Some of us refer to this season as “Fall”, while to others it is “Autumn”, I suppose it depends upon which part of the country one comes from. At any rate, the season between summer and winter prior to the 17th century was referred to as harvest season, and wheat, corn and barley were at their ripest before the winter freeze. The hops too were ready for harvest, which incidentally provided the raw materials and may led to the making of more flavorful beer, since the hops provided the “seasoning” or flavor to the beer.
I have written before about the year during the War, when Oregon’s hop crop was in dire prospect of drying on the bines for lack of harvesters. The city of Grants Pass, Oregon actually closed down banks, shops and postponed school openings. The entire town came out and picked the crop. I was one of the high school students who faithfully arrived at daybreak and stripped the bines of their glory.
The process of barley harvesting was revered and even mythologized. The song or poem “John Barleycorn” is primarily an allegorical story of death, resurrection, and drinking. The main character, John Barleycorn, is the personification of barley, which is attacked, beaten, and eventually dies—or as we prefer to think of it, grown, reaped, and then malted.
After John Barleycorn’s death, he is resurrected as beer, bread and whiskey, a reference some say, to Christian transubstantiation. There are many different versions of the story, which began appearing around 1568. Scottish poet Robert Burns published his own take on the story in 1782. In the British folksong, John Barleycorn is a personification of the important cereal crop barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whiskey. In the song, John Barleycorn is represented as suffering attacks, death and indignities that correspond to the various stages of barley cultivation, such as reaping and malting.
Countless versions of the song exist, and though it wasn’t the original, Robert Burns version became the model for most subsequent versions of the ballad. In later years, the words were put to music and one of the most famous of these is by the band Traffic on their 1970 album, “John Barleycorn Must Die”.
An early English version runs like this:
There was three men come out o’ the west their fortunes for to try;
And these three men made a solemn vow; John Barleycorn must die,
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, throwed clods upon his head,
Til these three men were satisfied John Barleycorn was dead.
Jack London gave the title John Barleycorn to his 1913 autobiographical novel that tells of his struggle with alcoholism.
As truly sad as I am for the death of John Barleycorn, I am happy to say that this years’ harvest has provided the opportunity for many Octoberfest celebrations. We were guests at a local Octoberfest two weeks ago, where eight different beers were sampled, after being served by authentic “German” frauleins dressed in charming costume, and pretzels, German sausage, polka dancing and music got the blood flowing.
The two paintings were by Eduard Manet, At the Cafe