Patrick Gainer and The Devil’s Questions

Posted by | July 14, 2010

Native West Virginian Dr. Patrick W. Gainer dedicated the balance of his life to a personal crusade to revitalize folk traditions, and to elevate the image and self-esteem of the Appalachian people at a time when derogatory stereotypes flourished.

His Appalachian folklore course at West Virginia University, where he taught in the English Department from the end of WWII till his retirement in 1972, “was perhaps the most popular class ever offered on campus,” according to a biography on the West Virginia History & Regional Collection website. He offered Extension courses and lectured statewide, and established the still flourishing West Virginia Folk Festival at Glenville in 1950.

The lyrics below, for ‘The Devil’s Questions,’ are from ‘Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills’ (Seneca Books, 1975).  Dr. Gainer tracked down West Virginia versions of British folksongs cataloged by Francis James Child in ‘The English and Scottish Popular Ballads,’ published between 1882 and 1898.

Click here if you’d like to hear an MP3 recording of Dr. Gainer singing the tune.

“This ballad has not been reported previously from West Virginia tradition,” says Dr. Gainer in his introduction to this song. “It was sung by Blanche Kelley, Gilmer County. The devil asks the maid difficult questions, which she must answer satisfactorily or be carried off to hell. When she answers the questions wisely, the devil disappears.  The word ‘peart’ in the refrain is a dialect word meaning cheerful and becoming.”

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The Devil’s Questions
(Child Ballad 1, “Riddles Wisely Expounded”)

If you can’t answer these questions to me,
O maid so peart and bonnie,
Then you’ll be mine and go with me,
and you so peart and bonnie.

O what is higher than the tree?
O maid so peart and bonnie,
And what is deeper than the sea?
And you so peart and bonnie.

O what is louder than the horn?
O maid so peart and bonnie,
And what is earlier than the morn?
and you so peart and bonnie.

O heaven is higher than the tree,
As I am peart and bonnie,
And hell is deeper than the sea,
And I am peart and bonnie.

O thunder is louder than the horn,
As I am peart and bonnie,
And sin is earlier than the morn,
And I am peart and bonnie.

Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills (Seneca Books, 1975)

In addition ‘Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills’ Patrick W. Gainer published ‘Witches, Ghosts, and Signs: Folklore of the Southern Appalachian Mountains (Seneca Books, 1975)’ and recorded two albums of ‘Folk Songs of the Allegheny Mountains’ (both on Folk Heritage Recordings, 1963).

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