creating community through celebration

The Harvest King

Living in the Bay Area, we don’t usually see many dramatic signs of the changing of the seasons. There is no first frost to subdue the zucchini and glaze the water in the rain barrel. The winter rains are still vacationing up in the Gulf of Alaska, a good month or more away, and we may well spend Thanksgiving watching the last of the tomatoes slowly redden in the garden. We lack the spectacular flash of fall colors that make the maple forests of the East so picturesque. Instead we get an endless palette of subtly graded browns and tans.

And yet it is autumn. You can feel the fading of the light and the pull of darkness, even as temperatures soar and fields bake in the hot sun. We have passed the equinox and slowly, inexorably, the seasons are turning.

The 21st of September (sometimes the 22nd, due to planetary wobble) is the midpoint between the Solstices. In astronomical terms, it is the date when the hours of light and dark balance, when the sun seems to rise and set on the equator. Medieval Europeans, lacking exact means of measurement, fixed the date on September 25th, and the Church ordained the date “Michaelmas” in honor of the archangel Michael. It is also called Mabon in Wiccan practice and Harvest Home in other folk traditions.

In human reckoning, the autumnal equinox is a gateway time. The first day of fall marks the beginning of the season of days shorter than night, but it also has a larger mythical significance, marked by symbols like the cornucopia, corn shocks, cider presses, pumpkins and sheaves of wheat. Presiding over this iconic court is the Harvest King himself, John Barleycorn.

Long trivialized in temperance circles as merely a colorful nickname for corrupting alcoholic drink, the figure of John Barleycorn has a very long and complex history in song and folk tradition.

There is evidence of the term “Barli corn” appearing in print around 1380, and Samuel Pepys refers to ““A pleasant new ballad of the murther of Sir John Barleycorn.” in 1620. There are broadside versions of the song that range from musical recipes for the manufacture of barley beer, to stern admonitions against the evil of drink, and some that seem to include both threads at once.

The song John Barleycorn is a Hero Bold comes from a family of tunes that extol brown ale as expressing the very soul of England. The Scottish poet, Robert Burns, on the other hand, devoted fifteen stanzas to celebrating the beverage’s unique connection to Scotland. American renditions of the song seem to focus on the temperance theme, although the only evidence I have seen of John Barleycorn appearing as an actual hero character in a Mummers’ play comes from an American Appalachian performance.

Here is the short version of the story: Three men (often kings) swear a vow to kill a man named Barleycorn (usually John). They do him in by the recognizably agrarian means of plowing him under and harrowing him in. Barleycorn then confounds his assailants by lying in the ground through the rainy season and popping to his feet in the light of spring. Not to be defeated, the three men then cut him down, and (depending on the version of the story) haul him about the field, whack him with sticks, and/or crush him between two large stones. Despite these indignities, Barleycorn, now locked away in a barrel, is dispensed as an intoxicating beverage (beer, ale, barleywine) and confounding the senses of his tormentors, emerges as “the strongest man of all”.

This tale has been told in many different musical settings. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to how many. Probably the most commonly known tune nowadays, for better or for worse, is the one that the English group “Traffic” recorded on their 1970 album, John Barleycorn Must Die . I say for better because the record certainly boosted awareness of the song well beyond the folk community; for worse because the version of the tune that Traffic chose was, to my ear, one of the least interesting of the many possibilities available.

We have performed versions of John Barleycorn in two Christmas Revels. Most recently, in 2007, Wendell Brooks sang the Kentish version recorded some years ago by Revels founder John Langstaff. This is a rather somber tune which we filled out with a chorus of several men. The action of the song was washed in the late afternoon light of a rural English pub and consisted of farmers laboring in the field and performing the requisite misdeeds upon a scarecrow-like representation of Barleycorn.

An earlier enactment of the song in the 2005 Revels featured the children’s chorus as an entire field of waving Barley stalks and used a much more upbeat version of the tune. Appended to the usual narrative of death, dismemberment and rebirth was the curious refrain “Fa, La, La, La, It’s a Lovely Day!”. We got this particular phrase from the singing of Tony Barrands, but it exists in other versions as well.

The common thread that runs through the majority of the Barleycorn songs is the notion of death and resurrection. After all the barley is planted with the expectation that upon its maturity, it will be harvested and then not only be re-planted to spring up again, but also transformed and reincarnated into a beverage that exerts mysterious and confounding power.

There is speculation that Barleycorn is really an expression of the Pagan “Corn King” and his relative, “The Lord of the Bean” – sacrificial characters whose blood is spilled in the fields to atone for misdeeds and assure fertility and good fortune in the coming year. The kern doll, a human figure woven of stalks and buried in the field is associated with this tradition. Some writers point out strongly Christian symbolism, the two fruits of the barley harvest being bread and barleywine, the two species of Christian communion.

Like the Green Man, the Holly King, the Saxon Wild Man, or even the mumming St. George, Barleycorn is iconic. His death and rebirth are not the stuff of dramatic narrative, but rather ritual enactment. Like these others he refers to an earlier time, and place, He is nominally tied to the season of harvest but also summons from deep in the human soul an awareness of the larger meaning of the season. And that is why we sing the song of John Barleycorn.

- David Parr, Artistic Director