Wiffle Tree Song
Credits / Links
Sources: Web Pages
Old Gray Mare
Hall of Fame
The Wiffle Tree Song
Sources: Web Pages
Horse Drawn Equipment
Was there REALLY an Old Gray Mare ?
First of all, yes, there was a distinguished gray mare named Lady Suffolk. She
was a true champion Standardbred, who raced under saddle and to
sulky in the 1840s. In the early era of the "steppers," that is,
trotting horses, this gray mare gained fame as a top competitor.
Lady Suffolk was originally the property of a Long
Island liveryman. She was foaled in 1833 at Smithtown on the farm of
Carl S. Burr, Jr. Her sire was Engineer II, her dam Jenny. She was a
great-granddaughter of Messenger, the foundation sire of the
David Bryan bought the filly, who was pulling an
oyster cart, when she was four-years-old.
her first race in Babylon in 1838, winning her first victory
for a purse of $11.
She raced under saddle and won two out of three heats. During her career, she was held in high regard for her speed and
stamina. She pulled a heavy two-wheeled high sulky against the best
trotters, traveling to and from most of her races pulling her own
her racing career, she won 89 of 162 races and was second
The term "Standardbred" was introduced in 1879 to
distinguish those trotting horses who met a certain "standard" for the
mile distance. The time was 2 1/2 minutes. Lady
Suffolk's fame was built on being the first trotter to finish a mile
under saddle in under 2:30. She swept under the wire in 2:26 in
1845, setting a world record at Beacon Course in Hoboken, New Jersey,
becoming the first horse to trot a mile in under 2 1/2 minutes. She was 12 years old when she set her record.
A campaigner for sixteen seasons, Lady Suffolk was
considered the "Queen of the Turf" until her death in 1855 at age 22, in
My take on the
Old Gray Mare Song
Here's the bad thing about actually doing research: the more you
dig, the more questions you ask. In this case, by the time I was
tired of looking things up, there weren't good, clean answers to
any of my questions. The result? I'm still not sure of truth
to be had about the Old Gray Mare / Whiffle Tree song.
However, since I started, one thing I seriously doubt is that the
song has anything to do with the late, great racehorse, Lady Suffolk.
The general documentation found is
that composer Frank Panella's song is an old
folk song. Published in 1915, it is
considered a children's tune and has been used
to underscore anything featuring an old horse.
Popular perspective is that the song
refers to a horse - and to people - that
are past their prime.
The Song & Lady Suffolk
Do the math, and you realize that Lady Suffolk died 60 years before the song was published. Since she raced for 16 years
starting at the age of 4, she raced until she was 20 years old. Since she died in 1855, her last race
was in 1853. Play with your calculator a little more and you figure Lady Suffolk was 22 years of age when she died, which
is verified in most Lady Suffolk information bytes.
In the 1940's, Mr. Panella was in his 60's.
Means he had to be born near the time of Lady
Suffolk's death in the late 1880's. So now
you have to ask the question: why would a
composer, who played saxophone in the Pittsburgh
Symphony Orchestra, write a folk ditty
based on a OLD & beloved New York sports
legend of a horse, who died about the same time
he was in diapers?
There's a famous
picture by Currier & Ives
of Lady Suffolk racing Lady Moscow in
Philadelphia at Hunting Park course in June of
1850. Remember our calculator? She
had to be 17 years old for that race - and in
the picture, she was winning.
So I guess that in her old age, she was doing
The Old Gray Mare / Whiffletree Song, published
in 1915, was the time of World War I, ragtime
and Irving Berlin. Robert Maine, Richard
A. Reublin, & Beverly Maine, of
state that solid evidence exists to indicate
Panella was not the creator of the song.
to A History of Popular Music in America
(1948 by Sigmund Spaeth), the song actually
has its origins in an 1858 song by J. Warner
titled, Down in Alabam'. According to
Spaeth, this song was the original version
of what is now known as the Old Grey Mare.
Its words dealt with an "old hoss" that
"came tearin' out de wilderness" and the
tune is very nearly identical with what has
become one of the world's most familiar
basic melodies. Other resources credit the
final version of the melody we know today to
Panella but the origins of the words are
still shrouded in mystery ... I think it
just might be that Mr. Panella borrowed a
tune from the past."
Panella may not have composed the music,
nor written the lyrics. Was he simply the
first to write down a popular tune and then got it
published? Did he know of words that fit
the tune and knew he couldn't claim the lyrics
as his own, but still included them with his
musical score and left the interpretation to the
sheet music buyers?
Now, if you forget Panella,
let's consider the original melody & lyrics.
You're left with an "old hoss" that came
"came tearin' out de wilderness"
in 1858, three years after Lady Suffolk's death
in Vermont. Makes you wonder about the
identity of the "old hoss" in Alabama. The
southern based lyrics probably don't have
anything to do with a famous gray mare who raced
up in the land of the Yankee.
1915 was also the beginning of the
automobile revolution & WWI. While the caissons
kept rolling along, many of them were horse
driven & horses were still widely used for
transportation and hauling goods. And just
like the inevitable demise of an old car, the
reduced usefulness of a good horse as it aged
was something to be lamented, especially after
many years of steady service.
The lyrics of the song are interesting, in that they say that our old
mare has "kicked on the whiffletree." So what does that mean?
First, you need to know that a whiffle tree is the wooden member that
divides and attaches to the traces - one of the leather parts of the
harness strapped onto the horse's body - on either side of the
horse. The whiffle, or whipple or singletree is then attached in
the center of the cart, wagon or whatever is being pulled.
Depending on the vehicle, the whittletree is usually positioned
between the hock and upper thigh and is always well behind the harnessed
horse. Typically, the whiffle tree cannot be kicked unless the
horse REALLY wants to kick. OR, if the horse is really moving
quickly and the back legs are extended. Then the whipple tree
cannot be avoided.
A habitual kicker is considered a poor choice for a harness horse.
It If a reliable horse started to kick, usually there was a good
reason. Problems in carting arise from an overly heavy load, or
a problem with the harness, or if a horse is being mishandled.
In any case, if our steady old gray girl "kicked on the whiffle
tree" and "she ain't what she used to be" it was a pretty good
indication that something was wrong. And it probably wasn't the
Panella's original sheet music features an old
horse with it's ribs showing, one leg amputated & fitted with a peg leg,
another leg injured, yet still hitched to a wagon. Despite her
crossed eyes and sorry condition, the old gal is expected to perform for
her smiling, chubby male driver perched in the driver's seat. His
hands are clenched, the reins are taut and he's pushing her, despite her
age & infirmaries, to keep working. What a visual statement !
It's a mystery as to why folks in our
generation have put two and two together and came up the idea that the
Old Gray Mare song is about Lady Suffolk. While little to be found
about Lady Suffolk's last years, accounts indicate that she was a strong
competitor for the full duration of her racing career.
If you know anything about racing, you know that to
continue to campaign an animal who is not a winner is a costly
proposition. That she raced well into her latter teens & early
twenties is a testament to her speed and stamina. Lady
Suffolk was a champion who did not need to be lamented for being old.
Her legacy is that instead of getting useless as she aged, she just got
better with time.
Old Gray Mare Lyrics
Finally, here they are - the lyrics to Old Gray Mare song. After
doing my homework & really pondering the lyrics, I'm left wondering why
folks have embraced the sentiment that the song should be a negative view of
horses & women in the first place.
And, after thinking about it, I'm not sure it's such a bad thing to
BE an old gray mare. First of all, I don't want to be as I used to
be. I know I'm BETTER than I used to be. Do you remember
turning 40? It wasn't so bad and fifty wasn't too awful either.
We're still the same person inside, but better, I think, because our
years on earth have given us wisdom that only comes from living.
The OGM lyrics can be interpreted as a lament about horses
and/or women, that as they age human & equine ladies are just not as
good as they get older. There is no denying that as we age, we
physically are NOT the same as when in our youth. However, I have
a lot of first hand experience with older horses, and now that I'm in my
50's, my friends are older women too.
If offered a young horse and an old horse to take home, I'd pick the
old one first, hands down. They've been there, done that,
and any problems are evident. It's a choice of experience over
"needs more training & miles". Maybe I appreciate the value
of experience more now that I'm older too. Nah, I always valued
the known vs. the time consuming opportunity to educate the ignorant.
No matter what the song says, I disagree that the song means that
old horses and older folks are worthless & past their prime. Old gray
mares, horses AND women, are just plain better. And as for the
song's old gray mare? Whoever she was, I hope she had a good life