> John Kirkpatrick > Songs > Bow Down to the Bonny Broom
> Cyril Tawney > Songs > The Three Sisters

Riddles Wisely Expounded / The Devil's Nine Questions /
Juniper, Gentle and Rosemary / Bow Down to the Bonny Broom /
The Three Sisters

[ Roud 161 ; Child 1 ; Ballad Index C001 ; Bodleian Roud 161 ; trad.]

Riddles Wisely Expounded is F.J. Child's ballad #1. Variants of it are known with several titles.

Texas Gladden of Salem, Virginia, sang The Devil's Nine Questions in August 1941 to Alan Lomax. This recording was included in 2001 on her Rounder anthology in the Alan Lomax Collection, Ballad Legacy. The album's booklet noted:

This is an extremely rare ballad and is the first in Child’s canon. Alfreda Peel collected it in 1922 and then taught it to Texas Gladden. As in other ballads, the devil is present and personified, and referred to as meaner than womankind (a theme also found in The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife).

Cyril Tawney sang The Three Sisters in 1969 on his album The Outlandish Knight: Folks Songs from Devon and Cornwall. He commented in the sleeve notes:

Both this ballad and The Three Knights on Side Two are taken from the 1823 edition of Davies Gilbert's Some Ancient Christmas Carols where they appear as part of a secular “appendix”. Although Gilbert does not definitely state they are from Cornwall he gives them from his own recollection, and as he was a native of St. Erth we can assume they are Cornish versions of these two ancient ballads. The Three Sisters is here incomplete, Gilbert being unable to recall the third question and answer.

Jeff Wesley sang Ninety-Nine and Ninety to John Howson at Whittlebury, Northamptonshire, in 1988. This track was released in the late 1980s on his Veteran Tapes cassette Brisk and Bonny Lad (VT116) and in 2006 on the Veteran CD anthology of English traditional folk singers, It Was on a Market Day—Two. Mike Yates noted:

Professor Child called this Riddles Wisely Expounded and it is one of a number of ballads that involve riddling (or wit-combat to use the modern folklorist's term). The earliest known version comes from a mid 15th century manuscript, and tells of the Devil trying to outsmart a woman into becoming his lover, or leman. The woman answers the Devil's riddles and so avoids his power. By the 17th and 18th centuries the ballad had appeared on several blackletter broadsides printed in London. In these versions the Devil is absent and the woman faces a more secular suitor (although the ballad's refrain, Lay the bent to the bonny broom, does suggest that herbs are being mentioned as a protection against evil). Jeff's version of the ballad was picked up from an American singer, probably Burl Ives, who may have sung a version collected from a Mrs Pill Martin of Virginia in 1922, although the version is also very similar to that collected from another Virginian singer, Texas Gladden (see her CD Ballad Legacy).

Pete Coe sang Juniper, Gentle and Rosemary in 1997 on his CD Long Company. He noted:

In some versions of this song the person asking the questions is The Devil, not a rich suitor. I detect some 19th century moralistic leaning in her answers, though she was obviously bright and well-rehearsed.

Magpie Lane sang Juniper, Gentle and Rosemary in 2002 on their CD Six for Gold; this track was also included on the Wild Goose anthology Songs of Witchcraft and Magic.

Jon Boden learned Juniper, Gentle and Rosemary from Magpie Lane and sang it as the 30 March 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Brian Peters sang Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom in 1997 on his CD Sharper Than the Thorn (which got its title from a phrase in this song).

Kate Burke and Ruth Hazleton sang Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom on their 2000 album A Thousand Miles or More.

John Kirkpatrick sang the English song Bow Down to the Bonny Broom, and Bruce Molsky its American variant The Devil's Nine Question in 2005 on the Fellside anthology Song Links 2—A Celebration of English Traditional Songs and Their American Variants. Paul Adams noted:

This ballad is about a test the Devil sets a clever woman: if she fails to answer his nine riddles correctly, she will be his. Some English variants have lost the devil, and made the knight simply what he claims to be, and the girl's reward for answering all the questions correctly is to marry him.

Here are John Kirkpatrick's own notes: “Based on the song that Francis James Child rather unwisely christened Riddles Wisely Expounded in his book The English and Scottish Popular Ballads published in the 1880s. This is a compilation of some of the Child versions, with additional phrases from verses found in Wiltshire by Alfred Williams a few years later. The tune started off as the 17th century Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom—but it hasn't ended up like that.”

The Demon Barbers sang A Noble Riddle Wisely Expounded in 2005 on their CD Waxed. They got their tune from Roy Palmer's Book of British Ballads.

The Askew Sisters sang A Noble Riddle Wisely Expounded in 2007 on their CD All in a Garden Green. They noted:

Versions of this ancient ballad can be found dating back as far as 1444, where a young woman eludes the Devil by answering his riddles. This version comes from a street ballad issued in 1675 and has lost its supernatural qualities. The Devil has become a handsome knight, and the youngest sister gains the right to marry him by answering his riddles. We first heard this ballad from the singing of Bryony Griffith who sings the earlier version.

This video shows them at Sidmouth Folkweek 2007:

Hector Gilchrist sang Lay the Bent tae the Bonny Broom in 2014 on his WildGoose CD Days o' Grace. He noted:

This is one of the many versions of an old ballad collected throughout the United Kingdom. The devil is disguised as a knight in this case, and poses his “questions three”, which intriguingly seem to become six! Well you never could trust The Deil.

Sophie Crawford sang 99 & 90 on her 2018 album Silver Pin. She noted:

I got this song from a singaround that I ran when it was taking place in Bacon Street in East London, a woman called Jess Collins came and sang it. I think it is an Appalachian version of Riddles Widely Expounded.

Lyrics

Jeff Wesley sings Ninety-Nine and Ninety Sophie Crawford sings 99 & 90

You must answer my questions nine
    Sing ninety-nine and ninety
Are you God’s own or one of mine?
Are you the weaver’s bonny?

Now you must answer my questions nine
    Sing ninety-nine and ninety
For you aren't God’s, you are one of mine?
And who is the weaver’s bonny?

What is whiter than the milk?
And what is softer than the silk?
Are you the weaver’s bonny?

What is whiter than the milk?
And what is softer than the silk?
And who is the weaver’s bonny?

Snow is whiter than the milk
And skin is softer than the silk
And I am the weaver’s bonny.

Snow is whiter than the milk
And down is softer than the silk
And I am the weaver’s bonny.

What is higher than a tree?
And what is deeper than the sea?
Are you the weaver’s bonny?

What is higher than a tree?
And what is deeper than the sea?
And who is the weaver’s bonny?

Heaven is higher than a tree
And hell is deeper than the sea.
And I am the weaver’s bonny.

Heaven is higher than a tree
And hell is deeper than the sea.
And I am the weaver’s bonny.

What is louder than a horn?
And what is sharper than a thorn?
Are you the weaver’s bonny?

What is louder than a horn?
And what is sharper than a thorn?
And who is the weaver’s bonny?

Thunder is louder than a horn
And death is sharper than a thorn.
And I am the weaver’s bonny.

Thunder is louder than a horn
And death is sharper than a thorn.
And I am the weaver’s bonny.

What is more innocent than a lamb?
And what is meaner than womankind?
Are you the weaver’s bonny?

What is more innocent than a lamb?
And what is meaner than mankind?
And who is the weaver’s bonny?

A babe’s more innocent than a lamb
And she-devil is meaner than womankind.
And I am the weaver’s bonny.

A babe’s more innocent than a lamb
And the devil is meaner than mankind.
And I am the weaver’s bonny.

You’ve answered my questions nine.
You are God’s own not one of mine
And you are the weaver’s bonny.

Now you’ve answered my questions nine.
So you are God’s, you aren't one of mine
And you are the weaver’s bonny.

John Kirkpatrick sings Bow Down to the Bonny Broom

There was a knight riding from the West,
    Bow down to the bonny broom,
What he loved most, what he loved the best,
    Bonny lass, once and twice and three times round full soon.

O many a mile did he ride along
Till he came to a door that was wide and strong.

He sat him down all upon a stone
Till he saw three sisters coming home.

He knock-ed loud on the sisters' gate,
He knock-ed long and he knock-ed late.

The youngest sister drew back the pin,
All in a passion he came riding in.

“O answer me these questions three
Or surely you shall lie with me.

“And answer me three more questions still
Or surely you shall give me my will.

“And answer me these questions nine
Or surely you shall be mine, all mine.

“And answer not my three times three
In a thousand pieces I will tear thee.

“O what is louder than a horn?
And what is sharper than a thorn?

“And what is whiter than the milk?
And what is softer than the silk?

“O what is colder than the clay?
And what is broader than the way?

“O what is higher than a tree?
And what is deeper than the sea?

“And what is worse than a woman's tongue?
O answer me, as I'm my father's son!”

“O thunder's louder than the horn
And hunger's sharper than a thorn.

“And snow is whiter than the milk
And down is softer than the silk.

“And death is colder than the clay
And love is broader than the way.

“And heaven is higher than a tree
And hell is deeper than the sea.

“And the devil is worse than a woman's tongue
And you Sir Knight you are the devil's father's son.”

And when he heard her name his name,
O he rose up in a fire of flame.

He clapped his wings and aloud did cry,
In a flame of fire away did fly.

Pete Coe sings Juniper, Gentle and Rosemary

There were three sisters fair and bright,
    Juniper, gentle and rosemary,
And they three loved one valiant knight,
    As the dew flies over the mulberry tree.

And the eldest sister let him in,
And she barred the door with a silver pin.

And the middle sister made the bed,
And laid soft pillows beneath his head.

But the youngest sister that same night
She resolved to wed with that valiant knight.

“Oh it's you must answer my questions three,
And then, fair maid, we can married be.

“Oh, what is louder than the horn?
And what is sharper than any thorn?”

“Oh, rumour is louder than the horn,
And hunger is sharper than any thorn.”

“And what is greener than the grass?
And what is smoother than the glass?”

“Oh, envy is greener than the grass,
And flatter is smoother than the glass.”

“And what is keener than the axe?
And what is softer than melting wax?”

“Oh, revenge is keener than the axe,
And love is softer than melting wax.”

“Now you have answered my questions three,
And now, fair maid, we can married be.”