Thursday, February 19, 2009

Singing at Bed Time

Each night to Basil Wenceslas and Anselm Samuel I read some books (tonight it was just one, Strega Nona), tell them a story from the Bible (Tonight it was Jesus and Peter walking on water), and sing them some songs. Usually I sing Amazing Grace, Go Tell Aunt Grody, Down in the Valley, America, Danny Boy, On Top of Old Smokey, Softly and Tenderly, The Streets of Laredo, The Old Rugged Cross, and The Red River Valley. But tonight, a song popped into my head that I haven't thought of in years: Stewball. As I sang it I started to cry, which is, I am sure even more evidence that I am getting old. (How I pity the people who will have to take care of me when I am an old weepy man. Which reminds me of an Army story. Once I and some of my fellow soldiers of 101st Airborne were drunk on champagne when one of got out a copy of the Constitution and began reading it aloud. As he read we all began crying when suddenly one of us snatched it away from the reader, held it to his breast, and declared with much earnestness and passion, "I love the the third amendment". At which point the rest of us declared our inebriated yet undying love for the Constitution.) What you might like to know is that Stewball was a real horse. He was born in the middle of the 1700's in England and was famous in England, Ireland, and America. And each country tells the story according to its own lyrical and musical traditions. In all versions of the song except a recent French version, Stewball wins the famous race at Kildare Plain. In the French version Stewball is injured and has to be put down. (You expected different from the people of Camus and Sartre?)

In America there are two different musical traditions, the chain gang version first recorded by Leadbelly, and the almost hymnodic folk version made famous by Joan Baez (my Mother's favorite singer), the Hollies, and Peter Paul and Mary. It is this folk version I know best. I used to play it on a little Martin guitar until I had to sell the guitar to pay rent.

I like the words recorded by Joan Baez on the Joan Baez/5 album the most. They relate more of the truth of Stewball's life than some other versions, and are the words of the great horse's jockey "I rode him in England, I rode him in Spain, and I never did lose, boys, I always did gain." But Peter Paul and Mary's lyrics (on their 1963 album "In The Wind") telling the story from a spectator's point of view are the best known words today.

Maybe, someday, if I get another guitar or mandolin, and if my fingers remember how to play (it's been 20 years) I'll record the song myself. In the meantime, here is the song,both the words and the melody, I sang to my boys tonight. And, of course, they had many questions.


Philippa said...

We used to sing to our kids at bedtime too. The favorites were: Amazing Grace, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Lullaby.

Our daughter used to call the second song, "Sweet Chair." She still does!

And I loved the story Strega Nona!

Mimi said...

I have great memories of my dad singing to me at bedtime.