It wasn’t the first time I had heard Speed the Plow, but the recording of Mark O’Connor, Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer playing it on Appalachia Waltz as part of a medley stands out in my mind as the most memorable recording of this tune that I’ve heard.
That said, Speed the Plow is a classic fiddle tune. It’s known in many fiddle traditions. It has a great catchy melody, and it’s fun to play. Really, what more could you want in a fiddle tune.
Oh yeah, it’s not in Bb, but I can forgive it that one thing.
Speed the Plow according to Fiddler’s Companion
Speed the Plow” (sometimes “Speed the Plough” or “God Speed the Plough”) is a well-traveled tune, popular with fiddlers for over 200 years. Although it is considered a ‘chestnut’ in many circles, it has a deserved place in core fiddle repertoire in several genres, for it seems to flow off the fiddle yet is melodically interesting in both its parts. The reel is extremely widespread in English-speaking traditions and can be found in the repertories of fiddlers throughout North America, Ireland, Scotland and England. What is most unusual is the fact that we do know who composed “Speed the Plow,” unlike many older tunes whose origins are typically unknown. Captain Francis O’Neill researched the melody and reported his findings in Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913), basing his remarks on entries from the British Musical Biography. Therein he found that the reel was the work of one John Moorehead (whose name has also been given as Morehead or Muirhead), of County Armagh, Ireland. Moorehead was not Irish originally, but was born in Edinburgh and emigrated to Armagh in 1782. He was from a musical family and had copious talent on the violin, gaining such renown that he became violinist for London’s Covent Garden Theatre in 1798. It was the year after this appointment that he penned his famous reel, originally entitling it “The Naval Pillar” in support of a proposed memorial column of that name to have been erected in London to commemorate Lord Nelson’s recent headstrong victory over the French in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Moorehead lived to see his melody become a popular success, although he unfortunately later committed suicide by hanging in 1804. The violinist’s melody was employed by the English dramatist Thomas Morton (1764-1838) for his ‘comedy’ Speed the Plough (it was actually much like a melodrama, although the term had not been invented then), written and staged in the year 1800, and associations with this play resulted in the reel becoming popularly and fixedly known as “Speed the Plow.” [When the play crossed the Atlantic and was produced in Boston it starred the thespian parents of poet Edgar Allen Poe, who garnered good critical reviews for their efforts, although the play itself was received lukewarmly].