Saturday, January 22, 2011


What is it that causes us to be indifferent to some songs and to respond to others? I've occasionally analyzed this because I don't fully understand how a simple song like Stewball, popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary, could be so compelling.

The song is a ballad more than two centuries old. In the mid-twentieth century it had been re-introduced into the folk music scene by Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, both iconic figures of that era. The song had itself become a mournful chain gang lament and for this reason has a compelling blues quality. Guthrie recorded it in the thirties, and later it was again recorded by The Weavers in the fifties.

I first heard the song on a Peter, Paul and Mary album titled In the Wind, it being the first cut on side two. The song that follows is a similar lament, "All my trials soon will be over."

I especially enjoy the cadence as the song itself trots along much like ol' Stewball. Like so many great songs, there is a pleasurable story being told, but the ending twists, and so does the knife of fate, as the story tellers heart is cut out when his well laid plans unfold in another direction.

I find it interesting that there is no chorus, no refrain, just a story and a songwriter's pain.


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.

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.
I'm a poor boy in trouble, I'm a long way from home.

Oh Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine.
He never drank water, he always drank wine.

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