Mormon folk music

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Mormon folk music was folk music sung by Mormon pioneers in present-day Utah from the mid-19th century through the early 20th century. A historical component of Utah music, the popularity of Mormon folk music declined like traditional music nationally after the advent of music recording. However, uniquely Mormon folk music had already declined before the end of the 19th century.

Mormon folk songs showcase pioneer-era Mormon unity.

Role of Mormon folk music

In 1847 Brigham Young led the first company of his followers into what became Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Great Basin area became steadily populated by Latter-day Saints. Because cost prohibited carrying many musical instruments across the plains, unaccompanied folk songs dominated early Mormon music. These songs typically had simple tunes, easy-to-recall lyrics, and broad enough appeal to be sung by contemporary Mormons. Thus, historical Latter-day Saint attitudes can be inferred from the types of songs they sang.

Types of songs

Many songs sung by Mormon pioneers were similar to folk songs sung elsewhere. These ballads typically had themes of love, courtship, and crime. Only unique cultural themes in some songs made Mormon folk music distinct.

Some songs recounted the difficult trip to Utah in the first place. Like many other pioneers, most Mormons came west by ox or horse-driven carts, and some songs were shared among Mormons and other pioneers. However, the Mormon experience is unusual, because about 1600 Mormons traveled to Utah in 1856 and 1860 by handcart, a cart with several hundred pounds of supplies pulled by the pioneers themselves. The Martin and Willie handcart companies met tragic fates, but the songs sung by handcart pioneers on their strenuous trip to Utah were remembered. In fact, members of the LDS Church still sing a modified version of the "Handcart Song" (set to the tune "The King of the Cannibal Islands"[1]).

"Handcart Song" (chorus)
And some will push and some will pull
As we go marching up the hill,
So merrily on our way we go
Until we reach the valley-o!

Songs often expressed the animosity of Mormons toward the federal government. This is especially evident in songs from around 1857 contemporary to the Utah War. An example is the "Duh Dah Mormon Song". Like many folk songs, this is set to a recognizable tune: Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races".

"Du Dah Mormon Song" (chorus)
Then let us be on hand
By Brigham Young to stand,
And if our enemies do appear,
We'll sweep them from the land.

Other Mormon folk songs recount events like Utah's Black Hawk War, the Mormon perspective of the First transcontinental railroad, and even imprisonment for polygamy, which was common for polygamist Mormons in the 1880s. These songs were sung both for entertainment and for relaying a shared cultural experience.

Decline of Mormon folk music

Traditional songs in Utah were superseded by recorded and broadcast music early in the 20th century, as were traditional songs nationwide. However, the popularity of distinctively Mormon folk songs had already faded by this point. After Utah became a state in 1896, songs expressing fear and animosity about the federal government ceased to be relevant.

Latter-day Saints still sing a handful of folk songs, such as the "Handcart Song". Often this is done in remembrance of Pioneer Day, the anniversary of the first Mormon pioneers' arrival at what became Salt Lake City. The songs serve as a tie to the past.

Recordings and artists

During the folk boom of the 1950s-70s, a number of artists made recordings of Mormon folk songs. Perhaps the best known of these was Rosalie Sorrels, who devoted an entire LP to the subject. Several Utah-based folk groups, including the 3 D's, the Deseret String Band, the Beehive Band,[2] and Otter Creek,[3] have performed traditional Mormon folk songs as part of their repertoire.

  • Folk Songs of Idaho and Utah (sung by Rosalie Sorrels), Folkways Records FH 5343
  • The Iron Horse (Mormon folk ballads sung by the 3-D's)
  • Hymns, Songs and Fiddle Tunes of the Utah Pioneers (two-CD album by the Deseret String Band)
  • Mormon Folk Songs (sung by L.M. Hilton), Folkways Records FW02036

See also


  1. ^ Mormon Folk Songs (PDF), Folkways Records & Service Corp
  2. ^ Lythgoe, Dennis (August 28, 1998), "Beehive Band's CD provides soundtrack to Mormon history", Deseret News
  3. ^
  • Hubbard, Lester A.; Whitelock, Kenly W (1961), Ballads and Songs from Utah, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, OCLC 22900838
  • Thomas E. Cheney, ed. (1981) [1968], Mormon songs from the Rocky Mountains: a compilation of Mormon folksong, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, ISBN 0874801966, OCLC 263477022
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