Riddles Wisely Expounded / The Devil's Nine Questions /
Juniper, Gentle and Rosemary / Bow Down to the Bonny Broom /
The Three Sisters
Riddles Wisely Expounded is F.J. Child's ballad #1. Variants of it are known with several titles.
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.
Pete Coe sang Juniper, Gentle and Rosemary in 1997 on his CD Long Company. He commented in his liner notes:
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.
Jon Boden learned Juniper, Gentle and Rosemary from Magpie Lane and sang it as the March 30, 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 commented in the liner notes:
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 Askew Sisters sang A Noble Riddle Wisely Expounded in 2007 on their CD All in a Garden Green. 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.
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.”