Academic journal article Current Musicology

Horses for Discourses?: The Transition from Oral to Broadside Narrative in "Skewball"

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Horses for Discourses?: The Transition from Oral to Broadside Narrative in "Skewball"

Article excerpt

The well-known horse-racing ballad "Skewball" (hereafter, SB) has a well-established oral tradition in Ireland, with versions documented throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The latest is a 1979 field recording of Derry folksinger and storyteller, Eddie Butcher (Shields 2011:58-9). (1) The ballad was also assimilated into African-American oral tradition, in which it was reconstructed and renamed "Stewball" (Lomax 1994:68-71; Scarborough 1925:61-4), and was still being documented in American folk tradition as late as the 1930s (Flanders 1939:172-4). In common with countless other folk songs, SB was appropriated by broadside (2) printers and subsequently enjoyed widespread public appeal throughout England in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, its popularity waning with the later decline of the broadside as a medium of ballad transmission and distribution.

A comparative analysis of oral and broadside versions reveals clear differences between the two narratives. I argue that these variations were quite deliberate in origin, being a direct result of interpolations and excisions made by broadside ballad printers to the original oral narrative. By drawing comparisons between versions of SB collected from both oral and broadside sources, this paper will demonstrate that as a consequence of significant social and cultural advancements in the nineteenth century, SB was deliberately revised with the aim of enhancing its appeal and relevance to an increasingly literate middle class audience.

Historical Context

The narrative recounted in SB centres on a historically documented horse race held in Kildare, Ireland on March 30, 1752 (Heber 1753:106). (3) The race in question was a two-horse challenge between Sir Ralph Gore's Grey Mare (Pick 1803:504)--the clear favorite--and Arthur Mervin's Skewball (Pick 1803:91; Harewood 1835:309), a far lesser-known racehorse (if not completely unknown in Ireland), in which the latter unexpectedly triumphs to great acclaim. Unsurprisingly, the narrative of SB has changed considerably over time. Such variation is to be expected from a ballad that was based on eighteenth-century events in Ireland, enjoyed widespread popular appeal as a nineteenth-century English broadside printing, became established in African-American slave culture and later appeared as a work song among African-American prisoners, (4) and ultimately became popularised on both sides of the Atlantic in the folk revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s. There are, however, key narrative features that are common to all documented oral and broadside versions of the ballad, (5) namely:

(i) A two-horse challenge for a considerable purse is arranged to be held on "the plains of Kildare" between Sir Ralph Gore and Arthur Mervin, both of whom were well-known figures in eighteenth-century Irish horse racing circles, and served as presidents of the Irish Jockey Club in the late 1750s (Carpenter 1998:312). (6)

(ii) Although fleeting comparative references are periodically made to other racehorses, only two are mentioned as participating in the contest related in the ballad. The race favorite is a grey mare owned by Gore and is referred to variously in the ballads as either Grey Mare, Maid Sportly, or Miss Portly/Portsley/ Sportl(e)y /Sportsly/Sprightly, or in later versions as Miss Grizzle. (7) The lesser-known challenger--a skewbald gelding--is owned by Marvin and known as Skewball8 throughout all documented versions

(iii) Upon hearing of the challenge and the wager that has been put down, the skewbald--the clear second favorite in the contest--instructs his master to place a considerable bet as he is assured of victory. Despite the established reputation of the favorite, Skewball wins easily to both the surprise and delight of the assembled crowd.

Despite both oral and broadside versions of SB sharing the overall subject matter and common structure shown above, a comparative analysis of the two genres reveals some striking differences. …

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