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  Skewball: The Ballads
graphic


In America, the Stewball ballad was "...most popular in the Negro south, where the winning horse is known variously as 'Stewball' or 'Kimball," and was apparently one of the chain-gang songs. The song was recorded by Leadbelly in 1940 (cd available via the Smithsonian Museum), by Joan Baez (album title Joan Baez/5), by Peter Paul and Mary, and a number of successive artists.

There is a closely-related American song, called Molly and Tenbrooks (also Run, Molly, Run; Old Tim Brooks; Tim Brooks; The Race Horse Song), which celebrates the famous east-west four-mile Kentucky match between the California mare Mollie McCarty and the great Kentucky racehorse Ten Broeck in 1878.

There are several versions of the Molly/Ten Broeck saga, as well, and Folklorist D.K. Wilgus believed there was a connection between the Skewball ballad and that of Molly and "Tenbrooks." In the real race, which Ten Broeck won, Mollie was distanced in the first (and final) heat, an incident seen in the Baez version of Stewball.
 

Up until the 19th century, broadsides were the most inexpensive means of disseminating information in Great Britain, the earliest dating to the sixteenth century. Popular songs printed on a single side of a sheet of paper sold for a penny or less, and treated a broad variety of subjects, from the political to biblical, from medieval romance and very old ballads to contemporary events treated in a satirical vein. The ballad broadsides were often set to already familiar tunes. They were frequently illustrated with woodcuts.

The Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford has a substantial collection of over 25,000 items, in named collections which have been donated over the past 300 years. Among these are a collection bequeathed to the University in 1975 from Walter N.H. Harding, and within the 15,000 broadside ballads in this collection are several versions of Skewball. To see images and actual appearance of the original broadsides, and the thousands more in the Bodleian collection, all organized in a very useful on-line database (search for ("Skewball"), please visit the Bodleian Library Broadsides Ballad collection.

 

Some recordings of this song in various versions include: "Timbrooks and Molly" (Warde Ford, The Hole in the Wall (AFS 4210A1, 1939, AMMEN/Cowell); "Molly and Tenbrooks" (Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys (Columbia 20612, 1949); "Molly and Tenbrooks" (Sonny Osborne (Kentucky 605, n.d.); "Molly and Tenbrooks" (The Stanley Brothers (Rich-R-Tone 418, 1948). The versions were noted by Wilgus in Kentucky Folklore Record V. II, No. 3; Vol. II, No. 4.

Below are two of the five versions of Skewball from the Bodleian ballad broadsides; the one on the right is dated 1784, the one on the left undated, but it appears to be the older of the two. To show how lyrics change over time, the Steeleye Span version of Skewball (from Ten Man Mop or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again, available on cd from Shanachie Records Corp. ( 1989)) and the version (Stewball) sung by Joan Baez on the album Joan Baez/5 (Vanguard: VSD-79160), the latter set to a tune by the Greenbriar Boys. Beneath those are different versions of the saga of Mollie McCarty and Ten Broeck, where Skewball/Stewball starts making an appearance.

Skewball (Harding B-6 (54) 00668)

You Gentlemen Sportsmen I pray listen all
I'll sing you a song in the praise of Skewball
And how they came over you shall understand
By one Squire Irvine the Mell of [of] our land.
500 bright guineas on the plains of Kildare
I'll bet upon, Sportsmen, that bonny-grey mare
Skewball hearing the wager, the wager was laid
He said loving master, its don't be afraid.
For on my side thou'st laid thousands of pounds
I'll rig in thy castle a fine mass of gold.
Squire Irvine he smiled, and thus he did say,
You gentlemen-sportsmen to-morrow's the day
Your saddles and bridles, and horses prepare,
For we will away th [to] the plains of Kildare.
The day being come, & the horses bro't out,
Squire Irvine he order'd his rider to mount.
All the people then went to see them go round
They swore in their hearts that they ne'er
touch'd the ground.
And as they were riding this was the discourse
The grey mare will never touch this horse.
O, loving kind rider come tell unto me,
How far is the grey mare behind you said he...
O loving master you bear a great smile,
Grey mare is behind me a large English mile
For in this country I was ne'er seen before
Thou hast won the race & broken lord Gore.
Skewball (Harding B-25 1784 10198)

Ye gentlemen sportsmen I pray listen all,
And I'll sing you a song in praise of skewball,
And how he came over you shall understand,
It was esquire Mirvin a peer of our land.
And of his late actions is I have heard before,
And how he was challenged by one Sir Raph Gore,
For five hundred guines on the plains of kilder,
To run with Miss Sportsly that charming grey mare.
Skewball then he hearing the wager was laid,
He to his kind master said be not afraid.
For I on my side you thousands will hold,
I'll lay on your castle a fine mass of gold.
The time being come and the cattle led out,
The people came flocking from east, west, and south,
To beat all the Sportsmen I vow and declare,
They'd enter their money all on the grey mare.
Squire Mirvin he smiled and thus he did say,
Come gentlemen sportsmen that's money to lay.
All you that's got hundreds I will hold you all,
For I will lay thousands on famous Skewball.
Squire Mirvin he smiled, and thus he did say,
Ye gentlemen sportsmen to morrow's the day,
Your horses and saddles and bridles prepare,
For we must away to the plains of kildar.
The time being come and the cattle walk'd out,
Squire Mirvin he order'd his rider to mount,
With all the spectators to clear the way,
The time being come not a moment delay,
These cattle were mounted away they fly,
Skewball like an arrow past Miss Sportsly did fly,
And the people stept up for to see them go round,
They swore in their hearts he ne'er touch the ground.
And as they were just in the midst of their sport,
squire Mirvin* to his rider begun this discourse,
O loving kind rider come tell unto me,
How far is Miss Sportsly this moment from thee.
O loving kind master you bear a great style
The Grey Mare is behind me a full English mile,
If the saddle maintains as I warrent you there
We ne'er shall be beat on the plains of Kildar.
And as they were running past the distance chair,
the gentlemen cry'd Skewball never fear,
Although in this country thou wast never seen before,
Thou beating Miss Sportsly has broke Sir Ralph Gore.

*Corrected the next year to: Skewball to his rider began this discourse

Skewball (Steeleye Span)

You gallant sportsmen all, come listen to my story
It's of the bold Skewball, that noble racing pony
Arthur Marvel was the man that brought bold Skewball over
He's the diamond of the land and he rolls about in clover

The horses were brought out with saddle, whip and bridle
And the gentlemen did shout when they saw the noble riders
And some did shout hurray, the air was thick with curses
And on the grey Griselda the sportsmen laid their purses

The trumpet it did sound, they shot off like an arrow
They scarcely touched the ground for the going it was narrow
Then Griselda passed him by and the gentlemen did holler
The grey will win the day and Skewball he will follow

Then halfway round the course up spoke the noble rider
I fear we must fall back for she's going like a tyger.
Up spoke the noble horse, ride on my noble master
For we're half way round the course and now we'll see who's faster

And when they did discourse, bold Skewball flew like lightning
They chased around the course and the grey mare she was taken
Ride on my noble lord, for the good two hundred guineas
The saddle shall be of gold when we pick up our winnings

Past the winning post bold Skewball proved quite handy
And horse and rider both ordered sherry, wine and brandy
And then they drank a health unto Miss Griselda
And all that lost their money on the sporting plains of Kildare
Stewball (Joan Baez/5)

Stewball was a good horse
He wore a high head,
And the mane on his foretop
Was as fine as silk thread.

I rode him in England,
I rode him in Spain,
And I never did lose, boys,
I always did gain.

So come all you gamblers,
Wherever you are,
And don't bet your money
On that little gray mare.

Most likely she'll stumble,
Most likely she'll fall,
But you never will lose, boys,
On my noble Stewball.

As they were a-ridin'
'Bout halfway around,
That gray mare she stumbled
And fell on the ground.

And away out yonder,
Ahead of them all,
Came a prancin' an' dancin'
My noble Stewball.

Stewball: A Version
Source: Fiddle Players' Discussion List, Meghan Merker

Way out in California
Where Stewball was born
All the jockeys said old Stewball
Lord, he blew there in a storm

CHORUS: Bet on Stewball and you might win, win, win
Bet on Stewball and you might win

All the jockeys in the country
Say he blew there in a storm
All the women in the country
Say he never was known

When the horses were saddled
And the word was given: Go
Old Stewball he shot out
Like an arrow from a bow

The old folks they hollered
The young folks they bawled
The children said look, look
At that no good Stewball
Stewball: Another Version
Source: Fiddle Players' Discussion List, Meghan Merker

There's a big race (uh-huh), down in Dallas (uh-huh)
Don't you wish you (...) were there? (...)
you would bet your ( ) bottom dollar ( )
On that iron ( ) grey mare ( )
Bet on Stewball & you might win, win, win
Bet on Stewball & you might win!

Way out / in California / when old Stewball / was born
All the jockeys / in the nation / said he blew there / in a storm

Now the value / of his harness / has never / been told
His sadlle / pure silver / & his bridle / solid gold

Old Stewball / was a racehorse / Old Molly / was too
Old Molly / she stumbled / Old Stewball / he flew

Run Molly Run
Source: Kingston Trio ("Goin Places")

Chorus: Run Molly, run (oh, Molly). Run Molly, run.
Long John's gonna beat you, beneath the shinin' sun.

Long John was the youngest horse and Molly was the old.
Molly was an old grey mare and he was a stallion bold,
oh, Lordy, he was a stallion bold.

Long John said to Molly, "You're runnin' your last race
'Cause when I turn my head around I'm gonna see your face,
old gal, I'm gonna see your face."

Molly said to Long John, "Don't take me for a fool.
If you didn't cut your ears and tail, I'd think you were a mule
(Yeah!) I'd think you were a mule."

Long John, he got mad, oh, Lord, and shook his wooly mane.
"Last time that I run, old girl, I beat the Memphis train.
I beat the Memphis train."

Chorus

See them waitin' on the track. The man, he hollered, "Go!"
Long John runnin' fast, Lord, Molly runnin' slow.
Molly runnin' slow.

Long John said to Molly, "Take a last look at the sky.
'Cause baby when I pass you by, my dust's gonna blind your eye,
oh, Lord, my dust's gonna blind your eye."

Run, Molly, run. Look out for the turn,
oh, Lordy, Lordy, here she comes!

Long John beatin' Molly. Wait, what do I see?
Molly passin' Long John. Molly runnin' free,
oh, Lordy, Molly runnin' free.

Run Molly, run (oh Molly). Run Molly, run.
Put old Long John out to stud and let old Molly run!
Molly and Tenbrooks
Source: Steve Gillette and Linda Albertano, Cherry Lane Music, 1967

Tenbrooks was a bay horse, had a long, shaggy mane
Rode all around Memphis, beat the big Memphis train.
Run, Tenbrooks, run, if you don't run
Molly gonna beat you to the bright shinin' sun.

The women were weepin', their babes cryin' too.
The nine proud horses came thunderin' through.
With molly the leader, her head tossin' high.
With Molly the leader, with Tenbrooks behind,
She came flyin' by.

We shouted to Kuyper, you're not ridin' right.
Molly is a beatin' Tembrooks out of sight.
Kuyper, oh Kuyper, Kuyper my son,
Give him the bridle, let Tenbrooks run.

Tenbrooks looked at Molly, your face is so red.
Been runnin in the hot sun with a feverish head.
You're fallin' behind me, I'm out here all alone
Molly says to Tenbrooks, I'm leavin' this world
I'm a goin' on home.

Oh, run fetch old Tenbrooks and tie him in the shade.
They're buryin' Molly in a coffin ready made.
Out in California Molly done as she pleased,
Back in Kentucky, got beat with all ease,
Got beat with all ease.


A Related, Possibly Older Version
Source: "E.L."

chorus:
Run Molly, run
Run Molly, run
Tembruck gonna beat you
Bright shinin'sun.
Bright shinin' sun, oh lordy, bright shinin' sun.

They ran the Kentucky Derby on the 24th of May,
Some bet on Tembruck, some on Molly Day.
Some on Molly Day, oh lordy, some on Molly Day.

chorus

Piper, oh Piper, you're not runnin' right
Molly's beatin' Tembruck way out of sight.
Way out of sight, oh lordy,way out of sight.

chorus

Piper, oh Piper, oh Piper my son
Let old Tembruck have his head,let old Tembruck run.
Let old Tembruck run, oh lordy, let old Tembruck run



skewball Skewball was a Racehorse The Ballads Was Skewball a Skewbald?


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