“Documents like this are objects of resistance”: Emily Hilliard on Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills, by Patrick Ward Gainer

Screen Shot 2017-12-02 at 10.42.16 AM

Patrick Ward Gainer taught in WVU’s English department for many years. His Witches, Ghosts, and Signs has long been an important part of our publishing program and is now joined by a new edition of Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills, a major work of folklore poised to reach a new generation of readers. Our edition – part of the Sounding Appalachia series, edited by Travis Stimeling – is introduced by Emily Hilliard, West Virginia’s state folklorist. Here we share an enhanced digital version of her foreword to the book.

When I first interviewed 89-year-old ballad singer Phyllis Marks at her Gilmer County home, I asked her how she started performing her songs and stories. She told me about the first time she met Dr. Patrick Gainer, when he was looking for local performers for the first West Virginia State Folk Festival:

“Well when I was at school, I would say great long poems but I didn’t sing in public. And Dr. Patrick Gainer went to Webster County to see my mother but she wouldn’t come down. And I was living on Lynch Run so they come up there on Lynch Run to see if I knew the songs… any old songs, and I did—I sang some. I was kinda bashful. And he said, ‘well your voice is not very loud but there’ll be a microphone there.’ And I said, ‘See all these kids, I can’t sing without a rocking chair!’ And when I went to the stage there was a rocking chair! I didn’t really mean it.”

Phyllis Marks3
Phyllis Marks performing at the West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville. Photo via Goldenseal, date and photographer unknown.

Marks laughed remembering how she ribbed Dr. Gainer. Though the two are from the same county, I imagine a perceived power imbalance between them, at least in that initial encounter. Dr. Gainer, the esteemed professor from the public university, was the one holding the microphone, with the authority to put Marks on a stage. Her joke was a playful disruption of that hierarchy. After her initial performance, Phyllis became an active performer and recognized tradition bearer in her Gilmer County community and beyond, recording for the Library of Congress and performing concerts across the greater Appalachian region including all but one of the West Virginia State Folk Festivals in Glenville since Gainer founded it in 1950 (She missed the 2015 event due to illness). According to folklorist Gerry Milnes, Marks is today the last active ballad singer in the state who learned the song tradition completely through oral transmission from her family members. Phyllis has always sung traditional ballads but her artistry and knowledge are her own. While I don’t put too much import on the notion of “discovery” by folklorists, it is on account of her ethnographic relationship with Patrick Gainer that we know of Phyllis Marks today.

Patrick Ward Gainer, WVU professor and folk music researcher, photo via West Virginia University West Virginia & Regional History Center.

I never met Patrick Gainer—he died before I was born and long before I set foot in West Virginia. But nearly 40 years after his death, I still feel the effects of his influence on the preservation and support of the traditional culture of West Virginia and the people who practice it. Stories like Phyllis’ provide a first-hand account of his character, affirming what I have read in his biographies and deduce from his own writing. While he was an esteemed professor, he was also a West Virginia native who grew up in the singing tradition. He approached the people he collected songs from as his peers and brethren, a regrettably rare perspective among folk song collectors of his era. His ability to shoot from both hips—as the musicologist scholar and the insider from a family of ballad singers— is evident in all his work. When he set out the rocking chair on the stage for Phyllis, I like to think he did so both out of respect for her as an equal, and with a wink and a nod—obeying her request in a willing shift of power…and maybe just a little insecurity as to whether she really meant it.

Patrick Gainer

Family of folk music researcher and educator Patrick Gainer, Patrick Gainer in the center wearing hat. Photo via West Virginia University West Virginia & Regional History Center.

Patrick Gainer was born in Parkersburg in 1903 (some sources say 1904) to a musical family of Irish descent. He was raised on a farm in the village of Tanner in Gilmer County in the central part of the state. His home county became the locus of his song collecting activity, an endeavor he began at age 21 when he was a West Virginia University student. Working with faculty member Carey Woofter, the two formed a song collecting duo sans recording technology, with Woofter transcribing the words and Gainer notating the melody. Some of the songs from those collecting excursions are included in this volume, while the others— collected after 1950— were recorded on tape and transcribed later. The remainder, as Gainer notes in his introduction, were imprinted in his mind as a child via the singing of his grandfather Francis C. Gainer: “These songs lived in my own memory just as they had lived in the memory of my ancestors.” The majority of the songs included in Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills were collected in Gilmer County, with 14 total counties represented, mostly in the central part of the state.

At WVU, Gainer studied under John Harrington Cox, a Harvard-trained folklorist who published the first extensive state-focused collection of folk songs, Folk Songs of the South. In 1926 Gainer married Antoinette Kizinski, an immigrant from Poland. Together they raised five children. After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from WVU, Gainer took an English professor position at St. Louis University, where he also employed his warbly tenor as director of the Glee Club. While in St. Louis, he began work on his dissertation, studying with University of Chicago folklorist Archer Taylor. Gainer earned his PhD in 1933 and remained in St. Louis until 1942 when he moved to New York to become director of training for the United Service Organization during WWII.


After the war, Dr. Gainer returned to West Virginia, upon accepting an English professor position at his alma mater West Virginia University. During that academic era, folklore courses were generally embedded in English departments; Gainer taught classes in folklore of the southern Appalachians, as well as in Milton and 19th-century literature. A beloved teacher, his courses were “among the most popular offered at the institution.” Gainer estimated that he taught over 12,000 students at the university, encouraging many to explore and document their own family’s cultural heritage. In 1950, he founded the West Virginia Folk Festival in Glenville, the county seat of his home county. He directed the festival for ten years and was a frequent performer, singing ballads accompanied by a rebec, the instrument he believed to be the forerunner of the mountain dulcimer. During his tenure at WVU, Gainer published the West Virginia Centennial Book of 100 Songs, 1863–1963 (1963) and recorded the album Folk Songs of the Allegheny Mountains for Folk Heritage Recordings (1963). In the years after his 1972 retirement, Gainer contributed the “Music” chapter to B. B. Maurer’s Mountain Heritage (1974) and published two books, Witches, Ghosts and Signs (1975) and Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills (1975). Patrick Gainer died on February 22, 1981, at age 77. He is buried at Good Shepherd Cemetery in his hometown of Tanner. 

Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills

Professor Patrick Gainer with rebec. Photo via West Virginia University West Virginia & Regional History Center.

Gainer’s annotations in Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills show his intimate relationship with the oral mountain song tradition. For the sometimes acerbic Gainer, his passion was both a source of personal pride and a root of cynicism. “Most people wish to be entertained by professional entertainers and not by parents and grandparents singing old songs in the home. What young person would turn off the latest popular program on the television tube to hear Grandma sing ‘Lord Bateman?’” he implores. Still, Gainer is not a purist; he acknowledges that change is an inherent element of the evolution and persistence of traditional culture. In his introduction to Folk Songs, he notes that some popular songs, like those of Stephen Foster, can pass into oral tradition, and his song headnotes, particularly for the Child Ballads, are rife with examples of the evolution of folk songs— how titles change respective of location, themes are altered according to community values, and verses are lost or gained. In his essay “Tradition” in the foundational collection Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture, folklorist Henry Glassie expounds on this inevitable progression: “But tradition is the opposite of only one kind of change: that in which disruption is so complete that the new cannot be read as an innovative adaptation of the old.” Gainer seems to believe that recorded music, radio, television, and written music constitute just such a disruption of the orally-transmitted mountain song tradition. The irony, perhaps, of his view of written and recorded music as oppressive forces that turn the masses into consumers of rather than participants in their own culture, is that the book that follows is, effectively, written music. But it is clear that his presentation of these collected songs is intended not only as a product of his own work, but evidence of the creative contribution and talent of his own mountaineers. Gainer’s motivation is to preserve and validate that tradition through text.

In the second half of his Introduction, Gainer relates a brief history of West Virginians and a deconstruction of the “hillbilly” stereotype to which he takes offense. He offers a counter narrative of mountaineers as hardworking, skilled, religious people, who are deeply rooted in the oral tradition of their Irish, Scottish, English, and German ancestors. It should be noted that Gainer is speaking of his own family and community here; he does not mention other races or ethnicities outside of those from these four European countries. It’s unfortunate that the documentation of music from other immigrant and cultural communities—the Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, and others, as well as African Americans who moved to West Virginia from the deep south to work in the coal mines and other industries—was not common among folk song collectors of this era; I regret what was never documented and hence, lost. While Gainer does present a personal profile of the Scots-Irish music tradition during his lifetime, other ethnicities are  generally excluded from his scope, which he nonetheless posits as being an authoritative depiction of West Virginia’s traditional music.

Gainer singing “John Randall”

Like his mentor Cox in his collection Folk Songs of the South fifty years prior, Gainer gives preference to the Scottish and English ballads, known as Child Ballads that were cataloged by American folklore scholar Francis James Child in the late 1800s. Child published these 305 traditional ballads and their variants in the ten-volume English and Scottish Popular Ballads, with the final edition appearing in 1898. Though Child collected these songs via epistolary research and concerned himself only with text, never having heard the melodies from the traditional singers themselves, and despite the guidelines for his curatorial decisions being somewhat obtuse, his numbered collection remains a touchstone today. Most Child Ballads can be traced back to the 17th and 18th centuries, though a few, Gainer says, date as far back as the 13th century. Gainer reports collecting 50 of the 305 in West Virginia, adding to Cox’s previously documented 34. Gainer lists each of the 50 in the numerical order of the original Child catalog numbers, but gives preference to the West Virginia title of the song over Child’s title. Often these West Virginia variants feature local place names, as in “Child 2, The Elfin Knight” which Gainer collected from Moses Ayres of Calhoun County, who called it “O Where Are You Going? I’m Going to Linn.” In one case, with the song “John Randal,” known as “Lord Randall” in Child’s collection, Gainer’s consultant, Mr. W. A. Thomas of Erbacon in Webster County, claimed he knew the Randal family who according to him, lived just across the mountain. In Gainer’s “Music” chapter in Maurer’s Mountain Heritage, Gainer recalls this recording excursion and acknowledges the adaptation of narrative to a local story, even though the original version dates to 17th-century Italy. Rather than dispute or correct his consultant, Gainer accepts both of these truths, commenting, “Of course I did not tell him that the ballad could not have been made up about the poisoning of John Randal who lived over the mountain, for I was the one who came to learn from him. This adaptation of an old-world ballad to an incident which took place in America is unusual, but it does sometimes occur.”

In the headnotes of several Child Ballads, Gainer implies that variations in song texts display the moral and religious values of the community in which they are found. In the West Virginia version of the “Elfin Knight,” the title character has lost the supernatural status of the original narrative, and is portrayed instead as a young mortal teasing his former beloved. Gainer writes, “The preternatural world of fairies and elves does not survive in the folklore of West Virginia because of the strong puritanical influence. The fairies generally were a benevolent folk who helped man, but since good could come only from God, and fairies were not in the Bible, they could not exist.” He also attributes the persistence of those ballads with tragic themes to their moral lesson, and the decline of others, like Child 299 “The Soldier and the Maid” because they were not suitable for children and hence, weren’t sung in mountain homes. I’m struck by how many of the Child Ballads that Gainer collected in West Virginia are centered around strong female characters who have agency over their own lives. These themes are still in the minority, but many— like “The Six King’s Daughters” in which the principle character throws her suitor in the sea, or “The Devil’s Questions” in which a maid outsmarts the devil’s riddles—depict empowered women. If ballads had a Bechdel- Wallace Test, I’d posit at least a half dozen would pass.

Gainer singing “The Devil’s Questions”

While Gainer’s headnotes to each song throughout the collection rely on his dual status as academic expert and member of the source community, his tone is accessible and genial rather than analytical and incisive. Though he does include a brief, final section of his introduction explaining the modes, scales, and musicological structures of the folk songs that follow, his intended audience favors the general public over academic scholars, and for this he has been criticized within the academy. In the 1977 issue of the Appalachian Journal, scholar David Whisnat calls the collection “too superficial to be of much use.”  It is admittedly curious that Gainer chose the transcription method of song collecting at a time when his colleagues were using recording technology; WVU folklorist Louis W. Chappell whom Gainer accompanied on recording trips had been doing field recordings since at least 1937. Perhaps as an undergraduate or master’s student, Gainer did not have the necessary funding for equipment. I regret that we do not have recordings of the examples in this collection, though Gainer’s chosen media is additional evidence of his intended audience; a book, particularly one that is constructed as a songbook, is much more accessible to the general public than a collection of field recordings sitting in a university archive. Additionally, Gainer’s presentation of the songs in this collection mirrors his approach as a fieldworker—he gives enough information to provide context in a pithy narrative and then gets out of the way so the singer can sing her song.

Patrick Gainer records Uncle Lewis O’Dell. Photo via West Virginia University West Virginia & Regional History Center.

In the second section, “Other Ballads and Folk Songs,” Gainer presents 32 songs, of which he says 18 are ballads. It is unclear, however, what he considers a ballad as opposed to a folk song. In the headnotes to the individual songs, he only calls five of them ballads—a sixth, “The Drummer of Waterloo,” he identifies in the introduction as the only ballad of the 18 that is completely of old world origin. And he refers to “One Morning in May” as both a song and a ballad. His categorization does not appear to be related to whether the selection was originally printed as a broadside, nor whether its origin is the British Isles, West Virginia, or parts unknown. Essentially, this chapter functions as a catch-all category for those songs (or ballads) that were not cataloged by Child, and are not sung fiddle tunes, nor of a religious nature. These songs and ballads convey a range of emotions— from tragedy to humor to heroics. Of particular note are two West Virginia native songs, “John Henry” and “John Hardy”. Though Gainer’s mentor John Harrington Cox lists them as the same song in his 1925 collection, 50 years later it had been established by folk song scholars that they are clearly two separate songs, both in text and melody. While both narratives are set in West Virginia and feature African American men with similar names, that is the extent of their commonality. “John Henry,” the labor story of the working man, likely a former slave, who bests the industrial machine but dies doing so, is one of the most renowned folk songs and folk allegories in the entire history of American music. “John Hardy,” however, tells the much smaller story of a “bad, bad man” (in some versions a “desperate little man”) who shoots a man during a game of cards at a coal camp in McDowell County.

“Fiddle-Tune Songs” features seven fiddle tunes with sung words, like “Shady Grove,” “Sourwood Mountain,” and “Old Joe Clark. All but one are well-known and not exclusive to West Virginia. “Paper of Pins,” the oddball in the group, is known more as a play party song than a fiddle tune. The song is part of Phyllis Marks’ active repertoire; she recently sang it at a West Virginia Folklife concert at the Humanities Council in Charleston. It is here that Gainer asserts his claim that the mountain dulcimer, or as he calls it, the “plucked dulcimer,” is a descendant of the Arabic rebec, which he says came to America from the British Isles but was overshadowed by the fiddle. Gainer, who shared this theory with John Jacob Niles of Kentucky, was steadfast in this opinion, asserting in the 1968 Nicholas County News Leader, “… what we think of as the dulcimer today is not sailing under its true name.” In Gerry Milnes’ 1999 book Play of a Fiddle on the traditional music of West Virginia, Milnes explores Gainer’s claim, noting that dulcimers were often referred to as “zithers,” suggesting the instrument’s German origins.

Patrick Gainer with rebec. Photo via West Virginia University West Virginia & Regional History Center.

The fourth and fifth chapters of the book are both composed of religious songs, but are separated by race, entitled respectively, “Choral Singing in the Mountains,” and “The Negro Contribution.” As to this segregation and cringe-worthy title, some may defend Gainer as a product of his time, but I’m wary of the allowances that can follow when that excuse is entertained. In “Choral Singing in the Mountains” Gainer writes as an insider to his own community: “ Even before our pioneer ancestors built their churches in the wilderness…”[emphasis my own]. However, in the following chapter, no such inclusive language is used, suggesting that Gainer does not consider African Americans to be part of his own folk group, nor assume them to be among his readers. In the headnote to the first of the six songs in this section, Gainer writes “It should be noted that in printing the songs in this book, we have not used any dialectal pronunciations.” He goes on to explain that “speech is not racial,” but addressing this point in the last fifteen pages of the book in a chapter which already separates black music from white further emphasizes his exclusion of African Americans in his assumed audience and home community. This is problematic, perhaps most importantly because it portrays the black and white gospel, ballad, and folk song traditions as being historically more separate than they actually were. In fact, Appalachian music is at its core an amalgam of traditions, notably African American, Native American, and Anglo-Saxon, though regrettably, the African American and Native contributions have long been suppressed, denied, and ignored. In the song headnotes, Gainer writes that “these songs have been sung just as much by white Americans through the years,” but that statement should be inverted; many of the songs in the other sections of the book were sung and played by black musicians and string bands, and due to the preference of folk song collectors for the Anglo-Saxton tradition, many other instances and songs of black musicians remain undocumented. Gainer does attest in the chapter’s introduction that African Americans have made the greatest contribution to American folk music over any other ethnic group or race, but his approach here is nearsighted at best, racist and irresponsible at worst.

Folk Songs Today

Books, like people, are imperfect, and cultural documentation is always filtered through the lens and curatorial choices of the collector. I address the flaws and triumphs of Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills not to invalidate nor overinflate the work, but to understand and contextualize it; as readers we always carry the point of view of our own historical moment, for better or worse. In 2017, the 1975 Folk Songs not only tells us about the evolution of the mountain song tradition over 40 years, but also the evolution of the study of mountain song tradition. We thankfully have become more inclusive and accurate in our understanding of Appalachian music as a blend of cultural traditions. While there’s progress yet to be made, we have shed much of the racial separation and suppression that was present in folkloric study of Gainer’s era.

West Virginia ballad singer Phyllis Marks performs the Child ballad “Bow and Balance to Me” on the patio of the West Virginia Humanities Council, September 8, 2016.

Writing in 1975, Gainer considered there to be “almost no oral tradition in America today to preserve song in memory.” Undoubtedly he saw changes that amounted to a decline in participation of his beloved mountain singing tradition, but over 40 years later, that light is still shining. Phyllis Marks still performs with her granddaughter, swaps songs with her caregiver, and shares stories with collectors like me. Trevor Hammons, the 15 year-old great grandson of legendary banjo picker Lee Hammons, placed fifth in the adult category banjo contest at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival at Clifftop in 2016. And though additional instruments and amplification might make it unrecognizable to Gainer, West Virginia’s gospel tradition is continuous and ever vibrant, as evidenced by the Gospel Singaleers of Beckley and Mount Hope’s Ethel Caffie-Austin, among others. While many mountaineers today may not learn “the old songs” through oral transmission the way Gainer and Marks did, Gainer has offered a road map that may spur a memory of a song that a grandparent used to sing, a sung fiddle tune that a neighbor plays, or a spiritual from a childhood church service. Additionally, new songs enter the folk tradition all the time. This collection exists as one of many examples of the rich cultural traditions that are embedded in daily life in West Virginia. And at a time when West Virginians are still combatting mainstream negative stereotypes all too similar to what Gainer experienced in 1975, documents like this are objects of resistance.

Ethel Caffie-Austin
Ethel Caffie-Austin. Photo by Michael Keller.

Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills and other folkloric documentation can serve as a mirror to show us the culture we have, but also what we’ve lost and gained along the way, for better or for worse. Throughout the collection, Gainer provides evidence of how folk songs are distilled democratic cultural nuggets of a community, conveying the values of its people. He declares, “They are called folk songs because they belong to the people and not any one individual.” Folklorist Lynne McNeill says this another way: “Group consensus shapes folklore, so folklore is a great measure of group consensus.” I, for one, am proud to live and work in a place where the group consensus is for singing.

Leave a Reply