Pagina principale/Vetrina

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A Regency view of Plough Monday, c. 1825

The phrase ‘God speed the plough’ is derived from a wish for success and prosperity in some undertaking, and is many centuries old. It occurs as early as the 15th century in the song sung by the ploughmen on Plough Monday (the first Monday after the twelve days of Christmas). Linscott (1939) concludes the name of this dance and tune indicates association with or derivation from the ancient rituals connected with 'Plough Monday' in Great Britain.

This festival, he says, was part of the worship of agriculture which the early villagers practiced and occurred in mid winter (January): "The prayers for a good harvest were presented to the house gods with great ceremony; bread and cheese were set into the plough, and a like offering scattered to the fields for the crows. The first offering was to seek the blessing for the harvest; the second, to appease the adverse elements" (Linscott, 1939). An association with any ritual vestiges has not been proven and is, at this point, highly speculative. It smacks of the strong urge by some writers to assign great antiquity to fiddle music.

“Speed the Plough” appears in various versions in many British fiddlers’ manuscripts from the 19th century, including those of John Clare (Helpston, Northants, c. 1820), William Calvert (Leyburn, north Yorkshire, 1820), Rev. Robert Harrision (Brampton, Cumbria, 1820), George Spencer (Leeds, west Yorkshire, 1831) and William Hall Lister (East Boldon, near Newcastle, mid-19th century) [see Barry Callaghan’s Hardcore English, pgs. 49-50, for noted music from the ms’s]. The melody is still popular in English sessions in modern times, although considered somewhat of a ‘beginner’s tune’.

A note in O'Neill {Minstrels and Musicians, 1913} (based on the authority of the British Musical Biography) states the air was composed in 1799 by John Moorehead of Armagh, Ireland, a famous violinist who came from a musical family and who acquired some renown in the latter 18th century. O’Neill’s information was that he was born in Edinburgh, emigrating to Armagh in 1782, however, this is generally disputed. Groves Dictionary of Music (3rd edition, 1927), for example, gives his place of birth as Ireland, around 1760.

He was violinist of Covent Garden Theatre in 1798, though his life ended tragically some six years later when he committed suicide by hanging in 1804. O’Neill implies that the tune was first called "The Naval Pillar" (J.S. Skinner, 1904, gives it as an alternate title) A year after Moorehead was supposed to have composed it the melody was used for a play called Speed the Plough (1800) written by Thomas Morton, and was published in New York as an instrumental piano piece about the same time. W.B. Laybourn, editor of Köhler’s Violin Repository (1881) attributes the reel to "James Muirhead, 1800".

“Speed the Plough” has been attributed to others as well, including English conductor, arranger and composer Sir Henry Bishop (for more on whom see “Dashing White Sergeant”) [Murray, 1994]. Aloys Fleischmann, in his massive compendium Sources of Irish Traditional Music c1600-1855, ii (New York and London, Garland, 1998) gives three entries for the melody that clearly predate its use by Moorehead in The Naval Pillar (1800):

1) Edward Light: Introduction to the art of playing on the harp, lute, guitar (London, 1785) - here described as a reel.
2) E. Rhames: 3 Admired Country Dances - National Library of Ireland MS 7040 (Dublin, c1790).
3) Maurice Hime: Collection of Favorite Country Dances for the Present Year, vol. 1 - National Library of Ireland, Joly Music 5298 (Dublin, c1797)

Whomever composed it, the melody was hugely popular and quickly entered tradition on both sides of the Atlantic--apparently about the same time--where it has appeared regularly in fiddle-tune collections in America and the British Isles ever since.

...more at Speed the plow - full Score(s) and Annotations
Past Featured Tunes

Speed the Plow
Played by: Hog-eyed Man
Source: Soundcloud at

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