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

Ó Cadhla, Seán

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.

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Columbia University
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October 1, 2014