Jul 21, 2009
My Noble Stewball
Randomly, we were barbecuing in the backyard the other day and my father's iPod was playing. Suddenly "Stewball" as sung by Joan Baez came on and it just transported me back to being a tiny child, absolutely transfixed by that song. As a child, it just seemed so thrilling that anyone would sing a song about a horse; clearly he had to be famous! And though the lyrics confused the hell out of me (I thought it was a tragic story where he died at the end -- listening comprehension FTW), it quite obvciously made a big impact on me.
Hearing it again made me want to get to the bottom of the story about the song's origins. And I learned that Stewball (or Skewball, as per some -- he might have been a paint!) was a REAL HORSE! Born in 1741, he won some fairly big races and a little notoriety, but why he was chosen as the subject of a song versus a plethora of other big names...well, who knows? But wikipedia states that "[t]here 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[...] In both songs the title horse is the underdog in the race, up against a favored grey mare [...]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." I guess that sort of explains my childhood belief that the stumble was actually code for "death."
I guess it's just sort of neat to me that a real racehorse somehow spawned so many versions of a pretty-well-famous song that I loved as a child. And though I'm not so fond of Joan Baez now, I was pretty excited to find a couple of other versions of the song, one of which is posted above. Leadbelly!! He's singing the Americanized version of this song, which takes place in California --the lyrics are pretty different from the English version and it utilizes an African "call and response" type of style that I hadn't been familiar with before.
The traditional English version is below:
So, anyway that's what I'm obsessed with today.