Plow Songs

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Plow Songs

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A number of songs and traditions connected to plowing are grouped together here, so that you can use them for the beginning of your plowing or planting season. Plowing is the American spelling of the word, while ploughing is the British spelling, with the same pronunciation. I use both forms interchangeably in this article. Plowing was done in England usually in March as well as in the Fall, though of course it depends on the crop and the weather.

plowing with oxen from the Luttrell Psalter

March was probably the time of year for the rituals of Blessing the Seed and Charming the Plough in Anglo-Saxon Pagan times, and we have Anglo-Saxon invocations to grain Goddesses, including complete rituals, though I have only given the spoken parts here. This is also referred to in a Christian prohibition against “ledying of the plow abowten” (leading the plow about) given in the book Dives and Pauper, OS 275, p 157, composed in English in 1405-1410. The custom of “charming the plough” continued into the 1800’s in one form or another in many areas. More recently Plough Plays were traditionally presented in January because of the way work was organized in England in the 1700 and 1800’s. Traditional plow songs and plow whistles are also given, which people use while working in the fields. This is my gift.

Anglo-Saxon Songs for the Grain Goddess
The oldest sources give a hymn in Anglo-Saxon to Drihten, an old oak/grain deity. This is known as Caedmon’s Hymn, and it is addressed to a (just barely) christianized god.

1. Bôt to Bless the Land
Another Anglo-Saxon source dating to about the 10th or 11th century CE gives a Bôt or blessing ritual to make the fields fertile. It has two parts, the first part to Bless the Seed and the second part to Charm the Plough. We don’t know exactly what time of year it would have been used, but certainly at the beginning of the plowing season. The text has been partly christianized, as can be seen by the reference to Saint Mary, but it also invokes Earth Mother and Fulda. We have no idea if these songs were originally sung or only chanted, but they certainly can be chanted since they are in traditional Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse form. For the ritual of Blessing the Seed, a mixture of some seeds of all the field crops (grain, legumes, herbs and others) that are to be grown, are gathered and blessed. The entire ritual is printed in Leechdom, Wortcunning and Starcraft, ed. by T. O. Cockayne, Rerum Britannicarum Medii Avi Scriptores, London, 1864-6 in three volumes (with later reprints, 1965) and also in Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, (English title Teutonic Mythology, translated by Stallybrass), George Bell and Sons, London, 1883, pp. 1236-1239, but I am giving here only the four invocations, with both the Anglo-Saxon original and a modern English translation. The complete Anglo-Saxon texts of the rituals are given as the Metrical Charms on the Sacred Texts Archive.

First Invocation
Eástweard ic stande, ârena ic me bidde,
bidde ic þone mæran Dryhten, bidde ic þone miclan Drihten,
bidde ic þone hâligan heofonrîces weard.
eorđan ic bidde and upheofon,
and þâ sôđan sancta Marian,
and heofones meaht and heáhreced
þaet ic môte þis gealdor mid gife Dryhtnes.
tôđum ontŷnan þurh trumne geþanc,
âweccan þâs wæstmas, us to woruld nytte
gefyllan þâs foldan mid fæste geleáfan,
wlitigian þâs wancg turf, swâ se wîtega cwæđ,
þæt se hæfde âre on eorđrîce se þe ælmyssan
dælde dômlice Drihtnes þances.

modern English
Eastward I stand, for favor I ask,
I ask that great Drihten, I ask that mighty Drihten,
I ask the guardian of the holy kingdom of heaven,
Earth I ask and high heaven,
and then truly Saint Mary,
and heaven’s might, and high kingdom
that I might give this offering from Drihten,
with mouth I disclose with true thoughts.
Awaken the crops for our worldly needs,
fill up the fields with sturdy foliage.
Brighten these grassy plains, as the wise one said,
so that he have honor here on earth, whosoever alms
hath dealt out according to Drihten’s thought.

Second Invocation
Erce, Erce, Erce, Eorđan Môdor,
geunne þe se alwealda, êce Dryhten
æcera weaxendra and wriđendra,
eácniendra and elniendra;
sceáf tæce se scîra wæstma,
and þære brâdan bere wæstma,
and þære hwîtan hwæte wæstma,
and ealra eorđan wæstma.
Geunne him êce Dryhten
and his hâlige þe on heofonum sint,
þæt his yrđ sî gefriđod wiđ ealra feonda gehwæne,
and heo sî geborgen wiđ ealra bealwa gehwylc,
þâra lyblâca geond land sâwen.
Nu bidde ic þone Wealdend, se þe þâs weoruld gesceôp,
þæt ne sî nân tô tæs cwidol wîf, ne tô þæs cræftig man,
þæt âwendan ne mæge word þus gecweđene.

modern English
Erce, Erce, Erce, Earthen Mother!
May the Allwielder grant thee, the great Drihten,
acres waxing and covering,
increasing and strengthening.
A sheaf betokens the reaper’s produce
and the broad barley’s produce
and the white wheat’s produce
and the produce of all earth.
Grant to them, great Drihten
whose hallows that in heaven are,
that his farm be fortified against all fiends, each one,
and it be bordered against all baleful things, each one,
that through the land is seen.
Now I ask the Wielder, that this world shaped,
That there be no such cunning woman; no such crafty man,
That with a word of power changes what is said.

Third Invocation
Hâl wes þû, Folde, fira môdor!
beo þû grôwende on godes fæđme
fôdre gefylled, firum tô nytte!

modern English
Hail to thee, Fulda, mother of mortals,
be thou growing on god’s bosom,
with food filled, for the needs of the people.

Fourth Invocation
Ful æcer fôdres fira cynne,
beorht blôwende, þû geblêtsod weorđ
þæs hâligan naman þe þâs heofon gesceôp
and þâs eorđan þe we on lifiađ;
se god, þe þâs grundas geweorhte,
geunne us grôwende gife,
þæt us corna gehwylc cume tô nytte.

modern English
Acres full of food for mankind
brightly blowing, be thou blessed,
in the holy name of the heaven-shaper
and of the earth that we live on.
That god that these grounds wrought,
give us the gift of growing,
so that to us each seed come to good.

The observant reader will note the phrase “Hâl wes þû” in the third invocation, a form of the phrase wassail.

2. Plough Plays
Plough Plays were performed in January, and most of the ones recorded in England were meant for entertainment, but the oldest ones, like the Goathland Plow Stots are thought to go back to a Pagan tradition in which Charming the Plough was a necessary condition for a good harvest. For the Anglo-Saxon Charming the Plough ceremony, a loaf of bread was baked made from milk and holy water and some of all the seeds that are to be planted.

In later times, Twelve Night was the period of celebration between the Winter Solstice and the New Year until the Reformation. Farm work traditionally resumed in England on the first Monday after Twelfth Night (January 6th), which was the end of the Christmas season. This was the time of year when plowing began for the spring grains. This isn’t really the most appropriate time to plow in England, where the winter rains are likely to make the ground too wet, or even worse, it may be frozen. Still this was the custom, perhaps based on Roman books on agriculture which were more appropriate to the conditions in Italy. At this time of year, the plow men go visiting from house to house and ask for handsel (offerings). Asking for offerings and giving offerings are thought to bring good luck and a better harvest to the whole community. In some places the visits include the performance of plough plays.

Plough Plays have the standard form of English folk plays in which about six actors in costume show up at the door and introduce themselves. The Clayworth, Nottinghamshire plough play is published in The Mummers’ Play, by R. J. E. Tiddy, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1923, p. 240-247, and in The English Mummers Play by Alex Helm, Folklore Society, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, 1980, p. 97-100. Most of the music for the songs is given in the second of these two books. A great deal of information about Folk Plays is available on the net at the website but it is difficult to navigate this site. The Clayworth, Nottinghamshire Plough Play is given completely on this site.

Among the speaking parts in this play is the Ploughboy, or Farmer’s Boy, who originally wore a smock, but more recently would appear in work clothes of corduroy, with a very big handkerchief around his neck, boots and a cloth slouch hat. The Ploughboy introduces himself with the words:

In comes I, the farmer’s man
I’ve come here to plough the land,
To turn it upside down.

I go straight from end to end
I scarcely a boaks bend [a boaks is part of a plough.]
And to my horses, I attend
As they go marching to the end.

There is then a mock fight between two of the actors, or as one text puts it, “They fights and spars round like for a bit and then old Eezum Squeezum falls down dead...” A doctor is called who revives the “dead” actor with magic and nonsense, and then the actors do a Morris dance (if they can dance) or sing a song (if they can sing) or they just recite the verses, after which they go on to the next house. The relatively recent plough play recorded at Clayworth, Nottinghamshire in 1923 has a version of the traditional song requesting offerings. This song has the same tune, more or less, as some of the wassail songs.

We are not the London Actors
That act upon the stage.
We are the country plough lads
That ploughs for little wage.

Good master and good mistress,
As you sit round the fire,
Just think of us poor plough lads
That plough through mud and mire.

The mire is so very deep,
We travel far and near.
We thank you for a Christmas box
And a pitcher of your best beer!

You see our tale is ended,
You see our fool is gone. [Exit Fool]
We’ll make it our business
To follow him along.

And we thank you for civility
And for what you gave us here:
And we wish you all good night
And another Happy New Year.

You can see a performance of this type of play such as the Branston Plough Play on YouTube where it is performed by the Bedford Morris Men on Plough Monday at the Cricketers Public House. This performance concludes with a version of the final song as given above. [fuggle26]

Plow Songs
The oldest Plow Song that I know of in English is the lovely “Speed the Plough” which is for two voices and is rather sophisticated. I doubt they sang this in the fields. A more recent and simpler song is “We are Jolly Good Fellows that Follow the Plough” (or “The Ploughboy”), of which there are several versions. Another folk song about ploughing is the “Ox Plough Song.”

3. Speed the Plough
This song is said to date from the 1500’s but it seems later according to the language. The words and music for two voices are given in Musica Britannica, Volume 4, Medieval Carols, ed. by John Stevens, and published by Stainer and Bell in Cambridge or London, 1952, pp. 112-113, but there seem to be a number of problems with the transcription. This is song 12A, which they call “The mirth of all this lond.” The word “ering” in the chorus means “plowing” and is cognate with the word “aryan.”

The mirth of all this londë,
mak’th the good husbondë,
with ering of his plough,
with ering of his plough.

1. Y-blessed be Christës sondë
that hath us sent in hondë
mirth and joy enow.

2. The plough goeth many a gate,
Both early and eke late,
In winter in the clay.

3. About barley and wheat
That maketh man to sweat;
God speed the plough all day.

4. Brown, Morel and Gore
Drawen the plough full sore
All in the morning.

5. Rewardë him therefore
With a sheaf or more
All in the evening.

6. When men begin to sow,
Full well their corn they know,
In the month of May.

7. However Janyver blow,
Whether high or low,
God speed the plough alway.

8. When men beginneth to weed
The thistle from the seed,
In summer when they may.

9. God let him well to speed,
And long, good life to lead,
All that for ploughmen pray.

I don’t know of any performance of this song, unfortunately.

Speed the Plow (reel)
A very bouncy violin tune in the form of a reel is called Speed the Plow and is very popular for dancing, both Morris dancing and folk dancing. Speed the Plough with the Apple Tree Morris Dancers shows one form of dance on YouTube and there are many others. This doesn’t have any words as far as I know but I included it because of the title and because the music is so cheerful.

4. We are Three Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough
This song is known in two main versions with never the same name twice apparently. In this song the leader of the team is giving the other ploughmen a hard time, but it is all in good fun. The song is sometimes called “The Ploughboy” although the same title is used for another song about joining the army which is not what I had in mind. One version of The Ploughboy that was on the folkinfo site is now on the joe offer site with both the words and music. The song is also published in the English Dance and Song, (journal), Vol 30, No. 1, Spring 1968, p. 16. This version is performed by Kate Rusby and you can listen to her singing the Jolly Ploughboys on YouTube.

Another version, called “Three Jolly Fellows” was recorded as early as 1742, and is said to have been sung by the Ploughboys who went about the neighborhood on Plough Day in January. This version of the song has words that I like better and they were transcribed by Garry Gillard from the singing of the Watersons. The lyrics for the Ploughboy, as they call it, are published at the University of Hamburg site which has lots of lyrics and information about the sources of the songs but no music. The last line of each verse is sometimes given as “’Cause we’re three jolly fellows that follow the plough”, hence the alternative title.

’Twas early one morning at the break of the day,
The young cocks were crowing; the farmer did say,
Rise up me good fellows and work with good will,
For your horses need somewhat their bellies to fill.

Chorus (after each verse):
It’s oorily oorily oorily ay
What have you been doing this long summer’s day?
Ye ain’t ploughed an acre, I’ll swear and I’ll vow.
Oh, you’re damned idle fellows as follows the plough.

At four in the morning we rise from our bed,
Go down to the pump and we douse in our head.
We curry our horses and take ’em in tow,
’Cause we’re damned clever fellows as follows the plough.

At six in the morning it’s breakfast time now,
And welcome it is, I can certainly vow,
With eggs and with bread and a piece of old sow,
’Cause we’re damned hungry fellows as follows the plough.

We harness our horses, take them to the field,
And a plentiful harvest in time it will yield.
We plough all our furrows all in a straight row,
’Cause we’re damned clever fellows as follows the plough.

And come eventide then our work it shall end;
It’s round to the alehouse to toast an old friend.
Put a gallon of pint pots all in a straight row,
’Cause we’re damned thirsty fellows as follows the plough.

The Watersons recorded a version of the song on their Folksound of Britain CD, but I could not find a performance of this even for sale on Amazon.

5. Ox Plough Song
Another nice plow song is called the Ox Plough Song or Oxen Ploughing, and is published on Digital Tradition. There are two versions of this song with the same tune but with different words. The version with the tune is available as the Oxen Ploughing song and it starts out “Prithee lend your jocund voices...” These are very mannered words, but a better, less-mannered set of words is available at the same site as the Ox-Plough Song with words that begin “Come all you sweet charmers and give me a choice....” and these words can be sung to the same tune. In this song, the plowman addresses his oxen as Pretty, Sparkle, Berry, Goodluck, Speedwell, and Cherry which is funny because we seem to know the names of everyone’s cows and horses in the 18th century, but not the names of the humans. There is a very charming performance of the Ox-Plough Song sung by a father and his little daughter on YouTube.

6. Plough Whistles
Plough Whistles are used when people are plowing and all of the examples are from Celtic sources, usually Gaelic. According to P. W. Joyce, writing in 1906 “while ploughmen were at their work, they whistled a peculiar wild, slow and sad strain, which had as powerful an effect in soothing the horses at their hard work as the milking-songs had on the cows” (from A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland). Plow whistles do not have words, since they were actually whistled, but they could be played on a recorder or tin whistle if you can’t whistle all that well. Of course ploughmen could not do that because their hands were full. The best collection of plough whistles is in Petrie’s Ancient Music of Ireland, first published in 1855, but reprinted as Petrie’s Complete Irish Music, 1,582 Traditional Tunes [mostly without words], ed. by Charles Villiers, Dover, Stanford, 2003. Petrie gives several pages of plough whistles and the most popular one is No. 1051, collected from Queen’s County or King’s County. There are also some plow whistles published by Edward Bunting in Ancient Music of Ireland in 1840. Both of these sources are available on the net at the IMSLP site with the Petrie plough whistles given on p. 267. It's a pdf, so might take a couple of minutes to download. Scroll down, it’s the next to the last page in this file.

Rituals and songs for Blessing the Seed and Charming the Plough have counterparts all across Europe and go back to Pagan times. These traditions were always important to people who were dependent on agriculture for their lives and livelihood. We can recognize the ancient Goddesses who are invoked in the oldest texts, and from more recent times, beautiful folk songs celebrate and encourage the work of farmers.

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