Various Artists – Songs Of The Mormons And Songs Of The West
Communal identity, of course, needs shared language, myths, stories, and symbols — but it also needs songs. It’s hard to conceive, finally, the emergence of any community that hasn’t relied on songs to imagine itself. This collection of Mormon pioneer songs, recorded in the field from 1941 to 1949, makes that case with almost brow-beating emphasis.
The Mormons were misunderstood and harassed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and their westward journey cries out for sprawling folk narratives. The familiar images that inform Mormonism are here: saints, sinners, deserts, newly laid railroads, wagon journeys, oppressive national governments, little homes with little wives, and hard times in a wilderness complete with grasshoppers. The times mythologized here were but a generation or two past; in these songs, you can sense the immediacy of events that formed a people and transformed the American landscape — all the while becoming the enduring, symbolic stuff of a singular community.
That’s a fascinating process; the musical experience, however, is less exciting. With the exception of Jimmy Denoon and Charles Ingenthron, both of whom capture a certain gnawing wildness in the blood, most of these performances have a reserved, didactic — think Burl Ives singing for a Sunday school — even pious manner. That’s not surprising: many of these ballads would have been learned and shared in religious services (“The Hand Cart Song” is sung in Mormon churches to this day).
But because the majority of the tales collected here are rendered a cappella, the amateurish and stilted vocal techniques tend to dilute the resonance for which they strive. There surely must have been stronger, more convincing singers than those found by the Library of Congress researchers in the ’40s; but the Mormon sprawl — recordings were made in Utah, Missouri, Arkansas, Arizona, and California — might have contributed to the difficulty in finding the best singers.
The Mormons were a community of belief, not music. For some, the mere collection of these fascinating, faithful stories will be enough; most listeners, however, will yearn for a bit more.