Songs to Celebrate the Harvest

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a wheat dolly
A wheat dolly

This is a list of traditional harvest songs for the grain harvest with a few modern songs written in a similar style. Most are in English, some have Celtic influence. They include songs about reaping the grain, dancing in the fields, and singing at a celebration feast or a Thanksgiving dinner. The grain harvest occurs whenever the grain is ripe, generally early in August in northern countries. This is now set to August 1st or Lammas. The community celebration occurs whenever the grain has all been gotten in--it would normally have fallen on the full moon of August, set to about the 15th of August according to annual calendars. Although I had often heard that many traditional folk songs went back to Pagan times, it was very difficult to find harvest songs that had not been christianized. I was able to find several, though most of these songs are more secular than Pagan.

Illustration of the rustic dancers by Robert Anning Bell from the Tempest

For each of these songs, I have tried to give the name of the song and its original source; a place where the lyrics and music are published so that you can learn to sing them if you like. Even with the links to sites that have these songs, I found it difficult to collect the lyrics so I made a page to make it easier to print out just the Harvest Song Lyrics that are the 16 easiest ones to sing. There is also information about where you can find a recording. Some of these songs can be downloaded for free or they can be listened to for free--I usually look them up on MySpace which has links to many songs that can be listened to without paying. There are 22 songs here, numbered for convenience:

1. Reapers Dance
In Shakespeare’s time it was still possible to see and hear people singing as they reaped grain in the fields. This is probably the inspiration for the interlude in the play the Tempest, where Prospero calls “spirits” in the form of nymphs and harvesters to perform a dance for a young couple in love. An isolated sheet of music, marked “Tempest” (BM Add. Ms. 10444, No. 62) and attributed to Robert Johnson, is thought to have been written for this. Shakespeare introduces the Reapers Dance in Act IV i 138 with the words:

“You sunburned sicklemen, of August early,
Come hither from the furrow, and be merry.
Make holiday; your rye-straw hats put on,
And these fresh nymphs encounter every one
In country footing.”

2. Wiltshire Reapers Dances
The Wiltshire Reapers Dance was collected as a Morris Dance in Wiltshire, by Cecil Sharp in the late 1800’s. Morris Dancing has a number of sources from which it sprang, but the oldest is probably a men’s war dance to protect the ripening grain. It is most often used in the spring but the Wiltshire Reapers Dance was associated with the late summer harvest. Part of the music for this dance has the same theme as the music used in the Tempest, and it may be a testament to how persistent folk traditions can be that this music, dance and its association with reaping should continue from the 1600’s into the very early 20th century. The music and a set of dance steps for this are given in English Dance and Song (Journal), Vol. 16, No. 4, for 1952, pp. 113 and 119. A CD with the music for this dance is available from the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

3. Harvest Home
The customs of the harvesters as they brought the last sheaves of grain in from the fields are described in the Golden Bough, in Vol. 7: 135ff, see especially p. 146 for the English custom. The harvesters decorated the last sheaf of grain with ribbons and flowers and carried it on the top of the last cart and they sang “harvest home!” as they came in from the fields. There are many versions of the Harvest Home song, with the first line: “Your hay it is mow’d...” or “Our oats they are hoe’d...” Some versions of this song are so old that they go back to a time when the Christian Church in England could still force farmers to pay one tenth of their income in farm produce to the church, in accord with the biblical injunction for tithing. Needless to say this didn’t go over very well with farmers. The song is included in the opera King Arthur, with music by Henry Purcell (where it is No. 25 in the abridged concert edition). The first performance of the opera was in 1691. A really good performance of the song, here called Ritornello, item No. 37, can be found on the recording of the opera Purcell: King Arthur, with conductor John Eliot Gardiner, and the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, 1983. Most of this opera sounds baroque, but this song sounds like a folk song. A version of the song called “The Farmers’ Vain Glory” was also published in d’Urfey, Vol. 5, p. 141-142. Here are the words:

Your hay it is mow’d and your corn it is reap’d.
Your barns will be full and your hovels heap’d
Come, boys, come,
Come, boys, come.
And merrily roar out our harvest home.
And merrily roar out our harvest home.

Chorus (all):
Harvest home, harvest home!
And merrily roar out our harvest home.
And merrily roar out our harvest home.

We’ve cheated the parson, we’ll cheat him again,
For why should a blockhead have one in ten?
One in ten, one in ten,
For why should a blockhead have one in ten?
For why should a blockhead have one in ten?
Chorus (all sing last three lines of last verse)

For prating so long, like a book-learn’d sot,
Till pudding and dumpling are burnt to the pot:
Burnt to pot, burnt to pot
Till pudding and dumpling are burnt to pot.
Till pudding and dumpling are burnt to pot.
Chorus (all sing last three lines of last verse)

We’ll toss off our ale till we cannot stand;
And heigh for the honour of old England;
Old England, old England
And heigh for the honour of old England.
And heigh for the honour of old England.
Chorus (all sing last three lines of last verse)

Final chorus (all):
Harvest home, harvest home!
And heigh for the honour of old England.

The chorus, in which everyone joins in, is different each time, but it is just the last three lines of each verse, so if anyone knows the song, everyone can sing along. You can hear Harvest Home with much arrgghhing! on YouTube.

4. Crying the Neck
Crying the Mare or Crying the Neck is a harvest custom still practiced in Cornwall among local farmers, and this form of the ritual probably has a Celtic influence. Among the Indo-European-speaking people, the Grain Goddess is often associated with horses. The Grain Goddess has a name like Dea or Devi in most of the Indo-European languages, and some of the forms of this name in each of the Indo-European language groups are given on the page for the Goddess Devi.

The custom of Crying the Neck is described in detail in the Golden Bough, 7: 264-269, and Vol. 7:292-294, and you can watch part of Crying the Neck in Cornwall on YouTube. There is also a good site about Crying the Neck at Legendary Dartmoor which has more information about the custom with good pictures and the words to some more songs.

5. The Rondelay or Harvest Home
This song, with the first line, “When the farmer has fallow’d and till’d all his land...” was honestly bowdlerized by S. Baring-Gould in English Minstrelsie, Vol. 5, pp. 38-40 under the title Harvest Home. He gives the music and attributes the composition to L. Atterbury who died in 1796, although broadside copies of it are older. The last verse which Baring-Gould left out goes like this (but you might not want to sing this verse at your grandfather’s house):

Down life’s sloping hill while old Square Toes jogs on,
And sums up the treasure in store for his son,
Young Hopeful thinks long ’til Fate winds up the charm,
That gives him possession of acres and farm.
Then what should he do? what should he do?
Sing harvest home, harvest home!
Old time never fails to bring harvest home.

6. A Contented Country Lass/Lad/Maid
The first line is, “I am a brisk and bonnie maid ...,” or, “... a brisk and bonnie lad (lass).” The words and music are published by Peter Kennedy in Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, p. 552 (item No. 244, under the title Brisk and Bonny Lass). The song, called “A Contented Country Lad” and sung by Jim and Bob Copper, can be found on the World Library Of Folk & Primitive Music, Vol. 1: England which was recorded by Alan Lomax. According to Alan Lomax in the liner notes (which also include the words), this song was written by evangelists to encourage young women to be “contented” with their lot, no matter how difficult and unappreciated, but I like it anyway.

7. The Reaphook and the Sickle
The words and music for the Reaphook and the Sickle are available on the net at Folkinfo.org, however these versions don’t have the prettiest words. The song is recorded by Waterson:Carthy on the Holy Heathens CD, and I was able to listen to this on MySpace.

8. Harvest Season by Clan na Gael
Most of the songs on this list are “traditional” and are not copyright to anyone, although the actual performances or recordings may be. This song is a modern song copyright to George Leverett. It is performed by Clan na Gael (one of many bands by that name), and the words to the song are included in the liner notes to the CD. Although this song is neopagan, I thought it had the spirit of the traditional harvest songs. It also fits a bit better with the later harvest (including apples and root vegetables) and the date of the American Thanksgiving holiday, which falls in late November. Clan na Gael disbanded a long time ago but George and Anwyn Leverett are still involved in music and they make beautiful medieval musical instruments, such as hurdy-gurdies and harps. They have a website at http://www.altarwind.com.

9. Harvest Song by Beltane
This is another modern song in the old tradition, and it’s also appropriate for the time of the American Thanksgiving, and very beautiful. It’s on the CD by Beltane called Before the High Feast and I was able to listen to this on MySpace.

10. The Jolly Ploughboy
There are several completely different songs with this title: the one I like has the words and music published by Cecil Sharp in English Country Folk Songs, p. 6-7 (you can skip verse 2). Both the words and music for Jolly Plowboy are available on Digital Tradition. The Jolly Plowboy is beautifully sung by John Langstaff with Martin Best on the Nottamun Town CD. You can also hear the song Jolly Ploughboy being sung on YouTube by Mrs. Gandara's fifth grade class. It's the first 1:44 of the video, which is otherwise about Apple Howling and goes to 7:42.

11. All of a Row
The words and music for this song are published by Sabine Baring-Gould in English Minstrelsie, Vol. 2, pp. 34-35. A number of variations of this song are published under the title “Harvest Feast Song” which has better words in the Folk Music Journal for 1968 (pp. 250-251). The song is performed on September 30th by Jon Boden on A Folk Song a Day CD for September which has several good harvest songs. It’s also performed by Martin Carthy and the Albion Band in Lark Rise to Candleford, a BBC movie on DVD, and there is a version by Martin Carthy on the Sweet Wivelsfield CD which can be listened to through MySpace. I haven’t seen the movie, but it’s based on the writings of Flora Thompson, which show that although life was simpler in the old days, it could also be much harder.

12. All Among the Barley
This is a very pretty song, suitable for September. The song is old since it was published in broadsides; many variations with tune and sources are given in the journal English Dance and Song, 1967. The words to All Among the Barley are published on Digital Tradition. The sheet music for the setting by Elizabeth Stirling for three voices is available on the Library of Congress website. There is a performance by Tinkers Bag of All Among the Barley on YouTube. This version has too much chat, but it has an extra verse, too. A beautiful a capella version can be heard on MySpace by the Singing Milkmaids from their album On the Wash.

13. The Mow
The music is the same as the well-known Ariel’s Song in Shakespeare’s play, the Tempest, which is thought to have been composed by Robert Johnson, but this is a different set of lyrics, and what a great improvement they are. The words are included (without music) in Ancient Poems by Robert Bell, p. 157-158. Ariel’s Song with the traditional Tempest lyrics is beautifully performed on YouTube, though I don’t know how anyone can sing this and keep a straight face. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any performance of the song with the lyrics of the Mow.

Harvest Supper Songs
In the 1800’s, it was the custom of the farmer who hired the reapers for the duration of the reaping season (only a few days at each farm) to “pay” them lavishly in beer and beef, in hopes that they would come back next year, since the farmer was absolutely dependent on them to bring in his crop. As a result the reapers got very drunk at the harvest suppers, which really isn’t all that amusing. Nevertheless, I have included a couple of drinking songs, since beer is ultimately one of the major products of the barley harvest.

14. and 15. Harvest Supper Song and Harvest Away
These two songs are variants, but with the same chorus, “drink, boys, drink...” The (Wiltshire) Harvest Supper Song is sung to one version of the tune of the Jolly Miller. Here are the words corrected from the novel Adam Bede by George Eliot (1859):

Here’s a health unto our master, the founder of the feast,
Here’s a health unto our master, and to our mistress.
And may his doings prosper, whate’er he takes in hand,
For we are all his servants, and are at his command.

Chorus:
Then drink, boys, drink,
And see ye do not spill.
For if ye do, ye shall drink two,
For ’tis our master’s will.

Now harvest it is ended and supper it is past.
To our good mistress’ health, boys, a full and flowing glass,
For she is a good woman, and makes us all good cheer
Here’s to our mistress’ health, boys, so all drink off your beer.

The words and music for Harvest Away are at Digital Tradition. I couldn’t find any recordings of either one of these songs.

16. The Barley Mow
This is a cumulative drinking song, and the drunker you are the harder it is to sing it, which drunk people think is funny. The words and music are published in the Peter Kennedy book and there is a version of the lyrics for Barley Mow at Musicanet.org. The music and words and chords for Barley Mow are available on the traditionalmusic site.

There are several excellent recordings of this but I was able to listen to it for free on MySpace in a beautiful performance by the Revels Chorus on the CD The Wild Mountain Thyme. There is also a version of the Barley Mow sung by Seamus Kennedy on YouTube which is entertaining. In any case, the harvest supper would be followed with singing and dancing for everyone present.

17. John Barleycorn
This song gives the progress of the grain through the growing season. As has been widely noticed, John Barleycorn is a personification of barley and the song is a retelling of the Myth of the Dying Corn God, one of the standard Proto-Indo-European Myths. Of course some of the more bizarre ideas that have been developed from this is a “theory” that the Pagans used to sacrifice human beings and pour their blood out on the ground to improve their wheat crop. As absurd as this is, it is still a sad fantasy among some modern Christians that someone has to be tortured and killed for the benefit of someone else. Just to be clear, it was the actual grain that was “killed” (harvested) and “beaten” (threshed), while the “blood” and “flesh” of the grain are actually beer and bread. At least that’s true for Indo-European Pagans.

After that sad topic, let’s move on to this beautiful song. My favorite of the many versions of this song is by Traffic, and it appears on their Greatest Hits CD and originally on the John Barleycorn Must Die CD. I had trouble finding these words, so here they are:

There were three men came out of the West
their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow
“John Barleycorn must die.”

They’ve plowed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in,
threw clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow
“John Barleycorn was dead.”

They’ve let him lie for a very long time,
’til the rains from heaven did fall.
And little Sir John sprang up his head
and so amazed them all.

They let him stand ’til Mid-Summer’s Day
’til he looked both pale and wan;
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard
and so become a man.

They’ve hired men with the scythes so sharp
to cut him off at the knee;
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the waist
serving him most barbarously.

They’ve hired men with the sharp pitchforks
who pricked him to the heart.
And the loader he has served him worse than that,
for he’s bound him to the cart.

They’ve wheeled him around and around the field
’til they came unto a barn.
And there they made a solemn oath,
On poor John Barleycorn.

They’ve hired men with the crab-tree sticks
to cut him skin from bone.
And the miller he has served him worse than that,
for he’s ground him between two stones.

And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl,
and he’s brandy in the glass,
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
proved the strongest man at last.

The huntsman he can’t hunt the fox
nor so loudly to blow his horn.
And the tinker he can’t mend kettles nor pots
without a little Barleycorn.

Or you can just listen to John Barleycorn Must Die by Traffic on YouTube which includes the lyrics. There is another version by Steeleye Span with slightly different words, on the Below the Salt CD for which there are guitar chords.

Children’s Songs
There are a couple of easy children’s songs to celebrate the harvest, and for the second one you can easily figure out how to act out the words.

18. Children’s Harvest Song
This song is based on a traditional French folk tune, and translated to English by A. Vial de Sabligny. It was published in the First Music Reader by James McLaughlin, et alia, Ginn & Company, Boston, 1906.

Harvest Song for children with music and words by Vial de Sabligny, 1906
This is in the public domain so I have included a scan of the words and music.

19. Oats, Peas, Beans and Barley
The words and music for a version appropriate to children are available at the MamaLisa webpage which has sheet music and a page with words and two links to videos which give the song as it is sung and also the instructions of the circle game and a video showing how the children play the game. Under the title “Oats and Beans and Barley,” this can be listened to for free on MySpace in a performance by the children of the Revels Chorus on the The Wild Mountain Thyme CD, which is very short, but quite lovely. And then Oats and Beans and Barley Grow as sung by Raffi, I think, can be heard on YouTube with additional exclamations added by the cute little boy getting dizzy.

Horse Fairs
The end of the grain harvest was celebrated by the whole community with a horse fair often called a Lammas Fair in areas where Celtic influence is strong, or it could be named after the town where it was held. This was actually a livestock market where farmers could buy and sell what had been produced during the summer. These fairs provided an opportunity for isolated farm folk to socialize, show off, compete in games, enjoy and participate in dance and music performances and perhaps meet a prospective partner. In the United States we know these as County Fairs. Two traditional songs commemorate this, not incidentally both are love songs.

20. Brigg Fair
This was an old song sung by Joseph Taylor and recorded on a wax cylinder in 1905 by Percy Grainger who then published it as an “art song”. The lyrics to Brigg Fair are published at Digital Tradition and you can leave off the last verse on that page since it was added by Percy Grainger and doesn’t even rhyme. For recordings, I try to avoid any version attributed to Percy Grainger; even Chanticleer can’t make this sound good--it’s too mannered for me. My favorite recording in the folksong tradition was made by Isla Cameron (who can handle the rather complex tune) on the World Library Of Folk & Primitive Music, Vol. 1: England, one of the many recordings made by Alan Lomax. It has also been recorded by Martin Carthy on the Byker Hill CD, which you can listen to on MySpace. Shirley Collins performs it on The Sweet Primroses CD and there is also another good version by Gloria Jeffries with guitar, both of which you can hear on YouTube. As much as I like Shirley Collins, this song really needs to be sung by a guy or by somebody who sounds like a guy.

21. Corn Rigs are Bonnie
This song is known by several titles including Rigs o’ Barley, the name under which it was collected or written by Robert Burns. The words and music for this version are published in A Bonnie Bunch of Roses, Songs of England, Ireland and Scotland by Dan Milner and Paul Kaplan, p. 183. The words and music for Corn Riggs are available on the net at Digital Tradition, and also on Corn Riggs on folktunefinder, a good site but only if the song has a unique title. Corn Riggs is sung by Paul Giovanni in the opening credits of the Wicker Man, a 1973 movie, that gives a perfectly hilarious fantasy about Pagan sacrifice. Because only part of the song is used for the movie, the last verse was left out. It’s quite charming, so I include it here:

I have been blithe with comrades dear; I have been merry drinking;
I have been joyful gathering gear; I have been happy thinking;
But all the pleasures ever I saw, though three times doubled fairly,
That happy night was worth them all, among the rigs of barley.

Besides the performance by Paul Giovanni, there is another nice performance of Corn Riggs, with all the verses sung by Kevin Thompson with guitar on YouTube.

22. Fields of Gold by Sting
This modern song is included because everyone likes it, and it’s very beautiful. It’s copyright to Sting, but you probably already have a copy. If not, it’s on the Ten Summoner’s Tales CD. Here is a link to the lyrics for Fields of Gold. By the way, the correct line is, “See the west wind move like a lover’s soul, upon the fields of barley.” The words appear incorrectly even on the liner notes of the CD, and I’m sure he would be thrilled to know that I am proofreading his lyrics on the internet.

So here is a link to the Harvest Song Lyrics page with 16 of the easier-to-sing harvest songs. And I hope this adds up to enough songs that you can put together a CD that you might like to listen to at the appropriate season, or even better, sing the songs yourself.

In researching this list, I found a CD by Broceliande called Barley Rigs. It’s a selection of harvest songs and whatever else they happened to feel like including. You can find more information about it at their website at Barley Rigs CD. This music is somewhat formal, not so much like folk music, but you can hear samples of their singing on their website (although that feature does not seem to be working now), and they have beautiful voices. I liked it so I thought you might like it too. They have several CD’s appropriate for different seasons.

References
The Bonnie Bunch of Roses: Songs of England, Ireland & Scotland by Dan Milner and Paul Kaplan, Oak Publications, NY, 1983.
Ancient Poems: Songs and Ballads of the English Peasantrie by Robert Bell, John W. Parker and Son, London, 1857.
English Country Folk Songs, ed. Cecil Sharp, Novello & Co. Ltd., London, 1908, 1961.
English Dance and Song (journal), pub. by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Cecil Sharp House, London, 1936.
English Minstrelsie, ed. Sabine Baring-Gould; T. C. Jack, Grange Publ. Works, Edinburgh, 1896.
Folk Music Journal, pub. by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Cecil Sharp House, London, 1965.
Folksongs Of Britain And Ireland ed. by Peter Kennedy, Oak Publications, NY, 1984.
Golden Bough by James George Frazer, MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1919-1920 (12 vol. edition).
King Arthur by Henry Purcell and John Dryden, Abridged Concert Edition, ed. by W. H. Cummings, Novello & Co. Ltd., 1897.
Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy, by Thomas d’Urfey, Folklore Library Publishers, New York, 1959 (6 books in 3 volumes).
Holy Heathens CD by Waterson:Carthy.

Thanks to Paulo for technical assistance!

This page was originally at pierce.yolasite.com/harvestsongs but Yola went out of business, so the page has been migrated here.

© 2009, last updated 6/30/2013, at piereligion.org/harvestsongs.html