|La Belle Jardiniere – August, 1896 by Eugène Grasse|
|One of my Opium Poppies in the garden and a mass of happy Hover Flies|
Already the nights are shorter and leaves are turning from a dark palette of green towards the golden rusted hues of Autumn.
I often write about how much of my early love for, and knowledge of folklore, came from listening to the music of the 60s and 70s. A particular favourite of mine was the band Traffic. I will always remember dancing barefoot to them in the 70s.
At the time they were living together in a gamekeepers cottage on a farm near Aston Tirrold in rural Oxfordshire (then it was still part of Berkshire). Down a narrow muddy track and surrounded by farm fields it was no wonder that they were celebrating folklore in their music. Like the songs which they sang both the band and the cottage have become embroidery on the ever growing tapestry of English fables.
|The Traffic cottage near Aston Tirrold, Berkshire|
In those now far distant days I lived a somewhat isolated life, and every new aspect of a different kind of life which I came across fascinated me. We had little access to history books and there was no internet. My family did not frequent church, attending only on a rare occasion. We lived for a short time in a Californian agricultural area, but not grain, it was tomatoes and green vegetables, usually picked by Mexican workers, nothing like the rural scenes in Europe. I first became aware of the Harvest Festival when I moved to San Francisco and heard Traffic's version of the old folk ballad, John Barleycorn Must Die.
" There were three men come out of the west, their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn would die
They've ploughed, they've sown, they've harrowed, thrown clods upon his head
Till these three men were satisfied John Barleycorn was dead ...."
It was intriguing and enchanting in equal measure and set me on a journey of discovery which continued when I moved to England a few years later. While working in London I spent lunch hours in libraries or museums reading about old folk tales including John Barleycorn and viewing paintings of the harvest, in Autumn and earlier. 'Tis a long story not to be told here, but you may read more about poor John if you follow the links at the bottom of this post.And please, do listen to the song it tells this tale far better than I am able to do in words.
What I was most interested in was that although we traditionally think of the harvest being in Autumn, in fact the first one is in August and it is this one from which the fable of John Barleycorn arises.
I've always preferred cooler weather and I love the end of summer, even though it is melancholy as birds leave for winter grounds, flower blooms wither and leaves fall. The Earth begins to still and quiet descends which will follow with the silence of winter.
But first people gather the harvest from the fields and share the first bread from that harvest, which has a magical essence to them. The grain which they work hard to sow and reap not only gives them bread but also whisky and ale, and all of these make are celebrated at Lammastide. John Barleycorn is central in the Lammastide festivity as he is the personification of the grain, which must be cut down to use. But he is resurrected in the bread and drink and his tale was widely sung in taverns.
|Sommer by Leopold Graf von Kalckreuth. Oil on canvas, 1890|
|Detail, The Corn Harvest|
" They've hired men with the sharp-edged scythes to cut him off at the knee
They've rolled him and tied him around the waist, treated him most barbarously
They've hired men with the sharp-edged forks to prick him to the heart
And the loader has served him worse than that for he's bound him to the cart
So they've wheeled him around and around the field till they've come unto a barn
And here they've kept their solemn word concerning Barleycorn
They've hired men with the crab tree sticks to split him skin from bone
And the miller has served him worse than that for he's ground him between two stones
There's beer all in the barrel and brandy in the glass
But little Sir John, with his nut-brown bowl, proved the strongest man at last."
|baking bread in a medieval oven|
|Pieter Bruegel the Elder The Corn Harvest (August)|
|Detail, Pieter Bruegel the Elder The Corn Harvest|
|Cottage bread oven|
|I love this painting which for me sums up what a delicacy bread abd honey was. |
The Queen Was In Her Parlour Eating Bread and Honey,
Valentine Cameron Prinsep
|Part of my small collection of honey pots|
Many years ago when researching the origins of John Barleycorn and Lammas I visited an ancient pub in the New Forest at Cadnam, called The Sir John Barleycorn. It's one of those places where there seems to be a timeslip, as you can feel the past like a thin veil laying just over today.
|Francis Frith collection, |
|The pub today |
their website, Here:
Since then I have come across many such name references to John Barleycorn throughout England and I am sure many more lie undiscovered by me yet!
|The John Barleycorn at Duxley|
Some 40 years after first hearing it, John Barleycorn remains one of my most beloved songs. There are many worthy versions but I will always love Traffic's best of all.
This is an exquisite version from youtube, done by Stevie Winwood by himself, please listen. Here:
And you can see Stevie Winwood revisit that famous cottage, in a little bit of film made by Artisan Pictures, Here:
FURTHER READING ON JOHN BARLEYCORN:
John Barleycorn Wiki page, Here:
An article about lammastide, Here:
A most interesting and detailed look at just who this John Barleycorn realy was, by storyteller Austin Hackney. This is a great blog where I could spend hours. Here:
Finally, you can read more about Traffic on the Rural Culture blogspot Here: