CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - Dr. Patrick Gainer's WV Folk Festival: "I wouldn't a come if'n I hadn't taken a likein' to ye!"

By Jack Cawthon 2017

Shortly another State Folk Festival will be held in Glenville. Sadly, it will have little of the spirit and traditions of those long ago festivals when its founder, Dr. Patrick W. Gainer held sway on the Glenville State campus.

Those days have faded away, not by choice, but by times changing beyond our control: death has taken both its founder and those participants of long-ago who knew first-hand and performed stories, ballads, and music handed down to them by forebears, ScotchIrish mostly, brought with them in their quest for a new life in the hills and valleys of what would become West Virginia.

I may be the only one left who worked directly with Gainer in the beginning festivals. I hold that brief experience as the most intense I ever devoted to a cause, and it could be called nothing but that to be involved with Gainer, whose efforts were more than a cause, but rather an obsession to preserve a fast-disappearing culture once so predominate in our hills.

My first experiences began around 1953 as a photographer. My training in photography stemmed from a high school science teacher who worked after school with several of us, first in radio and then into photography. I built my first crystal radio and then later moved to advanced radio kits, picking up on earphones Radio Moscow and ham operator, Harold Ferguson, a student teacher, who boomed in as W8FUS Tanner, West Virginia, calling CQ, the ham code for anyone wishing conversation on the air.

After moving from radio we began photography, taking pictures and doing our own processing in a darkroom at school. I became proficient enough that I began shooting pictures for Linn Hickman, who published the county newspapers. That credit line on a photo was enough to kick in the vanity, fortunately, to inspire me on, which, I am certain you can still see remains of today here with my Herald writing dabblers.

My first year in college, E. B. Elder, who was the journalism instructor, knew of my background and one day when I was standing around close by, he handed me a camera--a Speed Graphic, then the workhorse of pro news photographers--and said "I hear you take pictures," and I suddenly became the official unofficial photographer for Glenville State College.

From that pregnant beginning I attended my first folk festival, taking photos of the performers and events on campus, including square dancing, and I was drawn immediately into the mystique that so enveloped Dr. Gainer.

When I heard those heartsung ballads, they brought memories of my grandmaw who came across the mountains from Virginia as a little girl to resettle in Lewis County. She would sit in her rocking chair and sing such ballads as "Barbry Ellen," one of the variations of that mournful story--and most dealt with death and dying, ever a dark threatening presence in the lives of those early settlers.

I heard her voice in those early festival performers, undiluted by the curse Gainer saw overwhelming them: radio and its rise whereby once self-entertainment prevailed, now radio was remaking into listeners and, worse, changing the performance and presentation of the old songs.

The one word never to express around Gainer was "hillb---y. He saw that as the lowest cuss word one could utter, and much of radio presented hillb---y music, an accepted term back then that later became politically correct as "country music." It was somewhat difficult for me as I liked hillb---y music, but I soon learned I must never express it.!

My biggest thrill was when Gainer asked me to join him, with camera, on some of his travels into the hills to discover the folk musicians. He taught a summer course at Glenville State and many of his students were teachers coming in for summer upgrades. They would tell him of people they knew who fit his requirements for authentic folk music.

Gainer would carry with him the reel to reel tape recorder, the latest of the day, and set off, and I with my camera would tag along in his Studebaker, a thrill in itself as he drove like a demon. I can still remember, and captured, the expressions of those old folks, and they were all old, as for the first time they heard their voice played back.

I captured some of those expressions. One old timer, I think in Clay County, was singing as I flashed away with the powerful flashbulb used with my camera. After he had heard his voice, he suddenly exclaimed "Ain't that there lightn' fierce tonight!"

Elder was a stringer for the Charleston Gazette. One of his stories about the sale of the jail in Sand Fork took off not only nationally, but internationally, after a broadcast on the Lowell Thomas radio news.

He put out much publicity about the Folk Festival and gradually as I became a stringer myself for the Parkersburg News and other publications I began my own writings. After Elder left the Glenville spot, my coverage gained excellent space in the Gazette and was featured in the Gazette's state magazine section, with on one occasion a cover picture I had shot.

Our first national coverage came with Ford Times, a little magazine put out by the auto company. Charles Harper, an artist from French Creek did freelance for it, and he attended the festival and provided sketches and a short write-up, using my photos as models for some of his drawings. Later we were covered in the Pittsburgh Press by a noted folk lore writer.

We were receiving excellent publicity for those early festivals. TV was in its early stages and Gainer appeared on both Huntington and Charleston stations several summers in a row. TV was live in those days--no taping--and I was invited along. The stations would then use my black and white pics of performers on their news segments, inflating my ego greatly.

We had two "stars" in those days: Uncle Pat Cogar from Gem in Braxton County and Aunt Mattie Long, also from Braxton. ( The terms "uncle" and "aunt" were used as respect in the hills for many older folks.) Uncle Pat played the fiddle and Aunt Mattie sang as she sat at the old-fashioned spinning wheel. They began to relish the attention and became somewhat star struck by it all.

Getting the performers to and from the festival was often difficult. Unless they had relatives or someone willing to drive them, it was up to Gainer to figure out. Many times he would do the job himself, traveling late into the night taking them home. A refrain I heard more than once from crowd-shy old timers was "I wouldn't a come, if'n I hadn't takin' a likein' fer ye," a tribute to the high esteem held for Gainer.

My final year of direct work with the festival came in 1958. I had left the college and accepted a job in Charleston. The stringer for Time magazine, a Daily Mail reporter, called me and said that Time had asked him to cover the festival but he was unable to do so. Would I, as he knew of my work. Would I? Time magazine!!

I found myself that year putting all my efforts into writing a review of the presentation of the program presented at the college and of the festival itself. The copy had to be in Clarksburg by a certain time that night to be sent to Time by Western Union telegraph--no wireless back then!

I found myself hurrying and with Shirley we set out, zipping through Weston, when suddenly I saw flashing lights and the tip of a siren. A Weston cop had nailed me for speeding. I explained my hurry and pointed to the "press" sticker on my rear window. He was certainly taken aback by a story I'm sure he hadn't heard before, but he told me to proceed but to stop at the station on the way back. I did and received the first and only speeding ticket of my life.

To make the story short, Time didn't use the story, saying the Newport Jazz festival had knocked us out, but after learning of my speeding ticket sent a check for it and also rewarded me with a payment for my efforts. I proudly have those pay stubs, a reminder of how I missed just this much-----making the big time.

As this festival plays out as it has over the years of Gainer's departing, the town has most of the activities. It has proved a tourist boom of sorts. Gainer had mixed feelings and was reluctant to let the events leave the college campus. He was afraid of losing control and the authenticity he had established.

Evolution has moved forward. With Gainer long gone, the performers of the past long gone with perhaps with only one exception I know about, Phyllis Marks who is 90, the town now has pretty much taken over. There is still a program at the college and an effort to present as much of the material that can be retained, but the years take a toll.

There will never again be those originals such as Uncle Pat and Aunt Mattie. They are long gone and with them the folk culture they carried from those ancestors, a tradition long held before the modern world first destroyed it by radio and later television or just by it slipping away on its own.

And a final word about the word. Dr. Gainer never forgave Jim Comstock for naming his publication the West Virginia Hillb---y. Jim could not have been more helpful in his publicity and his total commitment to Gainer, but with Dr. Pat you could not use such a filthy word.

I sometimes wonder what he would think of my own writings about Big Puf and its natives. I would hope that he might see my efforts to portray some of our people as poverty and politics, among other setbacks, have remade them.

He was quite tolerant of me except on one occasion when I was awed by a fiddle player who had performed with a famous radio group. The fiddle player was traveling with us to a TV show and was also gifted with the original music that Gainer needed.

I was told in a gentle manner that we didn't praise the distortion of radio and its hillb---y influence. I miss Dr. Patrick Gainer and the cause I was once so solidly entwined in.

I have never found another!