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Folklore and History: A Conversation with Steve Siporin

Steve Siporin is Professor of Folklore at Utah State University. He is author of “A Bear and a Bandit,” an essay in the winter 2015 Utah Historical Quarterly comparing the story of the grizzly bear Old Ephraim in Cache Valley, Utah, with the tale of the famous Italian bandit Tiburzi in Maremma, Italy. In the following interview, UHQ editors sat down with Siporin to discuss his research on Old Ephraim and Tiburzi, the nature of folklore studies, and the marriage between folklore and history.

For rich digital resources on Cache Valley’s famous grizzly bear, see USU’s Old Ephraim Digital Collection:http://digital.lib.usu.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/Ephraim

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UHQ: Good morning and welcome to the Utah History Podcast. Today we are speaking with Steve Siporin, a distinguished professor of folklore at Utah State University and the author of an article in the Utah Historical Quarterly about a bear and a bandit.

I’m Holly George. And I’m Jedediah Rogers. All right, we’ll ask our first question. Steve, could you briefly recount the stories of Domenico Tiburzi and Old Ephraim and describe some of the lore that’s grown up around these stories?

STEVE SIPORIN: Sure. Do you want the five-minute version or the two-minute version or the one-hour version, because, as you know, Old Ephraim has people performed in it and it can go on literally for an hour.

UHQ: I guess the two-minute version.

SS: Well of course, fortunately, the two stories have parallel structure, and it’s really quite simple. For Old Ephraim, the story is really the story of hunting him down and killing him, and of course there’s countless variations, but basically, Frank Clark, if the hunter is named, is herding sheep and he has been trying to trap Ephraim for many years, and this time Ephraim stumbles and gets caught in the trap. But that doesn’t really stop him. There’s an all night long kind of chase hunting, seeking him, and then at some time or after dawn Frank Clark kills him with his last bullet, which is often times the seventh. Old Ephraim is distracted momentarily by the barking of Frank Clark’s dog Jenny, turns his head, and Frank Clark gets the shot in a vulnerable spot, a kind of the Achilles heel, I suppose, only it’s his neck, and kills him.

And then he’s burned and the remains are buried—burned for three days, I think, in all the other versions—and boy scouts (this is about 1921, ’23, something like that) a few months later hike up Logan Canyon to retrieve the skull because the Smithsonian doesn’t believe there were any grizzlies left. So they retrieved the skull to ship it back, and sure enough, he’s not only, at least in the story, a grizzly but the biggest grizzly ever. And that’s that story.

Now, Domenico Tiburzi—not so well known here but well known in Italy; everyone would recognize his name there, I think, as the last great bandit versus in comparison the last great grizzly, also the story, the big immediate parallel is that it’s the story not of his life but of his death. And both of these have that same emphasis.

And in Domenico Tiburzi’s case, about 30 years earlier in the late 1890s, he’s an aging bandit who roams this area called the Maremma, which at that time was a really rugged, tough part of Italy—untamed, dangerous to live in because of the Malaria and full of swamps. Again, the story is of him, in a sense in this case more betrayed by the barking of a dog, but he’s staying with some peasant family on their farm that night but the circumstances of that are kind of contested whether he was welcomed there or he imposed himself there. He’s there with his lieutenant, Fioravanti. The dog barks and carabinieri, the patrol of carbinari, the Italian national police, were looking for him, hear the dog barking and come to the house. There’s a shootout. Tiburzi is killed and then the next day—the only photograph we have, which appears in the article, of course, is Tiburzi propped up against a pillar with his gun. He’s dead, propped up with bandoleers of bullets across his chest, the gun in hand, and if you look closely, you can see that he is dead.

And that’s his end, although we might get into it, how he actually died is open for discussion. He is supposedly, according to the story, buried in the cemetery, but there was an argument as to whether he should be buried in the cemetery because he was such an evil man. The priests didn’t want him buried in the cemetery. The townspeople did. So the story is they compromised partly in the cemetery, and partly out. The cemetery grew, and the location of the burial was lost in memory. But what is there today, which I just saw a month or two ago, is the pillar that he was propped up against for that photograph in 1896, and that marks his supposed burial spot in the cemetery and it’s got an inscription on it. And so, again, just as with Ephraim, his end is kind of mysterious as the burial spot is uncertain.

UHQ: What’s some of the lore around both of these characters?

SS: Well, I think really the stories themselves are the major expressions of lore. And in the case of Tiburzi, the stories really vary from him being a hero to being a villain. I mean, in some of the stories he’s a Robin Hood-type figure. But as I talked to people in Italy about him, they’ll often say he really wasn’t a very good guy. He was a very evil character. And some of the writing about him says that he was actually in league with the oppressive landowners in the area and exploited the people who tried to work there.

And I think the same goes for Old Ephraim. There are these funny . . . images of bears everywhere of Old Ephraim. But the outstanding folklore about them is the stories themselves. And they trump everything else and other things act to trigger the stories.

UHQ: That’s interesting. These two characters seem so disparate and such a world apart. How did you realize they had a lot in common?

SS: You know, it’s a really timely question because I was just going through my journals for quite a few years, because I’m doing some other research in Italy, and I was just reading through to try find all the things relevant to that other topic—this was just a few days ago—and popped out of me where I first wrote down this idea.

UHQ: Oh.

SS: And there it is—I mean it’s trivial in a way but it’s interesting in another because it kind of tells me how I got ideas. It just popped out fully formed. In one paragraph I have the whole idea of this comparison. And the circumstance was simply that—I think this is the important part—I had just arrived in Italy to do this other research and I had a couple of days in Rome that I was just kind of hanging out and—in other words, I think this is important for all researchers—I was freed up of my everyday routine and my everyday work and my mind was associating freely. And I had heard about Tiburzi a couple of years before that and, of course, I knew about Ephraim forever.

But it just kind of popped out. I wasn’t doing research on it. I wasn’t thinking about it that I knew of, maybe subliminally I was. And then I look at the entry and it’s just these two have a lot in common, you know, and wouldn’t this be an interesting kind of article. Although I also think at the time I didn’t know if anyone would take it seriously because it’s kind of an odd comparison.

UHQ: That’s a good lesson for researching.

SS: I think so. I think you need to break out of your routines and you need to ideally go somewhere else. And then you just kind of see things differently. I’ve always been interested in bears, that’s true, and obviously Italy and living in Utah. I think the picture of Tiburzi if you have it in mind or people see it in the article, he really does suggest a bear. He does look like a bear.

UHQ: He’s a big fellow.

SS: An interesting thing I learned recently when I was in Italy talking to people who know about Tiburzi is that he is often seen there was a cinghiale. Cinghiale is a wild boar, and the wild boar is common to this really rugged area. It’s what people like to hunt, people like to eat, and people like to avoid running into face to face. But he is that kind of scary, bristly, burly character—and they don’t have bears there so that would be the animal of choice to compare him to. But they do think of him or do think of him as animal like and wild.

UHQ: So, then, it’s amazing in your article, you outline 10 plot elements that are very parallel between the stories. Did you realize those as you began researching?

SS: Yeah. I think that the idea was, there’s a lot in common here. There’s a comparison and, I think, I mainly had in mind the physical nature of a bear and a man—a bearlike man and a manlike bear. That was the core idea, but when I sat down then it was more methodical.

UHQ: Yeah. 

SS: And [I] really compared, looked at the story. The first realization was, hey, these guys have long careers as marauders, as bandits, as outlaws. But the story only really deals with this last little bit of it, that in and of itself is really interesting folkloristically and humanistically. Right? All the rest of the story doesn’t really count. I mean, I won’t claim it’s quite at the level of the Iliad, but the Iliad is a story about a 10-year war but the action is in the last month of it or so. Right? I mean the other part is kind of just skipped over and it’s there. But that’s the important part. So from that core of similarity, then when I looked at it more methodically, well there was a lot of real, even to the detail of that dog.

UHQ: I like that tale a lot—the dog barking.

SS: That’s very interesting.

UHQ: Is it happenstance that there’s so much parallel between the two stories, or does the parallel reflect the nature of folklore itself? Do we see that these types of elements of the story in other folklore stories as well?

SS: Yes. I think so. Very specifically that’s what I was trying to describe earlier about the burial. There is a kind of famous although pretty old article called the “Hero of Tradition” by a British anthropologist/folklorist scholar in which he identifies I think something like 22 or 24, something like that, elements—maybe it’s even more than that—that are plot elements in narrative about classical heroes, classical and biblical and actually even Far Eastern mythic heroes that they all have some of these elements and some of them have more than others. None of them have all of them, I don’t think.

But they’re motifs—folklorists would say a motif—that appears in the life of a hero. So we have something like at least one of those in Tiburzi and Ephraim’s lives. There’s something about narratives that we learn that give us narrative expectations. So maybe you hear something, and over time you retell it. You may hear other people telling it. Maybe something happens when you’re not telling it in your mind and you borrow those other elements that should be in that story—

UHQ: Hmm.

SS: —because it’s about a hero. So it’s got to have the heroic elements. And without even being conscious of it, they become part of the narrative. And then as you retell it, you feel like you don’t think about it. They were always there. They were always part of this story.

I think that’s the deeper level at which folklore works. We grow up with the fairy tales, with different legends, with stories about heroes, and then we have life experiences and then people around us do and we reshape what happened historically anecdotally to conform to a pattern that somehow says this is the way it should be or says something true.

UHQ: Well, in a few minutes I actually want to go back to generally what folklore tells us. Just to go back briefly to the story of Old Ephraim, here in your article you outlined not only two quite disparate people and animals, be it a person and animal, but also places. Can you talk to us a little bit about what insights you’ve gained and about the parallels between Maremma and Cache Valley?

SS: Sure. Who would have ever thought that these two places had anything in common, right? And, in some ways, when I look at myself doing this I’m thinking, “well, you know, you love Italy and you love Cache Valley and you’ve lived in both places and you want to somehow bring them together.” So is this just my own psychological adventure? Maybe so, but there’s really something to it.

The similarities that I see and I talk about a little bit is that at the time of these stories, they were at the end and maybe they had just passed the end of their frontier era. So they were both frontiers pretty recently, and they passed out of that fairly recently. And although one is high altitude, five thousand feet, dry, alpine, and the other is at sea level, swampy, damp, humid, warm. It doesn’t snow there. What was in common was that they were both rugged places that if we go back 100, 150 years ago, not a lot of people were living in either place.

I have descriptions of the Maremma from even in the early 1900s, really a deserted place, a dangerous place. And that would maybe be the other thing is that wilderness used to always represent danger. Now we think of it as recreation, but that’s the change that happens in both places when they go from being a frontier to being part of civilization.

UHQ: So the stories reflect this change.

SS: I think so.

UHQ: Change of a place. And is it the case generally that folklore tells us something about or reveals insights about a place and the changes that occur at that place?

SS: That’s certainly one of the things, and a very big thing. I think more generally what folklore does is tell you what’s going on in a society or in a culture or in a group of people. The difference between say a folk narrative and an author’s written narrative in literature is that the author, the modern writer, the professional writer’s narrative tells you what that person is thinking or feeling and what their ideas are and their attitudes. We don’t know if it extends beyond that person.

But a folk narrative, because it’s repeated by many people and prized and kept alive, tells you what a whole group of people are thinking. So certainly in this circumstance, it tells you about change and often because one of our divisions of folklore is region—we talk about ethnic folklore, of gender folklore, religious folklore, but regional folklore is another very major thing. So it tells us about what people in a particular place think at a particular time, although it’s usually an extended period of time. At least that’s how I would think of it.

The other thing I would say in connection with that is that I think folklore has to withstand a much greater test of meaningfulness than say high literature, again for lack of a better term to make the distinction. I don’t think art literature, high literature, professional literature, I don’t know what to call it. I don’t think it’s better than folk literature but we don’t have a good terminology. But at any rate, the example I often give is if Shakespeare fell out of fashion and nobody read Shakespeare or reproduced Shakespeare plays for 200 years. We wouldn’t lose Shakespeare because it’s in the library. Right? It’s there. It’s in print and it could always come back.

But folk narrative doesn’t have that luxury. If for one-generation people stopped telling an oral tale, and there’s no record on it except maybe in the folklore archives now, but it can only be sustained as long as it’s meaningful. No one’s forcing you to tell the Old Ephraim story, right? You don’t have to study it in college. You don’t have to study it in high school. It’s not part of anybody’s Canon. It’s only remembered and told because it really really means something to people.

I know it’s one of your other questions. It’s one of the reasons why historians and literary people and everybody should pay attention, because these are things that passed the test, the harshest test of survivability relevance. People don’t have to tell these stories. They only do it because they mattered. So that means it’s a direct barometer for us to find out what’s important to people if we can interpret them correctly or fairly or just read what people are saying with them.

UHQ: What are some other insights historians can learn from folklorists and from folklore?

SS: That’s a wonderful question, and I should say, as I think back, some of the folklorists I’ve known have been historians. The major American folklorists at mid-twentieth century [were historians]. Richard Dorson . . . was a historian who studied folklore. I think probably I’ve already said what may be the most important thing is that you hear something that withstands the test of time, but also it’s the voice of many people instead of one. And, of course, we all know that for most of history, for most people, literacy and written records were not an option. So the written records that we typically study—and I know history has become a lot more sophisticated than just looking at written records—you’re oftentimes looking at the elite levels of culture rather than the folk levels of culture.

For instance, one of the things I’ve really been interested in recent years is the study of food ways. That’s really been explored by a lot of disciplines. But, of course, if you think of medieval times or early modern times, it’s easier to know the diet of the wealthy because they kept track [more] than the diet of the illiterate. I’m trying to find out now how you do find out what the great masses were really eating from the records that they did not keep.

UHQ: Hmm mm.

SS: I kind of wandered from the question.

UHQ: I could listen to you talk about food ways all day. I love it. I guess I’ll bring it back to Utah. Throughout your career working with students, and other things, have you seen similarities between Utah and other spots in the world?

SS: Absolutely, yes.

UHQ: Good. What are they?

SS: Absolutely, yes. I was thinking about a couple, maybe the other two best-known legends in Cache Valley.

UHQ: Yeah.

SS: Most turned in by students at least. One of them is about Saint Anne’s retreat. Saint Anne’s retreat, also called the nunnery, that’s the title given to it, was a group of cabins a little ways up Logan Canyon, maybe about five miles up the canyon, where from the factual record nuns from the diocese in Salt Lake—and I’m pretty sure it was just nuns—would go for kind of time away, meditation, a break from things, a retreat. So it was called Saint Anne’s retreat. But the local story was that nuns who were pregnant were sent there . . . to have their babies, and they killed them, drowned them in a pool there, some kind of pool, and that was the background story.

When I was first in Logan, the stories that were often turned in were about legend tripping. Legend tripping is when people, usually young people, go to the site of a supernatural occurrence that there’s a legend about and try to re-experience it. So the typical thing for kids growing up in Logan High School would be to go with other friends up there late at night and try to get scared by the nuns who would come out—in one version they have these frightening dogs that would attack them, and either the nuns, the ghosts of the nuns, the spirits of the nuns [would produce a] frightening experience, and then [the kids] would drive off when something happened.

Recently one of those things went awry—I think it’s been about 10 or 15 years now—on one of those legend tripping experiences, because there were guards set there. They had had sold Saint Anne’s Retreat to some foundation and in trying to prevent trespassing, the guards got control and rounded up all the kids and it really did scare them. So that story now has replaced the older story.

At any rate—I’m kind of getting off track—the point is that what could be seen as an anti-Catholic story exists everywhere in the world, not just up Logan Canyon. Where I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, we heard that story about the Catholic Church there. I taught in Portugal for a year and in Portugal, a Catholic country, Catholics told it about one particular location where on hill there was a monastery. On the facing hill there was a nunnery and the story was that there was a tunnel that went between them that was lined with the bones of aborted fetuses, and so that would be an anti-clerical rather than an anti-Catholic story. It’s just all over. And when I use this in class, students who have been in missions in Dominican Republic, places like that, they all heard them. And whenever, of course, you hear it for the first time you think that’s not really true then because it appears everywhere, right?

That’s a good example of something that kids growing up in Logan might hear and think of as a unique story to Logan Canyon, but it’s international legend and what we call migratory legend because it moves all over the place and then becomes a local legend attached to a certain place. So that’s one of many examples.

UHQ: So that’s interesting. I mean, so stories migrate. They might move from one location to the next but they also change over time. They’re not necessarily reflected in the documentary record, so they’re told as oral tradition, and then as they’re being told and I imagine they change. Talk to us about that process and how it changes—what we understand about the events that these stories describe as well as the people telling the events, the stories.

SS: Well, that’s a rich question. One of the things that occurs to me immediately, to go back to our story, is a reference to another last grizzly bear being killed in Colorado and another one in California. Some of the changes are kind of artistic changes to make the story more credible in the environment in which it’s told. So, it’s a man in Italy. It’s a bandit. It’s human. It’s an animal, a bear in the western United States. Maybe it’s another creature or another kind of person somewhere else to carry the same kind of story that’s really a story again about the passing of the frontier. So some of the changes—maybe that’s more a metaphor for the kind of changes—simply have to [be] artistic. They have to fit the environment that they’re in, because you’re trying to convince somebody, in a certain sense, that this is true. So it’s got to fit together in a way that makes sense where it’s told. So it’s another way in which place comes into the story and affects the story.

UHQ: Hmm mm.

SS: Could you ask me that question again because I feel like I just hit the tip of it?

UHQ: Well, before you talked about the marriage between folklore and history. Of course, historians like to look at patterns and change over time. I guess I was curious to know how the stories themselves often tend to change and evolve.

SS: Yeah.

UHQ: Uh, and I’ll leave it at that. I was going to ask something—

SS: Sure.

UHQ: —very much related. Uh, another point, a real interesting insight that you make in your article is that folklore is often shaped, or folklore shapes, the memory of the events and in this case the story of the bandit and the bear. And I suppose that that’s another way in which folklore and the stories themselves both evolve as well as folklore contributes to the evolving of how one remembers those particular events.

SS: Yes.

UHQ: I know this is a very much involved question but—

SS: No I think I—

UHQ: I appreciate your insight.

SS: I think I understand it. Let me think for a moment here. … Folklorists have always been concerned with patterns and, in fact, that’s the way this article started—spotting a similar pattern that was kind of unexpected and then going from there. But I think as I was saying earlier, we have these narratives or bits of narratives that give us expectations for the way a plot is going to play out. And so that influences the way we structure what we experience. I’ve seen it with immigration narratives, with all kinds of stories of triumph.

I was just thinking about it recently. This is a little bit a stretch to talk about it folkloristically, but I guess we don’t have to be real strict about the limits. You know about this controversy recently about the NBC news reporter Brian Williams. Looking at it from a folkloristic point of view, I have to really have compassion for him, and I don’t understand why the other members of the media are being so self righteous because it doesn’t seem to me that it’s an outright lie. It seems to me unlikely that someone would self-consciously tell a lie about their experience to ten million people and think they weren’t going to get caught.

I mean maybe that’s some kind of ultimate arrogance, but it seems much more likely to me that he has restructured his memory of his own experience in keeping with a better narrative, the way we all do. And it’s really what I’ve been talking about in many ways about stories. You know, something happened to me. Something happened to my father. Over the years, as I retell that story and get a better reaction by changing it a little bit without even consciously changing it and making it more dramatic—having the grenade launcher go through the helicopter I was in rather than the one behind or in front—I start to believe that story too.

From what I understand, one of the accusations is that he’s told this lie multiple times. Well, but did anybody ever call him on it if someone said, “hey, that couldn’t really have happened,” and he continued? That would be one thing, but no one has ever said that they said to him, “hey, that’s not true.” So if they listened to it and they said, “wow, that reinforced that it was a true story for him,” just like we all do. My father had a saying that I never understood until recently. It was, I don’t lie but I don’t always tell the truth. . . . I think if I take it in the context of this controversy and of folklore, it’s “I don’t necessarily lie but who remembers anything exactly as it happened?”

I think part of the reason we do that—and maybe this goes to the heart of the importance of folklore and storytelling in general—is we add meaning. We change the story. I mean, sure. We inflate our egos. He was in a more dangerous situation and he survived it, right? It makes him more important, but it also makes it more intense and it makes the story more meaningful. And I think that’s one of the things that guides ways in which we change stories. We are always subconsciously perhaps aiming towards a more meaningful and artistic story because it’s about communication about past experience. It’s not always about literal truth. For literal truth we do want—I mean that’s important. I’m not denying that. But in everyday existence, for humans for thousands of years we have to carry forward what’s really meaningful, and I think that’s what guides the way stories are changed.

UHQ: Well this is a quite different question. I wanted to know if you could talk to our readers and our listeners I guess about collecting folklore. I remember I took a folklore class from you, a fieldwork class a long time ago, and I remember you saying “you don’t ask people, just tell me a story.” You have to kind of prompt them or guide them or give a trigger. And I think that was your class and that you also said, the best stories come as you’re heading out the door.

SS: [Laughs] Yeah.

UHQ: And so do you have advice for our listeners about collecting folklore from their families or from their lives?

SS: Yeah, that’s a wonderful question, and you prompted me with it.

UHQ: Oh good.

SS: So it makes my job a little easier. I must say that you learned something that I learned from another Utah folklorist, William A. Wilson, Burt Wilson from BYU who wrote an article called “Folklore and History,” too.

UHQ: Yeah.

SS: But he always said in beginning folklore classes for one thing that you’re going to be tempted to collect some kind of exotic folklore from someone, from somewhere else and something exotic. And he said, no, you should really start with yourself and your family.

UHQ: Hmm.

SS: You can go on from there if you want. So one thing I really like about your question is you already make that assumption that people are going to be collecting from their families. And I think that’s very wise and very important.

UHQ: I got it after reading a Burt Wilson article.

SS: Oh [laughs].

UHQ: The truth comes out.

SS: No, that’s good. That’s very good. I’m sure he’d be happy to know that, but I’ve found that to be true.

UHQ: Collect from your own life.

SS: Some I guess is from my father, because you know what to ask. You know what you’re talking about. Sometimes there’s a little bit of difficulty in that, because it’s like, well, you already know this story. Why are you asking for it? And you can explain that, but mostly it’s really a plus especially when it comes to understanding what’s going on because you have all that background information to understand what’s going on.

But back to really your question. I would say one of the best things to do is to try to piggyback onto some kind of natural context in which stories are told or reminiscences come up. So, for instance, after Thanksgiving dinner people are still sitting around the table because they can’t move—or possibly even during the dinner, but that might kind of be imposing something that would be employed to do—you put the tape recorder out in the middle of the table and, of course, you never record without people’s permission. That’s a natural storytelling context, and so that would be a real good time to get stories.

And also, sometimes it’s a little bit difficult in transcribing but in having several people rather than just the one on one, they’d prompt each other or they say, “it didn’t really happen that way,” and then you get more than one version of the story, which of course is the lifeblood of folklore, or they add to something, or someone finally finds out the rest of the story.

UHQ: That’s great.

SS: Right. So I think you look for opportunities like that. Another technique that I’ve done, and that only my wife was just reminding me of this morning, she says, “you know, if you want to interview,” let’s say, a woman, “you go to her kitchen and work with her making bread.”

UHQ: That’s good advice.

SS: I don’t want to be sexist here, but women talk to each other. Well, men too, but a mother and her daughter working in the kitchen, whoever—that’s the place where stories are told while you’re working. While you’re doing it you’re conversing and stories come up. And because your hands are busy your mind can relax. You’re distracted. You don’t have the spotlight on you, and it’s the normal way of doing it.

So I think those are a couple of really good things.

UHQ: You can work in the garden with someone or—

SS: Absolutely, yes, or be out, you know. I remember once interviewing someone in Boise about the Basque Hotel about sheepherders who used to stay there and in the winters—and this was older and remembered it. And we just went to the site, which was kind of an abandoned building then. It ended up being turned into a museum, but we walked around with the tape recorder. It was a tape recorder in those days. And we walked around and the physical site triggered memories and stories and events that maybe sitting in an office it wouldn’t happen.

I’ll give you one more technique, because these techniques trigger other techniques. Oftentimes I remember interviewing older people about their stories, their growing up. And at some point—and this was always a good thing—they might pull out a family photo album. And you can consciously do that with your family. You can go through and then you have to on the recording identify what picture you’re looking at so that you can connect what’s on the tape with the image later but there’s stories. I know in my family that that’s the only time they’re told when you’re going through the photo album and you see somebody. It’s not because they’re forbidden stories or anything. It’s just that’s the—

UHQ: No, that’s when you remember them.

SS: That’s when you remember them after they look through the triggers.

UHQ: I remember when my dad grew up in East L.A. and driving through his old neighborhood with him and he told us these stories. I thought, “dad this is your life? Really?” It was fascinating. So, I guess, yeah, going to the place.

SS: Yeah, that’s a good idea, yeah go to the place and go around. And because our recording equipment is so mobile today it’s not a problem.

UHQ: Hmm.

SS: I mean when I started, the tape recorders were like this and they weighed a ton, so it was a little harder.

UHQ: Well, I mean, just listening to you talk it makes me realize that humans tell stories. That’s what we do.

SS: That’s so true.

UHQ: And I was wondering, do we still have a vibrant storytelling culture and a transmission of these stories from people to people, or has that changed in any way over the years?

SS: I think the answer is yes and yes. Sometimes we use the title instead of Homo sapiens, Homo narrans.

UHQ: Hmm.

SS: Human, the storyteller and that in someway seems to be, you know, one of our most distinguishing characteristics. There was this conference at Utah State a few years ago where they brought in a couple of super computers for the conference. And they had it all set up and brought in these scientists from all over, and they kind of didn’t know what to do. And I said, “well, let’s ask them if they think computers will ever replace human beings.” So they typed in that question and the computer buzzed in a word and out came a voice saying, “that reminds me of a story.” [laughter]

So I snuck in a little joke, meta folklore, folklore about folklore, right.

UHQ: Uh huh.

SS: But I think it says it well in that even in our electronic, digital age, we still specializes in digital folklore now and in fact we have courses at Utah State and we have a specialist who teaches digital folklore.

UHQ: Oh, how interesting.

SS: And so the Internet from their point of view—and I admit to being of another era and so not up to date on this topic—a lot of storytelling goes on in the Internet. I know that much. And so to me it’s somewhere between oral and written. I’m not sure exactly where it goes, but a lot of the stories that have always been told are being told again in email communication and websites and stuff like that.

So the answer is, yes, we keep telling and yes it changes. Maybe the technology changes. When I first started studying folklore we used to say that because of the pace of modern life, we’ve stopped telling the folktales orally. . . . Instead we tell a lot more jokes and a lot more legends because they are short and fit modern life. I don’t know if that’s exactly true or not. Certainly the fairy tales have an ongoing life in written form and in some cultures they’re still told orally. But the point is maybe in one era, one genre, one type of story gets emphasized more than another.

If you kept a story diary for a week and made some notation every point in the day in which you told some kind of a story, I think you’d find it’s constant.

UHQ: Interesting.

SS: When we teach the folk narrative course it will talk about those classic genres at the first part of the course, the folk tale, the legend, tall tales, maybe narrative jokes, even myth. But the last part of the course we concentrate on personal narrative, that is the stories of things that happen to you—that, as we were saying earlier, we recast in terms of other kinds of traditional narratives that you’ve heard before.

But all those stories that you collect is family folklore, you know.

UHQ: Hmm.

SS: All those things that—just when you go home when you recount your day. You cast it oftentimes in a narrative form sometimes more artistically than other times, and sometimes certain things become recurrent and you tell them again and again. And then they get shaped artistically and they do get into your family folklore. . . .

I mean the word history is the same root as story, right? At times when I’m translating from Italian I’m not sure when they say storia, is it story or history. In some sense those concepts are conflated in Italian and not so clear to know.

UHQ: Well fascinating. It’s really fascinating.

SS: Thanks.

UHQ: Thank you.  This was fun.

SS: My pleasure. You guys are very good and you warm me up and I hope someone listens to our stories.

UHQ: Thanks for joining us. Yeah. Thanks.

SS: My pleasure. Definitely my pleasure.