phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Speed the plow

Posted by Smokey Stover on September 11, 2008 at 06:17

In Reply to: Speed the plow posted by ESC on September 10, 2008 at 22:00:

: : What would the phrase "speed the plow" mean? Like in the title of a play by David Mamet.

: GOD SPEED THE PLOW -- "God speed the plough, 'a wish for success or prosperity,' was originally a phrase in a 15th-century song sung by ploughmen on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Day, which is the end of the Christmas holidays, when farm laborers returned to the plough. On this day ploughmen customarily went from door to door dressed in white and drawing a plough, soliciting 'plough money' to spend in celebration. "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).
Andrew Kuntz has given a somewhat more elaborate history of the various uses of "Speed the Plough," or "God Speed the Plough." For many years it was best known as a fiddler's tune, of the dance-type known as a reel. It was composed by a violinist named John Moorehead in 1799, as "The Naval Pillar" (the name of a proposed monument to Lord Nelson), but in 1800 turned up as the principal music for a comedy-melodrama entitled "Speed the Plough," by the dramatist Thomas Morton. The play crossed the Atlantic, and was produced in Boston, starring the parents of Edgar Allan Poe.

The acting was better received than the play, but the tune was a great hit, appearing in numerous collections of reels and fiddler's tunes on both sides of the Atlantic. It continues to find its way into collections of fiddlers' tunes and reels.

There have been numerous recordings of the tune, not always under the title "Speed the Plow," and sometimes that title is used for a different tune. Unfortunately I haven't yet located a suitable example to offer on this site.

Mr. Kuntz, like several other researchers, has traced the idea of "God Speed the Plough" back to late medieval times (the 14th century), and it's not hard to imagine that the tradition of "Plough Monday" may be even older. Mr. Kuntz asserts that "Plough-Monday celebrations were once common in much of England and survived well into the 20th century--the custom was still extant in the 1950's in some villages around Nottingham, for example." He gives much detail regarding the "Plough-Boys" and "Plough-bullocks" associated with the event, and mentions that some locales had folk-plays somewhat like mummer's plays.

Plough Monday comes very early in the year, and those familiar with the Philadelphia Mummers' Parade, will note that that celebration also comes very early in the year. Otherwise one will not be reminded of anything very old except the name, and perhaps the uniqueness of the custom.

There is a wealth of information on the tune, and on the folk celebration, that can be searched on the Web. My information comes from:

I don't know where David Mamet first heard the phrase that became the title of his play, but I'm sure it's not a mystery, as the author is alive and can be queried by anyone really curious.