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

Skewball / Skewbald

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

This racing story originates in Ireland but is well known in both the USA and the UK. In 1962, A.L. Lloyd accompanied by Steve Benbow on guitar recorded Skewball for the Topic EP Gamblers and Sporting Blades. This was reissued in 1994 on the 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 Marvell 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.

Steeleye Span learned Skewball from A.L. Lloyd and recorded it for their third album, Ten Man Mop or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again, with Tim Hart on vocals and Martin Carthy playing guitar. Later, Martin Carthy recorded it solo several times as Skewbald:

  1. on his 1974 album Sweet Wivelsfield,
  2. live on the LP Kertalg 74. This track was re-released in 2001 on the anthology The Carthy Chronicles;
  3. live at the Folkfestival '76 Dranouter,
  4. and on his 1992 album with Dave Swarbrick, Skin and Bone. This track was reissued in 1993 on the compilation Rigs of the Time: The Best of Martin Carthy.
  5. live in 1979 at the Folk Festival Sidmouth (released in 2004 together with The Rainbow)

The Ten Man Mop sleeve notes said cryptically:

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 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's bass, and Peter's fiddle combine to provide a stark and driving force over which the song rhythmically flows.

Martin Carthy commented in the 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 Lead Belly's version that I heard sung (heavily adapted as was his wont) by Lonnie Donegan in the mid-1950s.

Lyrics

A.L. Lloyd's 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's 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's 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

Acknowledgements

Transcribed by Garry Gillard and Reinhard Zierke.