Speed the Plow

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For most of us these days, the phrase “Speed the Plow” brings to mind the award winning 1988 play by David Mamet poking fun at the American movie industry. He told the Chicago Tribune that he took the phrase from an old saying “Industry produces wealth, God speed the plow.” Theater buffs will know though that there was an earlier, and also quite popular, play by that title in the 19th century by an Englishman, Thomas Morton. The Boston production of which, by the way, starred the future parents of the poet, Edgar Allan Poe. Morton took the name from a reel that, at the time, was in rapid ascendance.

This Speed the Plough was composed by a Scotsman living in Co. Armagh, Ireland by the name of John Moorehead. He was apparently quite a musician and from a very musical family. At the time, 1799, he was a violinist with London’s Covent Garden Theatre.

A catchy tune and fun to dance to, Speed the Plough quickly spread far and wide. I first learned it from Missouri/Oregon Old time fiddler, Earl Willis and later caught it from Earl’s distant cousin (through the Daniel Boone family) Glenn Berry of Seabeck, WA (both are featured in Vol I: Evergreen Fiddler Tunebook). Glenn’s version printed here is fairly close to the version in Cole’s 1000 Fiddle Tunes, the key change from D not withstanding. Both versions are included on this website. You may recognize a phrase from the currently more common tune, Whiskey Before Breakfast. Speed the Plough may not have been the first to utilize that lick, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it helped to spread that particular musical idea around.

But enough about the tune; it’s fun; you should play it. Moorehead as well didn’t pluck the name out of thin air. The phrase goes back at least to the 14th century as a prayer for a successful crop and as a song sung by gangs of mischievous revelers on Plough Monday rampages at the end of the Christmas season. Thanks to Andrew Kuntz of www.ibiblio.org for much more on Speed the Plow, and many other fiddle tunes as well.

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