COMMENTARY: A Horse Named Stewball

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Dr. Larry Burris, MTSU Professor of Journalism, is attending a popular culture conference in Las Vegas, where one of the topics is the intersection of music and real life. And one of the strangest such intersections involves a horse named Stewball:

In 1752, in a well-documented match race in Ireland, the underdog Stewball soundly beat the favorite, Grey Mare. The story of the race was soon made into a ballad and distributed through one of the most popular media forms of the day, the music broadsheet. Soon there were multiple versions of the race story, some more fanciful than others.


Somehow the ballad made its way across the Atlantic, and became part of the slave culture. From there it moved into jails and prisons and was sung by chain gangs.

There it may have been forgotten, except for the work of folklorist John Lomax, who in 1939 at the Mississippi State Prison made one of the first recorded versions of the song.


Later the song story was recorded by the blues artist Ledbelly and by one of the most significant figures in American folk music, Woody Guthrie.

But in every version, the story was reworked until it was almost unrecognizable. In some versions there were three horses, and in others the race took place in France, Spain and even California.

Eventually the song was recorded by folk groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Chad Mitchell Trio, who recorded two different forms, both with different rhythms, timings, and story lines.

Some of these versions have Stewball talking to the jockey as they round the track.

Perhaps the strangest version was recorded by the British pop/rock group, the Hollies, who added a fake bluegrass twang and full orchestration including violins and an organ.

Academic conferences can be fill with arcane theories and discussion of esoteric concepts and ideas. But sometimes a simple, lighthearted look at popular culture can prove beneficial as well.

In Las Vegas, Nevada, I'm Larry Burriss.

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Dr. Larry Burriss, Middle Tennessee State University, MTSU, Murfreesboro news, Stewball
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