns have participated actively in many kinds of nationally popular pastimes. Social dance in Utah, for example, has differed little from American popular dance during most time periods, and square dances, schottisches, waltzes, and foxtrots have been as popular in Utah as in other parts of the country. Mormons have also shared with other Americans many musical traditions, initially bringing with them violins, banjos, and other instruments, as well as ballads, dance tunes, hymns, and original songs about Mormon experiences such as the well-known "Handcart Song."
The Latter-day Saints also developed distinctive musical and verbal traditions that have been assiduously collected by Thomas Cheney, Lester Hubbard, Austin and Alta Fife, and others. During the settlement period, many hundreds of songs were composed treating notable occurrences ("Mormon Battalion Song"), urging cooperative spirit and hard work in common cause ("Pounding Rock into the Temple Foundation"), and confirming Mormon pride and accomplishments ("None Can Preach the Gospel Like the Mormons Do"). A few songs even engaged in humorous self-parody based on stereotypes held by non-Mormons, often about polygamy ("Zack, the Mormon Engineer"), though songs like these were sung less frequently as standardized hymnals were published and distributed throughout the church.
In language, Utah gradually developed a specific dialect still well-recognized throughout the state and especially observable in the southern half, a dialect composed of New England, Midwestern, Southern, British Isles, and Scandinavian features that stereotypically reverses the vowels of "born" and "barn." Farming, mining, and religious terminology and vivid expletives like "Oh my heck" also typify Utah dialect.
Verbal arts resemble those of the rest of the country in form if not in subject matter, ranging from traditional proverbs to jokes, from bedtime stories and fairy tales to local legends of outlaws like Butch Cassidy or notable historical figures like Orrin Porter Rockwell and J. Golden Kimball. Specific to Mormon culture, however, are faith-promoting narratives of hardship, danger, and miraculous occurrences that demonstrate the benevolence of God, the imminence of divine intervention, and the rewarding of the faithful. Best known, probably, are legends about the Three Nephites of the Book of Mormon, who are usually depicted in oral tradition as elderly gentlemen who appear on earth to provide aid in time of distress. Missionary tales, jokes, and other narratives also enable Mormon storytellers to assert their faith while exploring the tensions between the secular and spiritual dimensions of human life.
Many of these nineteenth-century forms of expression have been maintained with modifications to the present day, most notably narratives of pioneer hardships, family immigration and settlement stories, of Indians, outlaws, and lost mines, and of miraculous occurrences. Pioneer recipes are still prepared, and Dutch ovens are used extensively for family reunions and other outdoor celebrations. Thousands of Utahns tend vegetable and flower gardens, harvest grapes and fruit, and decorate their yards and homes with wagon wheels and old farm implements. Festivals honoring the early settlers have gradually been transformed into events of local pride, though Pioneer Day (24 July) with its parades, rodeos, and fireworks is still the most universally celebrated, along with the ubiquitous family and missionary reunions. This intensive engagement with history, however, is accompanied by many new forms and versions of lore and custom constantly entering contemporary Mormon life, from urban legends and jokes to clothing styles and foodways.
All of these cultural traditions have been further modified with the arrival of non-Mormon settlers and the development of new industries--notably mining, railroading, and large-scale ranching in the nineteenth century. Cattle culture brought cowboy poetry and song, rawhide and horsehair gear, special terminology and work techniques, and a spate of outsiders whose experiences were described in songs like F.W. Keller's famous "Blue Mountain." Miners who immigrated from Cornwall and other areas in the British Isles brought with them beliefs, songs, and narratives as well as occupational practices; railroaders from the East and Midwest contributed their folkways as well. The sometimes antagonistic contacts between Utah Mormons and non-Mormon outsiders led to rumors, legends, and songs about Johnston's Army, Indian "troubles," the Mountain Meadows Massacre, polygamy, and religious practices on both sides, all of them demonstrating that folklore can arise out of tension as well as harmony.
Immigrant and Ethnic Folklore
Rapid industrial development and other factors brought many thousands of workers and settlers to Utah from other parts of the United States and from other lands. Coal mining in Carbon and Emery counties; hardrock mining in Summit, Salt Lake, Tooele, Juab, and other counties; and railroad construction throughout the state attracted thousands of European and Asian immigrants between 1890 and 1921, when Congress enacted severe limitations on immigration. Like the Mormon converts from the British Isles, Scandinavia, and central Europe in earlier years, these immigrants faced language and cultural barriers but lacked the mediating power of the Mormon Church in finding employment, housing, and the support of social and religious institutions.
The industrial-era immigrants included Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Japanese, and Chinese, as well as some central and eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners, and European Jews. Later waves of immigration brought to the state African-Americans from the South and Hispanics from New Mexico, Colorado, and Old Mexico during and after World War II; Polynesians, especially Tongans and Samoans, in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; Iranians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Thais, and Filipinos in the 1970s; and East Indians, Russians, Ukrainians, Eastern Europeans, and South Americans in the 1980s and 1990s. The retention of folk culture from the old country naturally varied from group to group and from individual to individual, though many groups maintained foodways, music, dance, and holiday customs long after their traditional costume, architecture, and farming methods were discarded.
Immigrants who arrived in the early decades of this century frequently settled in communities of other immigrants. Here familiar foods could be purchased, music and dance experienced, old-country practices such as folk medicine renewed. And although many of these traditions were gradually sloughed off, others were combined with elements of American culture--often with extensive adaptations to new conditions. Intermarriage and changes of language and religion often diminished the practice of old-country culture, but many individuals nevertheless retained a passionate interest and dedication to their ancestors' folkways--in music, for example, or holiday cooking, or needlework. New immigration, then and now, provides additional impetus for the revitalization of such practices.
For contemporary immigrant groups, folk traditions provide a continuing sense of personal identity and of contact with the old country. The endeavor to foster this connectedness has led many immigrant communities to begin ethnic festivals designed to celebrate and maintain their traditions; dances, religious observances, and rite-of-passage events such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals also contribute to the maintenance of ethnic traditions. A lively commerce within immigrant communities in foodstuffs, costume items, household decorations, and records and tapes also maintains personal contacts and helps keep traditions alive.
As an example, in the 1970s Salt Lake City's Greek community began to combat prejudice and reassert ethnic pride by fostering the development of youth dance groups which performed both at Greek celebrations and at festivals, dance concerts, and schools throughout the state. Later, community members began an annual festival to support their church; this festival has grown rapidly and now attracts over 50,000 people during three days in September. Subsequently, a group of young Greek-Americans learned bouzouki and other traditional instruments and then formed a band that plays at festivals, dances, and weddings.
In similar fashion, the Hispanic community's Centro Civico Mexicano now sponsors dances, an art festival, holiday celebrations, and youth classes. The African-American community along the Wasatch Front is unified primarily through its churches, and therefore traditional spirituals and gospel music are a major contributor to the ethnic identity of the participants. Southeast Asians participate in pan-ethnic events and festivals through the Asian Association of Utah, but also sponsor their own culturally based religious observances, holiday celebrations, and dances.
Folklore's base of expression in occupational, recreational, religious, and community settings--and in groups defined by age, gender, and ethnicity--suggests that individuals and families may participate in several different folk groups and may express themselves through a variety of types of folklore. In addition, all of us share in national and regional forms of traditional behavior, whether passing on a political joke or telling an urban legend about a kidnapping at a shopping mall. Simultaneously, we may sing to our children songs learned within the family group, may maintain an ethnic crafts tradition learned from a grandparent, may arrange a flower bed or a vegetable garden in a traditional way or tell stories of pioneer ancestors that have been handed down through generations. Folklore, in other words, arises from and is expressed within groups of human beings, and it provides for those groups--families, railroad crews, women's clubs, ethnic groups--a sense of unity, of solidarity, and of mutual support.
Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994. Any errors should be directed towards the University of Utah Press.