Hi Worksonger! Your Weekly Worksong is... Stewball
"Stewball was an irish racehorse who fame has survived on both sides of the Atlantic. Laws notes several versions of the song from Kentucky and quote D.K. Wilgus on "Ten Broeck and Mollie,: the American counterpart of the Irish horserace: "The July 4, 1878, march race in which the Kentucky thoroughbred Ten Broeck deeated the mare Miss Millie McCarthur, went into the record books as the last four-mile heat race in American turf history" (Laws, p 243). But it is the Irish horse and hisrace that have survived in American Negro folksong."
- Bruce Jackson, "Wake Up Dead Man" p 102
"The facts are that sometime around 1790 a race took place on the curragh of Kildare (near Dublin) between a skewbald horse owned by Sir Arthur Marvel and "Miss Portly", a gray mare owned by Sir Ralph Gore. The race seemed to take the balladmakers' fancies, and must have been widely sung; an early printed version appeared in an American song book dated 1829." - mudcat.org lyrics page
It wasn't the American Negro folksong or an American Songbook introducedStewball to me, though- it was Andy Irvine, who sing a completely different version on the iconic album Andy Irvine / Paul Brady. Theirs, which is called "Plains of Kildaire" details the story extensively and so when I heard the more mysterious version as sung by Leadbelly (and introduced to me by Max Godfrey) I thought- hey- I know about Stewball!
But of course I was only just getting to know the driving rhythm, the rippling, dissonant harmonies, and the overlapping call and response of Max's version. This song became an instant favorite. Here's why:
1) It is easy to teach. The response lyrics repeat and you can be half-numb and still remember them.
2) It drives. Whatever frustration you've got going, whatever hard work you're chopping or hoeing at, you can channel that right into the song.
3) It's positive. Everybody's singing uh-huh and oh yeah. Nice way to turn around an ugly mood out in the field.
4) It's old-timey and hairy. Racehorses? Gambling? Girls? Does it get any better?
Bruce Jackson recorded this one four separate times in 1964 and 1965 at Ramsey and Wynne prisons in Texas. Maybe that's where Leadbelly learned it, in prison, and incorporated it into his performance repertoire.
Any case, enjoy Leadbelly's version of it on worksongs.org, and let me know what other versions of Stewball (Irish, Kentucky, Texas or otherwise) you like. And memorize it, for god's sake! It's one of the best!
Holler back... -Bennett
Check it out: - More Bruce Jackson on Stewball in "Wake Up Dead Man" - Paul Brady and Andy Irvine's Stewball, "The Plains of Kildaire" - Leadbelly's version - Massive amounts of discussion on Mudcat.org