ArticlesNo. 94, Fall 2012

Horses For Discourses?: The Transition from Oral to Broadside Narrative in “Skewball”


The well–known horse–racing ballad “Skewball” (hereafter, SB) has a well– established oral tradition in Ireland, with versions documented throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The latest is a 1979 field recording of Derry folksinger and storyteller, Eddie Butcher (Shields 2011:58–9). The ballad was also assimilated into African–American oral tradition, in which it was reconstructed and renamed “Stewball” (Lomax 1994:68–71; Scarborough 1925:61–4), and was still being documented in American folk tradition as late as the 1930s (Flanders 1939:172–4). In common with countless other folk songs, SB was appropriated by broadside printers and subsequently enjoyed widespread public appeal throughout England in the early– to mid–nineteenth century, its popularity waning with the later decline of the broadside as a medium of ballad transmission and distribution. A comparative analysis of oral and broadside versions reveals clear differences between the two narratives. I argue that these variations were quite deliberate in origin, being a direct result of interpolations and excisions made by broadside ballad printers to the original oral narrative. By drawing comparisons between versions of SB collected from both oral and broadside sources, this paper will demonstrate that as a consequence of significant social and cultural advancements in the nineteenth century, SB was deliberately revised with the aim of enhancing its appeal and relevance to an increasingly literate middle class audience.