Listening to my semi-modern Norwegian Christmas music today on a whim, and heard an odd track come up. (Yeah, I know, what are the odds, right?) Why would Norwegians think the PPM version of "Stewball" was a Christmas song? I'm not seeing the connection here.
It was actually John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." I didn't know he had stolen the tune, and couldn't recognise that until I heard it in Norwegian. They sang the newer version, BTW. I wanted to hear them singing the Hare Krshna of the older version in their Norsk accents, but no such luck. Yep, run those tunes in your head, and you'll see they're the same. George Harrison wasn't the only one to steal tunes.
Now off to one of my favorite exercises, tracing a song back to earlier versions. As it is both an Irish and an American song, but seems to have no Scottish connection, it is more likely to have come over in the 1840's than with the Scots-Irish 60-120 years earlier. But songs are funny, and such guesses don't always hold up.
Here's the version you are probably familiar with. Joan Baez did it, and the Hollies as well.
It's likely that their source was Woody Guthrie, or something close to whoever Woody got it from.
You can hear pieces of that version in the Leadbelly recording, but it's clear Hudie is drawing from a whole different line here. Woody's and Hudie's versions were sundered decades earlier.
You might think the Chad Mitchell Trio would come in on the Guthrie line, but it's closer to Leadbelly's. Yet the Irishness is overwhelming in this one, and in fact, they did not get it from Ledbetter, but from American Irish sources much older. Their version is a cousin of Hudie's. Second cousin.
The Steeleye Span version owes nothing to any American versions, and is drawn from Irish sources. You can read about those here.
Well, you'd think we were done now, except that the link relates it to another set of songs, the old bluegrass standard Molly and Tenbrooks - I had never looked that one up with all its variant spellings, and had never made the connection to the Stewball/Skewball songs. Here's Alison Kraus updating the old Bill Monroe version. So maybe we're in Scots-Irish territory after all, though I doubt it.
and the related Run Molly Run, by the Kingston Trio. I had made that connection, at least.
But that whole competition thing, with the contestants speaking to each other throughout, plus parts of the melody, always reminded me of a different American folk classic. I even mentioned the connection in a high-school paper in 1970, when I was in the height of old-folkie fascination. I thought "Run Mollie Run" must be related to "John Henry" somehow. The teacher should have red-marked that, because that was an unjustified overshoot on my part. That dialogue form is common to the British Isles.
Here's John Henry anyway, two versions you hadn't heard.
We're pretty far from Norwegian Christmas at this point.