Academic journal article Western Folklore

Folklore in the News (and, Incidentally, on the Net)

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Folklore in the News (and, Incidentally, on the Net)

Article excerpt


Do you remember the Beatles' song "A Day in the Life" from their Sgt. Pepper album? It began with the line "I read the news today, oh boy!" Here's the sort of thing that makes me say "Oh Boy" and reach for the scissors when I peruse the daily papers and spot a bit of folklore in the news.

November 8, 1960, the day John F. Kennedy was elected president, the "Dear Abby" column included a letter from a teenager telling the urban legend about The Hookman on Lovers' Lane and commenting "I don't know whether it's true or not, but it doesn't matter to me."

April 22, 1964, following the great Easter Weekend Alaskan earthquake, a news report about children in Kodiak playing "amid wreckage on a wave-- devastated beach," a new game they had invented called "Earthquake and Tidal Wave."

Fast forward to 1978 during one round of stalled talks between the United States and the Soviet Union for the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (dubbed SALT by the press). A Bill Mauldin cartoon showed Presidents Carter and Brezhnev sitting across the table from each other with a giant spilled salt shaker between them. Each man was throwing a handful of salt over his left shoulder and exclaiming "YOU spilled it!" May 26, 1980, following the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, a Lewis County, Washington, sheriff's deputy was quoted in the paper as saying "It's blacker [here] than the inside of a cow."

November 6,1987: a photograph in the University of Utah student newspaper, The Daily Utah Chronicle, showed the topping-off of the steelwork for the new Primary Children's Hospital. A small pine tree was attached to the topmost beam, and the caption identified this as a "centuries-old bring good luck and safety to construction workers and those who later use the building." April 5, 1995: a letter to the editor of the Deseret News commenting on the use of a recorded cuckoo-bird call at some Salt Lake City intersections to signal that the pedestrian-crossing light was on. She wrote:

It reminds me of my mother singing [this] to me as a child, "The cuckoo is a pretty bird. She singeth as she flies. She bringeth us good tidings. She telleth us no lies. . . ."

Versions of that old folk lyric are still sung in the southern mountains of the United States.

My most recent clipping. Back to "Dear Abby": I found this at the end of her column for April 13, 2000:

DEAR ABBY The letter from "Outraged," whose stepmother wanted to be buried between the woman's father and her birth mother, reminded me of the story about the man who remarried after his first wife died. He said when he died that he wanted to be buried between the two wives, "but tilt me toward Tillie."-Louise in Largo, Florida.

That story should ring a bell for students of Utah folklore. Down in Sanpete county this is one of the favorite "Brother Peterson Yarns" (as folklorist/raconteur Hector Lee used to call them), told in dialect about a Danish immigrant who is a polygamist. There the punchline was "Yoost tilt me a little towards Tillie."


The examples I have quoted all resulted from my long habit of reading daily papers closely and clipping examples of folklore, and my essay here was directly suggested by a comment that Alta Fife once made to a reporter. More of that in a moment; first I want to say something about the Fifes.

I first met the Fifes in the summer of 1958 when I was a graduate student at Indiana University; they had come through Bloomington for a few days to speak to us at the Folklore Institute. Their landmark book on Mormon folklore, Saints of Sage and Saddle, had been published two years earlier by the Indiana University Press, and the Fifes were listed on the Institute program as specialists in Mormon folklore and cowboy songs, two topics that I had little interest in. But I was impressed by Professor Richard Dorson, my advisor, and his enthusiasm for the Fife's work, and I especially noted Dorson's generous use of excerpts and summaries from the Fife's book in his own textbook which I was helping to proofread and index at about the same time. …

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