Friday, 5 August 2016

Lammastide ~ John Barleycorn Must Die

La Belle Jardiniere – August, 1896 by Eugène Grasse

Summer was slow this year and the garden responded reluctantly unfolding only part of it's potential for us to see. Rain and winds destroyed the poppy, peony and damask rose blooms almost as soon as they appeared and the lawns were strewn with the beautiful translucent petals. Despite being spoiled the air was still heavily scented while from the peatls laying fadding in the sun that followed the storms. We had some spectacular skies. The water lillies have still not yet bloomed but as August arrived so did the first Dragonfly we have ever had on our pond. Summer happened rather suddenly, not in the sleepy lazy manner it sometimes takes.

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
Living in a small village atop a hill surrounded by golden fields, and funny enough not so very far from that fabled Traffic cottage, I am closer to the times when people lived off the land and in communities than I ever have been. Many of the village cottages have bread ovens, and our local pub and church have a harvest celebration.

Cottage bread oven
 Our workers cottages are much changed but up until the 1930s there was no running water here, there was a well in our garden for the community, and an old bakehouse where bread and other foods were baked daily.  There has been a settlement here since the Romans, and the local church is 12th century. I imagine that many a Lammas loaf was eaten here through time.

village cottages
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:

source, 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
I've recently acquired a beautiful book of woodcuts by Mary Azarian which tells the story.

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:


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:


  1. Hi LeeAnn, lovely post as always. Summer has been rather short and uninspiring this year, but who knows what awaits us towards the end of the month. I too love autumn and the cooler months, I really enjoy the summer being out and about, but I love the change of seasons the falling leaves, the colours of autumn and the cosiness of it all. I thought I wouldn't know the song, but as soon as I started to listen, I realised I knew it well! My garden is still doing quite well, probably because it's always a bit warmer down south than further up. Wishing you a lovely week LeeAnn. xx

    1. It is one of those songs you never forget. Lucky you having more warmth where you are I bet your harden looks divine. x

  2. What a fascinating post. I listened to the rendition of the song and was surprised that I had never heard it before. You live in a part of the world that is so rich in history and culture. Layer upon layer.

    1. I do feel lucky to be surrounded by so much history. I try to make the most of it in everyday life. x

  3. What an interesting post, I shall listen and follow the links as I too am fascinated by the seasons and how they were and are celebrated. Thank you! I love the paintings you have chosen too. Jane xx

    1. Thank you Jane, there is such a vast wealth of folklore here and I love researching it. x

  4. Hi,

    What an interesting collection of thoughts, images and information you have brought together here. And thank you for your kind words about my blog and for linking to my Barleycorn article. You are welcome any time!

    Do you know the Lammas song of the Hedgehog Clan? I suppose you'd call them a contemporary coven. They bake bread for Lammas and as they do so, they sing:

    "The bread shows the mystery
    of the Goddess and the God,
    For the bread is the body of the Earth.
    The earth is a Goddess,
    From Her we are born;
    The God is a King
    Giving life to the corn.
    When the corn has been cut
    And the King's blood is shed,
    The God who has fallen
    Shall rise in the bread."

    Very clear John Barleycorn connections, there, don't you think?

    Wishing you well,


    1. Austin, Thank you so very much for visiting! - I do love your writing and it is always an inspiration. I love this song, and agree, quite clear links to John Barleycorn. x

  5. Very interesting! I must look into John Barleycorn!

    1. I think you will be fascinated Laura! So much artwork and wonderful place associations. x


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