> A.L. Lloyd > Songs > Skewball
> Steeleye Span > Songs > Skewball
> Martin Carthy > Songs > Skewbald

Skewbald / Skewball / Stewball / Old Kimball

[ Roud 456 ; Laws Q22 ; Ballad Index LQ22 ; Bodleian Roud 456 ; Mudcat 159814 ; trad.]

Later English Broadside Ballads

This racing story originates in Ireland but is well known in both the UK and the USA. The names Skewbald and Skewball seem to be the European variant and Stewball the American one.

A version of Leadbelly singing Stewball in 1940 can be found on his 1962 Folkways album Leadbelly Sings Folk Songs.

Texas Gladden from Salem, Virginia, sang Old Kimball in August 1941 to Alan Lomax. This recording was included in 2001 on her Rounder anthology Ballad Legacy.

Lonnie Donegan and His Skiffle Group learned Stewball from Leadbelly's singing and recorded in in 1956 for their EP Lonnie Donegan Hit Parade.

A.L. Lloyd, accompanied by Steve Benbow on guitar, sang Skewball in 1962 on the Topic EP Gamblers and Sporting Blades. This recording was also included in 1994 on his Fellside CD Classic A.L. Lloyd and in 1998 on the Topic CD Bold Sportsmen All. Lloyd commented in the original EP's sleeve notes:

A skewball horse has map-like patches of brown on a white coat. Sometime late in the 18th century, a skewbald horse owned by Arthur Marvel was matched against Sir Ralph Gore's grey mare, Miss Portly, on the race course of Kildare. Something about the English horse seemed to fire the ballad-maker's fancy, and the song of the race was soon appearing in popular pocket songsters. (It had spread to America by 1829 when it was published in a songbook in Hartford.) Later it passed into Negro tradition, reaching the convict camps of the South as a work-song. As it has survived in Britain, the original ballad would seem to be of Irish make. The detail of the dialogue between Skewball and his jockey reminds one of the Irish countryside belief that certain travelling horse dealers have the power of holding conversation with their horses.

Peter, Paul & Mary sang Stewball on their 1963 album In the Wind.

Joan Baez sang Stewball on her 1964 Vanguard album 5. Her version is credited to John Herald, Ralph Rinzler and Bob Yellin.

Steeleye Span learned Skewball from A.L. Lloyd and recorded it in 1971 for their third album, Ten Man Mop or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again, with Tim Hart singing and Martin Carthy playing guitar. Their sleeve notes gave the betting results:

2/1 Creeping Jane, 9/4 Skewball, 8/1 Miss Portly, 10/1 Bar … Arthur Marvel up 1,210 guineas, Sir Ralph Gore down 750 guineas … Kildare 4 votes, Kielder 1 vote … Bert Lloyd 7 points, Peter, Paul & Mary and John Herald 1 1/2.

and Maddy Prior was quoted in the sleeve notes of the anthology Troubadours of British Folk Vol. 1:

Skewball is from the third Steeleye album and Martin (Carthy) assures me that this version comes from the influential repertoire of Bert Lloyd. Bert had a wonderful lyrical sense of the traditional and was not hampered by false loyalty to any rigid idea of how it “should” be. He consequently greatly enriched the music for us all. The song is sung and led on banjo by Tim Hart and has an early version of the guitar “stabs”, played by Martin Carthy, that have become such a feature of the electric folk movement. Without drums, the guitar, Ashley [Hutchings]'s bass, and Peter ]Knight]'s fiddle combine to provide a stark and driving force over which the song rhythmically flows.

Later, Martin Carthy recorded this song solo several times with the title Skewbald:

  1. in 1973 live at the St Albans Folk Club, Hertfordshire, which was released in 2013 on the digital download album Live in St Albans 1973,
  2. for his 1974 album Sweet Wivelsfield,
  3. live on the LP Kertalg 74; this track was included in 2001 on his 4-CD Free Reed anthology The Carthy Chronicles,
  4. live at the Folkfestival '76 Dranouter,
  5. and for his 1992 album with Dave Swarbrick, Skin and Bone; this track was included in 1993 on his compilation Rigs of the Time: The Best of Martin Carthy.
  6. live in 1979 at the Folk Festival Sidmouth.

Martin Carthy commented in his Sweet Wivelsfield notes:

In 1847 a New England racehorse owner came to Ireland with his Skewbald horse to face the might of Irish distance racers, and the result astounded racegoers there because the American horse won. American horses were nicknamed circus horses or quarter horses meaning that they were good for a quarter of a mile but no more, and skewbald horses were just not worth bothering about. The idea of a combination of the two incarnate left Irish sages helpless with laughter, but the prospect of a Gold cup and two hundred guineas to the winner helped them contain their mirth and sent them scurrying for their savings. To their cost.

and in the Skin and Bone sleeve notes:

The Skewbald is another one from Bert Lloyd. The saying on this side of the Atlantic among the horseracing fraternity which goes “one white sock you may try him / two white socks don't deny him / three white socks never buy him”, which has its Kentucky counterpart, was the reason why punters in Co. Kildare were so disdainful of this “Circus Horse”—Skewbald horses being of course a veritable whitesock supermarket. And all on four legs. The event must have rise to songs in the USA as well, and it was Leadbelly's version that I heard sung (heavily adapted as was his wont) by Lonnie Donegan in the mid-1950s.

Andy Irvine and Paul Brady sang The Plains of Kildare on their 1976 album Andy Irvine Paul Brady. They also sang it in June 2012 at Andy Irvine's 70th Birthday Concert. Frank Harte noted on the original album:

The first time I heard this song sung was in America where Cisco Houston sang about Stewball:

I rode him in England, I rode him in Spain
I never did lose boys, I always did gain.

There is also another version which found its way into the American negro tradition and was widely sung in the southern work camps.

The next time I heard the song, it was sung to me by Bert Lloyd, who called the horse “Skewbald”. In his version, Skewbald was owned by Arthur Marvel and ran against a grey mare called Miss Griselda. “on the Sporting plains of Kildare”. In 1964, Eddie Butcher of Magilligan, Co. Derry sang for me another version of Stewball, who this time was challenged by “young Mrs. Gore” to run against Miss Griesel. I in turn passed the song on to Andy and the version which you hear now is the outcome.

The facts are that sometime around 1790 a race took place on the Curragh of Kildare between a skewbald horse owned by Sir Arthur Marvel and “Miss Portly”, a grey mare owned by Sir Ralph Gore. The race seemed to take the balladmakers’ fancy and must have been widely sung—an early printed version appeared in an American song book dated 1829.

The song as sung here is a combination of Bert Lloyd’s version and Eddie Butcher’s version, but I think, for the future, it can only properly be called Andy Irvine’s version.

June Tabor sang Skewball live at Germanstown Academy, Philadelphia, on 30 March 1996. This recording was included in 2005 on her 4-CD Topic anthology Always. She commented in the accompanying booklet:

In my record collection, which is not large, is the first Topic sampler [Folk Songs, 1964]. On it was Bert Lloyd singing this version of Skewball. It's about a talking racehorse, a most attractive proposition.

Dave Burland sang Skewball in 1996 on his CD Benchmark. He commented:

Skewball is from the singing of A.L. Lloyd, and strange to relate I recorded this version two days after the running on the 1994 Grand National, which also featured a talking horse amongst its runners.

Anna & Elizabeth sang an American version, Old Kimball, in 2012 on their CD Sun to Sun. They noted:

Texas [Gladden] sang this song about a horse race. We imagined her doing the song as a duo with her brother Hobart Smith, a banjo player. He once said of his sister, “We are as close as two branches, growing out of the same stump.”

False Lights (with Sam Carter and Jim Moray) sang Skewball in 2014 on their eponymous 10" EP False Lights, on 17 August 2014 live at Folk East Festival, Suffolk, which was released on their digital download EP Live at Folk East, and in 2015 on their CD Salvor.

Lyrics

Texas Gladden sings Old Kimball

Old Kimball was a gray nag,
Old Nellie was a brown;
Old Kimball beat Old Nellie
On the very first go-round.

Chorus:
And I see, and I see,
And I see on the fourth day
Of July.

His bridle made of silver,
His saddle made of gold;
And the value of his harness
It has never yet been told.

(Chorus)

I'II get up in my buggy
With my lines in my hand.
“Good morning, young lady.”
“Good morning, young man.”

I often have wondered
What makes women love men,
Then looked back and wondered
What makes men love them.

(Chorus)

They'll cause you hard labor
They'll cause you downfall
They'll cause you hard labor
All behind the old jail wall.

A.L. Lloyd sings Skewball

You gallant sportsmen all, pray listen to me story
It's of the bold Skewball, that noble racing pony
Arthur Marvel was the man that brought bold Skewball over
He's the diamond of the land and he rolls around in clover

Oh, the cattle were brought out with saddle, whip and bridle
And the gentlemen did shout when they saw the gallant riders
And some did cry hooray and the air was thick with curses
And on the grey Griselda the sportsmen laid their purses

Oh, the trumpet it did sound and they shot off like an arrow
They scarcely touched the ground and the going it was narrow
But Griselda passed him by and the sportsmen all did holler
“Oh, the grey will win the day and Skewball he can follow.”

In the middle of the track up spoke the noble rider
“I fear we must fall back for she's running like a tiger.”
Up spoke the gallant horse, “Ride on, ride on, my master,
For we're half way round the course and now you'll see who's faster.”

And as they did discourse, bold Skewball flew like lightning
He dashed around the course and the grey mare she was taken
“Bet on my noble lord, for the good two hundred guineas,
And me saddle shall be of gold when we pick up our winnings.”

Well, past the winning post, bold Skewball won so handy
And horse and rider both called for sherry wine and brandy
And they drank to that grey mare, the gallant Miss Griselda
And all who'd lost their money on the sporting plains of Kildare

Steeleye Span sing Skewball

You gallant sportsmen all, come listen to my story
It's of the bold Skewball, that noble racing pony
Arthur Marvel was the man that brought bold Skewball over
He's the diamond of the land and he rolls about in clover

The horses were bought out with saddle, whip and bridle
And the gentlemen did shout when they saw the noble riders
And some did shout hooray, the air was thick with curses
And on the grey Griselda the sportsmen laid their purses

The trumpet it did sound, they shot off like an arrow,
They scarcely touched the ground for the going it was narrow.
Then Griselda passed him by and the gentlemen did holler,
“The grey will win the day and Skewball he will follow.”

Then halfway round the course up spoke the noble rider
“I fear we must fall back for she's going like a tiger.
Up spoke the noble horse, “Ride on, my noble master,
For we're half way round the course and now we'll see who's faster.”

And when they did discourse, bold Skewball flew like lightning
They chased around the course and the grey mare she was taken
“Ride on my noble lord, for the good two hundred guineas.
The saddle shall be of gold when we pick up our winnings.”

Past the winning post, bold Skewball proved quite handy
And horse and rider both ordered sherry wine and brandy
And then they drank a health unto Miss Griselda
And all that lost their money on the sporting plains of Kildare

Martin Carthy sings Skewbald

You gallant sportsmen all, come listen to me story
Of the bold Skewbald that noble racing pony
Arthur Marvel was the man who has brought the Skewbald over
He's a diamond in the land and he rolls around in clover

These horses were brought out with saddle, whip and bridle
And the gentlemen did shout when they saw the noble rider
And there's some did shout hooray as the air was thick with curses
On the grey Griselda sportsmen laid their purses

Now the trumpet it did sound, they shot off like an arrow
Scarcely touched the ground where the going it was narrow
Then Griselda passed him by as the gentlemen did holler,
“Oh, the grey will win the day and the Skewbald he will follow.”

But halfway round the track up spoke the noble rider,
“I fear we must fall back for she's going like a tiger.”
Up spoke the noble horse, “Ride on, ride on, me master,
For we're halfway round the track and it's now we'll see who's faster.”

So swiftly o'er the grass Skewbald flew like lightning
So swiftly o'er the grass that the grey mare she was taken
“Ride on, my noble horse, for the good two hundred guineas.
Oh your saddle shall be of gold when we pick up our winnings.”

Way past the winning post Skewbald won so handy
And horse and rider both called for sherry wine and brandy
And it's there they drank the health of the gallant Miss Griselda
And all who lost their money on the sporting plains of Kildare

Andy Irvine and Paul Brady sing The Plains of Kildare

Come all you bold sportsmen and listen to my story
It’s about noble Stewball that gallant racing pony
Arthur Marble was the man that first brought Stewball here
For to run with Miss Griesel on the Plains of Kildare.

O the fame of his actions we’ve heard of before
But now he is challenged by young Mrs. Gore
For to run with Miss Griesel that handsome grey mare
For ten thousand gold guineas on the Plains of Kildare.

And the cattle they were brought out with saddle whip and bridle
And the gentlemen did shout at the sight of the gallant riders
And in viewing the cattle just as they came there
O they all laid their money on the Monaghan grey mare.

And the order it was given and away they did fly
Stewball like an arrow the grey mare passed by
And if you had’ve been there for to see them going round
You’d’ve thought to your heart their feet ne’er touched the ground.

And when at last they came to half way round the course
Stewball and his rider began to discourse
Says Stewball to the rider, “Can you tell to me
How far is that grey mare this moment from me.”

Says the rider to Stewball, “You run in great style
You’re ahead of the grey mare almost half a mile
And if you keep your running I vow and I swear
That you never will be beaten by the Monaghan grey mare.”

The last winning post, Stewball passed it quite handy
Horse and rider both called for sherry wine and brandy
And they drank up a health to the noble grey mare
For she emptied their pockets on the Plains of Kildare.