Born in Parkersburg but reared in rural Gilmer County, Gainer grew up within a family bearing a rich singing tradition. He often credited his grandfather F.C. Gainer with providing his early musical education and his chief inspiration.
After attending the Glenville Normal School, Gainer enrolled at West Virginia University in the 1920s. At the time the university was recognized as a national hub of folk music scholarship. His instructors included John Harrington Cox, author of the first significant American folksong study - Folk Songs of the South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925) and Louis Watson Chappell whose landmark book John Henry: A Folklore Study (Jena: Frommanische Verlag, 1933) established a standard in ballad scholarship. It was under their tutelage that Gainer first caught the ballad hunting bug. Together with Chappell, and at other times with fellow student and Gilmer Countian Carey Woofter, Gainer made his initial forays into the countryside in search of surviving remnants of a fading musical tradition.
Receiving both baccalaureate and master's degrees from West Virginia University, Gainer secured employment in 1928 at St. Louis University where he served the dual role of English professor and glee clubs director. He simultaneously found time to embark on doctoral study under the renowned folklorist Archer Taylor at the University of Chicago. He received his Ph.D. five years later, not from Chicago but from St. Louis where he continued to teach until 1942.
Having established a considerable reputation as a music director, singer and radio personality during his St. Louis years, Gainer was invited to direct USO activities in the Caribbean and South Atlantic during World War II. At the war's end he returned to his native state, accepting a position in the English Department at West Virginia University where he remained until his retirement in 1972.
An indefatigable worker, 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. He found the term "hillbilly music" to be particularly offensive and considered "hillbilly" to be a shallow caricature which threatened both the existence of authentic folksong and the self-respect of the mountain people. In liner notes to his record albums of Folk Songs of the Allegheny Mountains he attempted to set the record straight:
'In recent years there has been much confusion of "hillbilly" songs with genuine folk songs. There is, of course, no relation between the two. The various vocal and instrumental styles of the modern "hillbilly" singers and musicians are a fairly recent development and were never known to the genuine mountaineers until they were heard on radio. Indeed, the word "hillbilly" was until recent years considered a term of contempt by real hill dwellers.
The people who settled in the Allegheny Mountains were lovers of freedom and were willing to accept great hardships in order to be free. They were independent, industrious and courageous. If they sometimes lacked an abundance of book-learning, they made up for it by storing their minds with a vast treasury of knowledge among which was the best that had ever been heard in story and song.'
Gainer's message found a receptive audience wherever he went. His Appalachian folklore course at West Virginia University was perhaps the most popular class ever offered on campus. The Extension courses and frequent lecture recitals he spread around the state were as well received. Folk festivals, such as the still flourishing West Virginia Folk Festival, which he himself established at Glenville in 1950, provided another forum.
A series of publications including Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills (Seneca Books, 1975) and Witches, Ghosts, and Signs: Folklore of the Southern Appalachian Mountains (Seneca Books, 1975) extended his discoveries and teachings to folklore enthusiasts throughout the country. Generally less pedantic than the publications of his academic colleagues, Gainer's various works were addressed to the general public. His goals were to disseminate and rekindle.
Blessed with a fine tenor voice and a flair for the dramatic, Gainer was at his best in song. Consequently, of all his various publications, the two albums of Folk Songs of the Allegheny Mountains (Folk Heritage Recordings, 1963, n.d.) achieved the greatest degree of popularity. One critic considered the pair "better publicity for West Virginia than any amount of literature distributed by Chambers of Commerce." Many people apparently agreed with this assessment, for Gainer was the recipient of countless honors and awards ranging from "Most Loyal Mountaineer" to "The Order of the Thirty-Fifth Star."
Patrick Ward Gainer (1904-1981) performs a selection of British folksongs cataloged in Francis James Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads as discovered in Appalachia.
Child Ballads Number 1: Riddles Wisely Expounded (The Devils Questions)
Child Ballads Number 2A: The Elfin Knight (Are Any of You Going to the Calhoun Fair)
Child Ballads Number 2B: The Elfin Knight (Oh Where Are You Going)
Child Ballads Number 4: Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight (The Six Kings' Daughters)
Child Ballads Number 7: Earl Brand (The Seven Sons)
Child Ballads Number 10A: The Twa Sisters (The Sister's Murder)
Child Ballads Number 10B: Variant of The Twa Sisters (The Sister's Murder)
Child Ballads Number 11: The Cruel Brother (The Bride's Murder)
Child Ballads Number 12A: John Randall (John Ellis My Son)
Child Ballads Number 12B: John Randall (Johnny Randall)
Child Ballads Number 12C: John Randall (Childrens' Version)
Child Ballads Number 13: Edward (The Father's Murder)