Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dissecting Stewball

The Folk Process: No, Abq Jew is not going to actually (or virtually) dissect a horse. What is he, some kind of large animal veterinarian? !חס ושׁלום - nobody wants that.

But for you loyal fans who have already read See Henry Run, Abq Jew is going to analyze Peter, Paul & Mary's Lifelines version of Stewball, to find out what keeps it together and what makes it tick.

Let's start with a nice photo of a skewbald horse. [A skewbald horse has a coat made up of white patches on a non-black base coat.]


What a handsome horse! As Abq Jew first noted in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? -
Among Abq Jew's dearly held beliefs is this:  That of all the perfectly designed creatures the Holy One, Blessed Be He, created, there are three whose design is even more than perfect: the greyhound; the horse; and the giraffe. 
The greyhound and the horse, of course, are perfectly and elegantly designed - to run.  That is what they do, speedily, gracefully, seemingly effortlessly.  And the giraffe?  Perfectly designed to show us all that God, at least occasionally, has a sense of humor. 
So here (as Wikipedia reports) is The True Story of Stewball:
The horse was foaled in 1741 and originally owned by Francis, 2nd Earl of Godolphin, and later sold. He won many races in England and was sent to Ireland. 
The Irish turf calendar states that he won six races worth £508 in 1752, when he was eleven years old, and was the top-earning runner of that year in Ireland.   
His most famous race took place on the plains of Kildare, Ireland ....

And now - about the songs.
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. 
The oldest broadside identified with the ballad is dated 1784 and is held by the Harding Collection of the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford. The song had spread to America by 1829 when it was published in a songbook in Hartford. 
Here in America -

American versions were sung and adapted by slaves in the Southern United States, and have Stewball racing in California, Texas, and Kentucky.

British and Irish versions, when the setting is mentioned, usually place the race in Kildare, Ireland, leading some to believe that the song is actually Irish in origin.
The grey mare was owned by Sir Ralph Gore, whose family had gained a great deal of land in Ireland with the Protestant Cromwellian invasion (starting in 1650), which probably accounts for the delight in Skewball's win "breaking Sir Gore" in the final lines of this Irish-based broadside.
And then there's the French -

A French song called Stewball (or also known as "Il s'appelait Stewball") was recorded by Hugues Aufray in 1966, becoming one of Aufray's biggest hits. 
However, this song (written by Hugues Aufray and Pierre Delanoë) is unlike the English-language songs of the same name, although the adaption was created after Aufray met Peter, Paul, and Mary, along with others such as Bob Dylan in a trip the United States. 
Aufray's version 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 song is very different in that it features Stewball not winning his race and dying due to an injury. This version was also later translated into Czech language by Milan Dvořák becoming wide known by campfires.
So much for background. Abq Jew now proceeds with the analysis.



Let's start with The Weavers. A very good place to start - although it's not the very beginning of the Stewball song.

The Weavers based their version of Stewball on Leadbelly's slave song, and it is so different from any Peter, Paul & Mary version that is might as well be a different song altogether.

With Pete Seeger's driving banjo, it is among the happiest slave songs that Abq Jew has ever heard. And of course, the main action is in the happy state of California.




Then along came The Greenbriar Boys, the (OK, arguably) Best. Bluegrass. Band. Ever. At least, of those who got their start in New York City's Washington Square Park.

The Greenbriar Boys based their version of Stewball on Woody Guthrie's mournful song, and it is so different from any previous version that is might as well be a different song altogether.

With John Herald's sorrowful voice and Ralph Rinzler's even more sorrowful mandolin, it is among the saddest victory songs that Abq Jew has ever heard. And of course, the main action is in the sad lands of ... England and Spain?


Here are The Greenbriar Boys' (Woody had a few more) lyrics. Please pay attention; there will be a quiz.
Stewball was a good horse, and 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 grey mare.
'Cause most likely she'll stumble, most likely she'll fall
But you never will lose, boys, on my noble Stewball.
As they were a-riding 'bout halfway around
That grey mare she stumbled and fell on the ground.
And 'way out yonder ahead of them all
Came a-prancin ' and dancin' - my noble Stewball.


Then along came Peter, Paul & Mary, who very simply changed everything.

PP&M also based their version of Stewball on Woody Guthrie's mournful song, but the lyrics are so different from any previous version that is might as well be a different song altogether.


So here - from their well-rehearsed 1963 studio album In the Wind - are PP&M's lyrics. Has Abq Jew mentioned that there will be a quiz?
Oh Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine.
He never drank water, he always drank wine.  
His bridle was silver, his mane it was gold.
And the worth of his saddle has never been told.  
Oh the fairgrounds were crowded, and Stewball was there
But the betting was heavy on the bay and the mare.  
And a-way up yonder, ahead of them all,
Came a-prancin' and a-dancin' my noble Stewball.  
I bet on the grey mare, I bet on the bay
If I'd have bet on ol' Stewball, I'd be a free man today.  
Oh the hoot owl, she hollers, and the turtle dove moans.
I'm a poor boy in trouble, I'm a long way from home.  
Oh Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine.
He never drank water,he always drank wine.


What beautiful, meaningful words! But where, Abq Jew hears you ask, did PP&M get them? And 30 years later, how did the words change?


So here - from their unrehearsed 1995 concert album Lifelines Live - are PP&M's lyrics. And here, below each verse, are Abq Jew's comments. There will be a quiz.

Stewball was a good horse, and he wore a high head.
And the mane on his foretop was as fine as silk thread.
PP&M do not include this verse. Abq Jew, talented horse trainer that he is, notes that horses with high heads (looking up, not looking down) are more likely to stumble and fall. Yet in the song, it is the grey mare who stumbles and falls. 
And remember the mane - it will come up again.
I rode him in England, I rode him in Spain
And I never did lose, boys - I always did gain.
PP&M do not include this verse, most likely because Stewball raced in Ireland, not England or Spain.  
Abq Jew is of the opinion that this is a "throwaway" verse - his term for a verse that can be thrown into any song any time, in this case just to get to rhyme Spain and gain. As a counter-example, consider
I rode him in Luxembourg, I rode him in Monaco 
Then what? How about 
The Mamas and the Papas sang Go Where You Wanna Go
So come all you gamblers, wherever you are
And don't bet your money on that little grey mare.
PP&M do not include this verse. And BTW - how many horses were in this race? It depends on whom you ask, and when. Abq Jew also notes with alacrity the classic rhyming of are and mare.
Oh Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine.
He never drank water, he always drank wine.
PP&M start the song with this wonderful verse that shows the beauty and soulfulness that only the highly imperfect subjunctive can bring. 
As for never drinking water - Abq Jew considers this highly unlikely. Always drinking wine? Abq Jew suggests he always drank wine when he got the chance.
His bridle was silver, his mane it was gold.
And the worth of his saddle has never been told.
Remember the mane? Do you think it was really gold? Seriously?
Let's see. The verse starts with the bridle and ends with the saddle. That thing in the middle, Abq Jew conjectures, should be one of Stewball's accoutrements, not one of his body parts. Something that horse people actually make out of gold. 
How about his stirrups were gold? That would work!
Oh the fairgrounds were crowded, and Stewball was there
But the betting was heavy on the grey and the mare.
All Abq Jew can say is that, in PP&M's well-rehearsed 1963 studio album, the grey was a bay, and there were three (principal) horses in the race.
Abq Jew is of the opinion that - this is what happens when you do things live. You sometimes make mistakes - but you keep going. 
As they were approaching, about halfway around
The grey mare she stumbled and fell to the ground.
Told 'ya. There was Stewball, and a bay, and the [old] grey mare. Who, Abq Jew is sure, ain't what she used to be.
And a-way out yonder, ahead of them all,
Came a-prancin' and a-dancin' my noble Stewball.

And a-way out yonder, ahead of them all,
Came a-prancin' and a-dancin' my noble Stewball.
Abq Jew is of the opinion that - this is what happens when you do things live. You sometimes make mistakes - and sometimes the mistakes are most glorious. 
Here, Peter (for it is he leading the sing-along) repeats the verse we just sang. A horrible mistake - but the result only reinforces the power of Stewball's victory. 
This magnificent mistake brings Abq Jew to tears.
And as for prancin' and dancin' - let it be known that the phrase did not (apparently) originate with The Gentrys
I bet on the grey mare, I bet on the bay
If I'd have bet on my Stewball, I'd be a free man today.
Again - we've got three (principal) horses in the race, although the fate of the bay (not the Dock of the Bay, Otis) is unclear.
Abq Jew notes that if he'd bet on Stewball, he'd be a free man. Not a rich man - a free man. This suggests the Western European tradition of debtors prisons, ye olde equivalents of GoFundMe and Kickstarter.
Oh the hoot owl, she hollers, and the turtle dove moans.
I'm a poor boy in trouble, I'm a long way from home. 
The hollering and moaning may have been just fine in 1963, but PP&M do not include this verse in 1995. A mistake? Perhaps - but it's another throwaway verse.
Oh Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine.
He never drank water, he always drank wine.
Ending at the beginning - All My Life's a Circle.

But where, Abq Jew hears you ask, did Peter, Paul and Mary get their beautiful, meaningful lyrics?

Abq Jew does not know for sure. But he is of the strong opinion that Peter Yarrow wrote them.

Not from scratch, of course. But by combining the historical record with  existing verses from the many versions - and the ideas behind those verses - and then adding healthy helpings of folk wisdom and songwriting craft.

Abq Jew believes that Peter Yarrow constructed a new song that sounded like an old song but that (you should forgive Abq Jew) made sense.

And that, too, is part of the folk process. Simply changing everything to preserve the tradition. Keeping the music alive.


And now the quiz, which consists of exactly one question.

1.
Based upon all that you have read in this blog post -
to what great historical event may the formation of
Peter, Paul and Mary as a folk group be compared?
Explain.


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