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Skewball was the name of a British racehorse, most famous as the subject of a ballad. The horse was foaled in 1741, and originally owned by Francis, 2nd Earl of Godolphin, and later sold. His name has been recorded as "Squball", "Sku-ball", or "Stewball". He won many races in England, and a famous one in Ireland, which is generally the subject of the song of the same name. Popular legend has Skewball belonging to an Arthur Marvell. Based on the horse's name, Skewball was likely a skewbald horse, though there is speculation that he was a bay.



There are two major different versions of the sporting ballad, generally titled either "Skewball" or "Stewball"; the latter is more popular in America. There are multiple variations within the two major divisions. Versions date at least as far back as the 18th century, appearing on numerous broadsides. In both songs the title horse is the underdog in the race, up against a favored grey mare (usually called either "Griselda" or "Molly"), and although in most versions of Stewball the winning horse triumphs due to the stumbling of the lead horse, Skewball wins simply by being the faster horse in the end. Probably the most significant lyrical difference in the songs is the conversation Skewball has with his jockey, while Stewball behaves more like a typical horse and does not speak.

American versions were sung and adapted by slaves in the Southern United States, and have Stewball racing in California, Texas, and Kentucky. British versions, when the setting is mentioned, often place the race in Kildare, Ireland, leading some to believe that the song is actually Irish in origin. The fact that these accounts still imply that the horse's nationality was English, and they celebrate a victory over a horse that is presumably Irish, makes it likely the song is originally English, and its setting in Ireland is due to it being the site of Skewball's most famous race.

Roud Folk Song Index 456.


"...comes aprancin' and adancin' my darling Stewball."

A notable recording is by American folk legend Woody Guthrie, who included an English and an American interpretation (both entitled Stewball) on tape, and recorded in Volume 4 of The Asch Recordings (1930-1940). The American interpretation is a chain-gang song sung by Lead Belly and Guthrie with an African American 'call and response' style, while the English interpretation is derived from the traditional British broadside ballad, and sung to a cowboy waltz tune. The American interpretation has Stewball as being born in California with the famed race against the grey mare taking place in Dallas, Texas. Lead Belly recorded several versions of this song, and the music and lyrics from his version appear in American Ballads and Folk Songs by Lomax and Lomax.

Lead Belly's American chain-gang version of Stewball was covered in the 1950s by The Weavers, and then by British skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan. Guthrie's cowboy version of the British ballad, with the same lyrics but a different tune, was recorded by John Herald and the Greenbriar Boys, and popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary. Other versions of this version of Stewball include Joan Baez's on Joan Baez/5 (1964), The Hollies on Would You Believe (1966), and the Chad Mitchell Trio on Reflecting (1964). The 1971 John Lennon song "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" has a similar meter and tune [1], as does the commercial jingo "Come back to Jamaica". Popular British versions include recordings by A. L. Lloyd, Martin Carthy, and Steeleye Span on the album Ten Man Mop, or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again. An American version following the British tradition is recorded by Broadside Electric on Black-edged Visiting Card. The song has also been recorded by Irish musicians Andy Irvine and Paul Brady as "The Plains of Kildare."

Additionally, a French cover has been recorded by Hugues Aufray, becoming one of Aufray's biggest hits. However, this version is unlike the English versions. Aufray's version of the song takes the perspective of a man recalling an experience as a ten-year old boy. His father believes that Stewball will win a race, so he puts all his money and assets into this venture. Toward the end of the race, Stewball tragically falls. The veterinarian finishes him off with a single shot. This is the first time that the narrator witnesses his father cry. Aufray's version is very different from other interpretations in that it features Stewball not winning his race and dying due to an injury.


  1. Ger Tillekens (Sept. 1998). "Baroque and folk and ... John Lennon". http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/VOLUME01/Baroque_Folk_Lennon.shtml. Retrieved 2008-04-10. 

See also

  • Johnny Ace
    • Pledging My Love

External links


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