- Thomas E Cheney
in the 1940 United States Federal Census
Thomas Cheney, Collector of Songs
Among those who have collected, classified, and annotated the folksongs of Great Britain and North America, three names stand out. The first is Francis James Child, to whom we are indebted for his great collection of English and Scottish ballads. The second is Cecil J. Sharp, who came from England to the southern Appalachians to reveal to us the rich ballad heritage of the United States. The third is G. Malcolm Laws, Jr., whose collections of British and American broadside ballads further expanded our knowledge of the Anglophone folksong tradition.
The influence of Child, Sharp, and Laws, and the ongoing debate—sometimes called “the ballad wars”--over the origins of folksongs affected scholars and collectors of folk music all over the country. In Utah, Lester Hubbard, Austin and Alta Fife, and Thomas Cheney were especially active in collecting and transcribing the folksongs of Utah and the Intermountain West, and in comparing them with songs from the British Isles and the eastern United States. Cheney, late professor emeritus at Brigham Young University, was—along with Hubbard and Levette J. Davidson of Colorado--one of the first people to collect the folk music of the West. But Cheney’s introduction to folklore, like many aspects of his life, came quite by accident.
He was born in 1901 in Victor, Idaho, a small Mormon farming community east of Idaho Falls. Family lore relates that Cheney's mother gave birth to Thomas with the help of a midwife at the cost of three dollars. After finishing high school, he borrowed fifty dollars and went to nine weeks of summer school at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho, where he qualified for elementary-school teaching; he promptly began a teaching career. He continued his education by attending Utah State Agricultural College, now Utah State University, where he received a B.S. in English (Cheney told me in a 1986 interview that a B.A. in English did not exist then). He continued, “I started out in education and was bored with education classes, so much that I shifted to English. . . .”
Cheney served a mission for the LDS Church to southern California from 1924 to 1926. Upon his return, he continued teaching in his home town and eventually became a principal there. In 1930, he recalled, he decided to attend the University of Idaho during the summer session as a master's-degree student; it was there that he had his first introduction into the world of folklore:
George Morey Miller was chairman of the English Department there and I had quite an experience with him to begin with. I went into a room where they were registering graduate students in English, and Miller sat down at the back. . . . he saw me, and he said, "Who are you?" and I announced my name, and he said, "Where are you from?" and I said, "Southeastern Idaho." He said, "Are you a Mormon?" and I said, "Yes, sir." And he said, "You admit it?" And I said, "Yes, I do," and he smiled for the first time and said, "There was a fellow came up from southeastern Idaho not long ago and he said he was a Presbyterian. He thought it wouldn't do him any good to say he was Mormon." He talked me into registering for a course in Child ballads, English, American, and Scottish popular ballads. . . . By the way, he actually knew and studied under Francis James Child.
Miller persuaded Cheney to do his master's thesis on ballads, ballads to be collected among Mormons in Utah and Idaho. Cheney collected approximately seventy-five songs and compared them to the English and Scottish ballads in the Child canon. When I asked him how he did his field recordings, he stated that "I didn't work on the music at all there, I just collected the words. I did have them [the informants] sing the songs, and I learned some of the songs myself, but as far as those seventy-five songs were concerned, I didn't have the recording materials, there weren't recording devices available in the 1930s at all, well, not for the common people. It'd be so expensive, you simply couldn't do it. . . ." Cheney completed his coursework during the summer sessions and eventually graduated in 1936 after completing his thesis.
Cheney then joined the English faculty at Brigham Young University. While at BYU, he taught courses in English Romantic literature, and then the department chairman, P.A. Christiansen, suggested that he teach a course in the English, Scottish, and American ballads. His courses were always well attended, and, admitted Cheney, "The classes were interesting, but to tell the truth, in my own feeling, they are not as educational as it would be to study the masters of literature."
Yet while teaching his folklore courses, he always tried to give wide exposure to the material and to inspire "great thought and great action." Cheney's personal philosophy of teaching included two objectives: first, to stimulate the intellect of students by the development of sound reasoning; second, to develop the heart. Developing and maintaining a proper balance between the intellect and emotions, Cheney felt, was the key to making life a rich experience.
While he was on the faculty at BYU, Cheney received several summer grants to continue his collecting of folksongs. Between 1954 and 1958, he did fieldwork in Utah and Idaho, gathering approximately 250 folksongs for a two-volume collection that he was preparing for publication by the American Folklore Society. Cheney had originally titled this collection Songs of the Wasatch and Tetons (mountain ranges in Utah and on the Idaho-Wyoming border), but Richard Dorson, president of the society, asked him to change the title because Dorson thought it sounded too much like American Indian songs. Through the tenure of several different presidents and shifting editorial boards, Cheney had to revise, delete from, expand, and contract his book. Finally, after five years, the AFS published Mormon Songs from the Rocky Mountains (1968) through the University of Texas Press as part of its Memoir Series.