Document Type



Available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International Licence


Anthropology, History, Performing arts studies, Musicology, Folklore studies

Publication Details

‘In Search of the Original ‘Skewball’’, Ethnomusicology Ireland, no. 2/3 (July 2013), pp. 61-71 (International Council for Traditional Music).


The well-known horseracing ballad ‘Skewball’ has been widely documented in oral tradition on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as on numerous English broadside printings. It recounts the tale of a mid-eighteenth-century horserace held at The Curragh of Kildare, in which a heavily-backed mare is comprehensively beaten by a relatively unknown skewbald gelding leaving the mare’s owner — along with much of the assembled onlookers — significantly out of pocket. The ballad became widely popularised in North America where it was first published in a song book in 1826 (Benton 1826:3-4). It was later subsumed into African-American song tradition, whereupon it was reconstructed in numerous versions as a ‘call-and-answer’ work anthem sung by slaves who gave it the new title of ‘Stewball’. Alan Lomax has also documented African-American chain-gang versions of the ballad in his various prison recordings (Lomax 1994:68-71; Scarborough 1925:61-4). Versions bearing distinctive similarities in style, form and content to the earliest collected versions of ‘Skewball’, were widely collected throughout North America as late as the 1930’s (Flanders 1939:172-4), while oral versions have been documented in Ireland throughout the eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, the latest being in March 1979 (Shields 2011:58-9). While always retaining a certain degree of continuity in terms of the general narrative recounted, the ballad has undergone numerous metamorphoses over time — particularly with reference to the dramatis personae involved — which has often resulted in the obfuscation of the original race detail. By closely examining contemporary records, as well as drawing relevant comparisons with a diverse range of collected versions of the ballad, the author has sought to establish the historical facts which lie behind the narrative recounted in ‘Skewball’. The earliest version of the ballad to which a date has been definitively assigned is that published in the songbook, The Vocal Library (Souter 1818:526). Due to the significant timeframe between this publication and the actual mid-eighteenth-century horserace recounted in ‘Skewball’, the author has also examined the preceding period with a view towards unearthing possible earlier sources for the ballad and will present a recently discovered MS version which provides further evidence of the historical origins of the ballad under review.