Café Discovery: History of a Song

(noon – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

I was messing around with music by The Weavers this morning.  One thing lead to another (first to Hudie Ledbetter, then Woody Guthrie) and there I was with the story of a song.  It was much more complicated than I thought.

There once was a British racehorse, born in 1741, named Skewball (or Squball or Skuball).  He won a lot of races, including a famous one on the plains of Kildare, Ireland.  The race was so renowned, songs were written.

Of such beginnings, legends are born.

Back in the 18th Century, songs were generally distributed on broadsides.  According to one such broadside, in the archives at Cambridge, the words were as follows:

Scew Ball

Come gentlemen sportsmen I pray listen all,

I will sing you a song in praise of Scew Ball,

And how he came over you shall understand,

It was by Squire Merwin the pearl of our land.

And of his late actions that I’ve heard before,

He was lately challeng’d by one Sir Ralph Gore,

For five hundred guineas on the plains of Kildare,

To run with Miss Sportly, that charming grey mare.

Scew Ball he then hearing the wager was laid,

Unto his kind master said, don’t be afraid,

For if on my side you thousands lay would,

I will rig in your castle a fine mass of gold.

The day being come, and the cattle walk’d forth,

The people came flocking from East, South and North

For to view all the sporters, as I do declare,

And venture their money all on the grey mare.

Squire Mirwin then smiling unto them did say,

Come gentlemen all that’s got money to lay,

And you that have hundreds, come I’ll lay you all,

For I will venture thousands on famous Scew Ball.

The day being come, and the cattle walk’d out,

Squire Mirwin he order’d his rider to mount,

And all the spectators for to clear the way,

The time being come, not one moment delay.

These cattle were mounted, and away they did fly,

Scew ball like an arrow past Miss Sportly by,

The people went up for to see them go round,

They said in their hearts that they ne’er touch’d the ground.

But as they were running, in the midst of the sport,

Squire Mirwin to his rider began this discourse,

O loving kind rider come tell unto me,

How far is Miss Sportly this moment from me?

O loving kind master you bear a great stile,

The grey mare’s behind me a long English mile,

If the saddle maintains, I’ll warrant you there,

You ne’er will be beat on the plains of Kildare.

But as they were running by the distance chair,

The gentlemen cry’d out, Scew Ball never fear,

Altho’ in this country thou was ne’er seen before,

Thou has beaten Miss Sportly, and broke Sir Ralph Gore.

Another version of this song is entitled The Plains of Kildare, by Irish musician Andy Irvine.

The song migrated to America of course.  And the name of the horse changed to Stewball.  We don’t have youtube of Woody Guthrie’s interpretation, but we can hear his words sung by Joan Baez and Dan Fogelberg.


Woody also did what was called an American interpretation, a call and response with Hudie Ledbetter singing the lead:

But of course, most of us actually know the words as sung by Peter, Paul and Mary and/or the Hollies…and so may think the horse had a drinking problem..


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    • Robyn on July 5, 2009 at 20:21

    I meant this to go up at 3pm eastern. :-/

    Then again, I’m probably the only one of us who found this interesting.

  1. Sometimes I can watch a bunch of YTs before it crashes…sometimes I can’t.  So I think I’d better not check out what look like great vids.  But thanks for this: I did read the lyrics, at least!

  2. after listening to the Peter, Paul and Mary and then The Hollies versions, and comparing the lyrics to Scew Ball.

    I have to assume the song has retained its original melody since the lyrics to Scew Ball fit the rhythm of the recorded versions. If the songs were printed as broadsides then would they be like sheet music? Or would it only be lyrics?

    Great stuff, Robyn. Thanks!

  3. of songs is fascinating. Songs seem to me to be an art form that is like music in general passed down orally, and via people it transitions from culture to culture via popular music. I love the blends of music we here in America have, the merging of immigrants songs from Africa to Scotland. The couplings which are stil alive and evolving.

    Stewball has always been a favorite of mine. I first heard the Peter, Paul and Mary version. Thanks for this delightful essay on the back story of a great song. How many more songs we know and love have made this journey to their present state? Fun detective work.    

    • Robyn on July 6, 2009 at 19:06

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