Tuesday 24 December 2013

The Strange Tale Of Stewball

Skewball was a racehorse born in England in 1741 who went on to win many races in England and Ireland. His most famous race in Kildare inspired a folk ballad. Over the years the song travelled and mutated as it was taken up by English, Irish & French singers and American slaves turned the ballad into a chain gang song called Stewball. Popular recordings by Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie followed.

The Greenbriar Boys took the lyrics from a Cisco Houston version and added a new tune written by banjo player Bob Yellin. This version was recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary in 1963.

In 1971 John & Yoko released their Vietnam protest song - Merry Xmas (War Is Over) with a melody and chord progression that sounded suspiciously like Stewball with a key change, descant and a refrain added. Though the The Greenbriar Boys's new tune and arrangement means that the song is not in the public domain even now, to my knowledge there has never been any legal challenge over John and Yoko's appropriation of the tune.

 Stewball written by Ralph Rinzler/ Robert Yellin/ John Herald


  1. WOW!!! You got me there Mr Blick! Fascinating.

  2. glad you liked it Martin - Merry Christmas!

  3. I'd heard this song was 'borrowed' from an old folk tune, but never took the time to dig around and see how similar the two were. I wonder if many people had at least a faint bell ringing in the back of their minds when J&Y's protest anthem was released. It's odd that there hasn't been any court case, especially considering George's "My Sweet Lord" fiasco, but I suppose pop songs are more closely guarded than someone's arrangement of a folk song.

    Anyway, Merry Christmas Matt! (A little late, I know, but for the record, it's still Dec. 25th in my time zone. :-) )

  4. thanks Justice (merry christmas to you too). Got to say till I started digging around I'd assumed the tune was in the public domain (probably Lennon did too). I would think once a certain amount of time elapses the original writer wouldn't be able to sue even if they wanted too...

  5. The Greenbriars "new melody" was probably adapted with slight adjustments from a popular mid 50's song by Johnny Ace called "Pledging My Love". Those older Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie adaptations have different melody line.