A version of this column originally appeared as an installment of The Origin of Song for Crawdaddy! online
And so it was that a centuries-old folk song about a race horse launched a rock ‘n’ roll Christmas standard 40 years ago, or so the story goes. Oh, I know this will not be news to the most scholarly of you folk and rock types, however, for this folk and rock type, I hadn’t made the link until it was pointed out to me a couple of years ago that the melody to “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is a borrowed tune.
“Stewball” was a race horse, as the song goes, and the first song about him was written in the late 1700s. At that time, Stewball went by the name Skewball, though you might also see versions that tell of Sku-ball and Squball. The name was likely because his coat was of the skewbald variety, or what we call “pinto,” a horse with patches of color, usually on a chestnut or reddish base (funny that at some point he wasn’t dubbed Screwball). According to folk music lore and some reliable sources, Arthur Marvell’s Sku-Ball was set to race Sir Ralph Gore’s gray mare Miss Portly in Kildare, Ireland. But when the dark horse, or more accurately, the skewbald horse won, it took the horse people by surprise: They had expected the animal with the pedigree to take home the prize. Newsworthy as this was, the story made the broadsides: Printed on cheap paper and passed around, a popular ballad was born, beginning its journey through time and around the world.
Lyrically, there are plenty of variations on the “Skewball” story: For example, “Molly and Tenbrooks” is an American telling of a late 19th century horse race between California’s Mollie McCarty and Kentucky’s Ten Broeck. Versions of “Molly and Tenbrooks” were cut by bluegrass giants, the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, but theirs are a different melody, though related by subject and genre to “Stewball” by kissin’ cousins the Greenbriar Boys. There lay the origin of the melody Joan Baez recorded. Her version is also somewhat of a conflation of the stories told in “Stewball” (who in some cases is a wine-drinking, winning race horse), and “Molly and Tenbrooks” (in which the mare stumbles and thus explains Stew’s win).
Comparing, compiling, and commenting on centuries-old ballads is a vocation to which I am not called; the work is best left to experts like Steve Roud of Croydon, London—he’s compiled the Roud Folk Song Index, listing 33 versions of Stewball and 22 versions of Skewball with data to match. He’s got the info on the John Lomax recordings of inmates of Parchman Farm singing their version in the ’30s, as well as Lead Belly’s ’40s adaptation (which begins “Way out in California…”), but again, different melody, different words, though the horse legend remains inasmuch as the “Stewball” recorded by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Cisco Houston concerns a race between a California and a Texas horse.
The version many of us know as “Stewball” entered the folk-rock zone in the ’60s, delivered by Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary via the Greenbriars song, credited to John Herald, Ralph Rinzler, and Robert Yellin. For rock folk, there could hardly be worse news than the prospect of yet another rousing verse of the song about a race horse by these buttoned-up icons of traditional song. But by 1966, the Hollies had delivered their folk-rock take on it, with the added zing of their harmony style. With this in mind, we now depart from the green fields of Ireland and the pastures of the Southwest where the story takes on a greater 20th century relevance as it moves to New York City in 1971, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono borrowed the melody and came up with a Christmas song, its subject peace on earth during wartime.
“‘Happy Christmas’ Yoko and I wrote together. It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message—the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that, somebody’s doing it to them and they have no control, then they have no control,” Lennon said in his final major interview. Lennon and Ono had used the “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” slogan in their billboard campaign of 1969, based on the idea that peace must be sold to the people just as aggressively as consumer goods and war is promoted (The Doors had previously used the slogan, “war is over,” in their 1968 anti-war song, “Unknown Solider” as had W.S. Merwin in his anti-Vietnam poem, “When the War Is Over,” published in 1967).
John and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band (whose star players for the purpose of this session were Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, and Hugh McCracken) and the Harlem Children’s Choir (they sing, “War is over if you want it”) recorded the song in October at the Record Plant, assisted by producer Phil Spector. It was released in the US on December 6th and held ’til the following November of 1972 for release in the UK.
Spector’s influence is clearly a presence on the track, though for now, it’s purely conjecture whether in addition to inspiration plucked from the Greenbriars’ version, as rendered by PPM and Baez, there is also a dash of such claustrophobic Spector efforts as the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, not to mention another song from Lennon’s past: “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace. “Happy Xmas” bears traces of those melodies in addition to their somber moods.
Opening with a whisper to their children from whom they were estranged at the time (“Happy Christmas Kyoko, Happy Christmas Julian”), the lyrics open with a rather pointed question (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”) and wishes for a better world to follow. All is forgiven by the final uplift.
There are plenty of covers of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, none of them mentionable, and some of them unmentionable (Billy Bob Thornton). The only version worth a bleep that I’ve heard is the original. The melody of “Stewball” seems to have been laid to rest with Lennon’s imaginative use of it, and has insured that it’s sung at least once a year.
From the race tracks of County Kildare to the chain gangs of Mississippi, Stewball is tired and has gone to the place where retired horses go. Think of him this year as you sing along. Or don’t. But do take to heart the song’s final verse: “A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year / Let’s hope it’s good one, without any fear”). That is my message to you, dear reader. Thanks for hanging with me through this “Stewball” adventure, and for that matter, throughout this year. If there are songs or subjects you are interested in reading about next year, let me know. Just no suggestions involving horses, please: I’m happy to say I’ve finished that race.
WARNING: Video depicts graphic imagery of the horror of war.