“Skewball” was the name of a British racehorse, most famous as the subject of a ballad.
The horse was born in 1741, and originally owned by Francis, 2nd Earl of Godolphin,
and later sold. His name has been recorded as “Squball”, “Sku-ball”, or “Stewball”. He
won many races in England, and a famous one in Ireland, which is generally the subject
of the song of the same name. Popular legend has Skewball belonging to an Arthur
Marvell. Based on the horse’s name, Skewball was likely a skewbald horse, though there
is speculation that he was a bay. A notable recording is by American folk legend Woody
Guthrie, who included an English and an American interpretation (both entitled Stewball)
on tape, and recorded in Volume 4 of The Asch Recordings (1930–1940).
The American interpretation is a chain-gang song sung by Lead Belly and Guthrie with
an African American ‘call and response‘ style, while the English interpretation is derived
from the traditional British broadside ballad, and sung to a cowboy waltz tune. The
American interpretation has Stewball as being born in California with the famed race
against the grey mare taking place in Dallas, Texas. Lead Belly recorded several versions
of this song, and the music and lyrics from his version appear in American Ballads and
Folk Songs by Lomax and Lomax. Lead Belly’s American chain-gang version of Stewball
was covered in the 1950s by The Weavers, and then by British skiffle singer Lonnie
Donegan. Guthrie’s cowboy version of the British ballad, with the same lyrics but a
different tune, was recorded by John Herald and the Greenbriar Boys, and popularized by
Peter, Paul and Mary.
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.
As they were approaching about half way around,
the grey mare she stumbled, and fell to the ground.
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.