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Songs of the Harvest

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Men working in a cranberry bog, some standing in water, as they sweep berris into corrals made of floating logs.
Harvesting Cranberries at the Birches, on Roberts Branch of the Batsto River, near Tabernacle, New Jersey, 1982. American Folklife Center Pinelands Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

Thanksgiving days were declared by United States Presidents at various times in American history, beginning with George Washington making November  26, 1789, a day of thanksgiving, but Thanksgiving was not established as a regular yearly Federal holiday until 1870. So there are not a great many songs specifically for American Thanksgiving, and these were composed in the 19th century or later.

The autumn feast of Thanksgiving is later in the year than many feasts celebrating the kinds of foods we might eat at this time of year. So I thought it might be fun to look at some songs related to summer and autumn harvest celebrations.

An example of an early American Thanksgiving song that many people know today is “Over the River and Through the Wood,” by abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, who published it as “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day” in a collection of short writings, poems, and songs, Flowers For Children, Part II in 1845. This song, though it was published and has  a known lyricist, has some characteristics in common with a folksong in that many people learned it in oral tradition as children and it consequently has many variations. One common variation is to substitute “Thanksgiving Day” in the lyrics for “Christmas Day,” and so some people know it as a Christmas song. Also, most of us learned that the journey was “to Grandmother’s house,” but the original song was about a trip to Grandfather’s house.

Perhaps the most widespread harvest celebrations among American Indian cultural groups center around the first harvest of green corn (maize). The time of this varies depending on the latitude where people live; from early summer to late summer. The surrounding traditions vary as well.  Often squash and beans are grown along with corn and so the early varieties of squash and young beans may be ready as well.

Among the earliest ceremonies celebrating the ripening of green corn is that of the Seminole in Florida. In 1940 folklorists Carita Doggett Coarse and Robert Cornwall were able to record some of the songs used by the Seminole in their green corn ceremony with the assistance of Billy Bowlegs III, who was the tribal historian who came to have a long history working with folklorists in presenting Seminole customs. He is one of the singers. These songs can be found at this link.

Below is the Omaha Green Corn Dance Song performed at the 1983 Omaha powwow in Macy, Nebraska, and recorded as part of the American Folklife Center documentation of the powwow.

In northern European tradition there are many harvest celebrations. Late summer to fall sees celebrations of the harvesting of grain and hay at the beginning of August, celebrations around the fall equinox, and celebrations of the conclusion of the major harvesting period, usually in October.

The late summer harvest of staple grains is a time for harvest feast songs. You will see that some of the songs below use “corn,” as “grain” was the original meaning of the word. Maize came to be called “corn” because it became a staple for American settlers. Grain harvests mean bread, porridge, beer, and whiskey. Stores of grain would become low by harvest time in the time before grocery store chains, and so a cause for celebration. The centerpiece of the feast called Lammastide or Lammas Day on the first of August is the first loaf of bread made from newly harvested grain. The completion of the work of mowing and stacking hay to ensure that animals have food for the winter was a major yearly task, and so completing that at around the same time of year was a great relief. Songs about the grain harvest are used as feast songs from August into fall.

There are various songs with the phrase “Harvest Home” celebrating the grain and hay harvest.  The earliest I have found is “Your hay it is mow’d, and your corn is reap’d” with lyrics by John Dryden and music by Henry Purcell for the opera King Arthur. The opera debuted in 1691, and this is a memorable drinking song from the performance. The full lyrics can be found in Bartleby’s at this link. There are so many variations on this song it seems possible that Dryden drew from traditional songs for his lyrics. A list of songs containing the lyrics “harvest home,” can be found in the Roud Folksong Index at this link. Dryden’s lyrics begin:

Your Hay it is Mow’d, and your Corn is Reap’d;
Your Barns will be full, and your Hovels heap’d:
Come, my Boys, come;
Come, my Boys, come;
And merrily Roar out Harvest Home.

The lyrics for John Barleycorn with a drawing of men loading or unloading barrels from a cart in front of a building. The full text of the song sheet are available in the item record at the link.
Detail showing the lyrics for John Barleycorn a from a song sheet: The punch ladle [and John Barleycorn]. Printed at the “Catnach Press.” by W. Fortey, Monmouth Court, Bloomsbury. Nineteenth century, no date. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.
The concept of a “harvest home” is so appealing that it is understandable that it is picked up and appears many autumnal  songs. “Come, ye Thankful People Come,” by H. P. Danks, is an example of a nineteenth century hymn that draws on the traditional song and is often sung at Thanksgiving.

“John Barleycorn” is another song celebrating the harvest of grain and particularly its use in the making of beer (and in some versions, whiskey). It is still familiar to many because it has continued to be recorded by performers such as Martin and Eliza Carthy, Maddy Prior, and the group Traffic, among many others. It is traditionally used at autumn feasts, and tells the story of the life, death, and rebirth of John Barleycorn as if he were a great hero of England. Barley is an ancient grain, once a staple grain used in all kinds of cooking, but with the rise of cultivated wheat it first became a food of working people, and now is less used for bread and porridge and instead used for brewing beer and for animal feed. It is making a bit of a comeback, though, as people explore a wider range of culinary grains.

In wetlands rice is grown as a staple grain. Asian traditions include many songs for harvesting rice and celebrating the rice harvest. An example of the Lao autumn Harvest Festival Dance can be found at the end of the video of the performance by the Lao Natasinh Dance Troupe of Iowa at the Library of Congress in 2006. It celebrates the workers by re-enacting the beating of rice to extract the grains as a dance accompanied by percussion, shouting and merrymaking, and a final chant (at time code 01:08:00).

Apple harvesting in the late summer and fall was an important addition to winter stores in early America. Green apples were used for cider and were the most abundant. Nurseryman John Chapman (1774-1845) famously spread cider apple  trees westward for the pioneers. When he died his apple trees were sold off at low prices, creating the legend that he planted them for settlers for free and giving him the name “Johnny Appleseed.” Sweeter apples were made into pies, apple butter, and apple sauce and even used like vegetables in stews and other savory dishes. They could be kept fresh in cellars and dried for winter use. There are songs about apple trees related to love and other topics, but not much concerning the harvest. As I looked for broadsides of songs mentioning apples I did stumble on this sheet of recipes in verse, titled “Proclamation!” that may be entertaining, and perhaps the more adventurous readers might try a recipe or two!

Here is a children’s song, “All around the green apple tree,” recorded by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939, found in the presentation Southern Mosaic:

Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin documented songs performed by the King Family, a musical family from Arkansas who were working in California as migrants in 1938 and living in the Arvin FSA Camp as a result of the dust bowl. A transcript of  “Ol’ Arkansas” is among the songs collected from them, but unfortunately there is no recording. The lyrics tell of all the many crops are harvested in Arkansas, and it is probably part of the family repertoire as a celebration of the bounty of their state. But it is not hard to imagine the feelings of the singers who had left their home far behind. The lyrics, as follows, end with ellipsis, as the last line appears incomplete:

Ol’ Arkansas

Ol’ Arkansas’ got something that nowhere else has got:
Ol’ Arkansas’ got something, now listen while I tell you what:
Peaches; ‘Lasses, Sassafras, and all kinds of beans,
Peanuts,pumpkins, buttermilk, and good ol’ turnip greens:
Hickory nuts an’ huckleberries, wild onions, simmons, an’ parsnips.

Ol’ Arkansas’ got something that nowhere else has got:
Ol’ Arkansas’ got something, now listen while I tell you what:
Tobacco, corn and cotton, melons and red river peas, Turnips, spinach, cucumbers, poke salad to your knees,
Alfalfa, Kafir corn and sorghum…

Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection

Woody Guthrie wrote a beautiful harvest song, “Pastures of Plenty.” He wanted to call attention to the plight of dust bowl migrants who had to leave their towns and farms in the Midwest to work as agriculturalists in California and other states less devastated by drought. It speaks eloquently of the bounty of the American harvest, but of the workers it says “we come with the dust and we go with the wind.” It is a reminder to give thanks for all those who bring food to our table. This song sheet for the lyrics is found in the Bess Lomax Hawes Collection.

Whether your feast this year is small or large, and however you are able to celebrate in these extraordinary times, we at the American Folklife Center wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.

A green pumpkin on the vine with a pumpkin flower.
Ripening pumpkin and pumpkin blooms. Photo by Woody Boggs, 1998. American Folklife Center Coal River Folklife Collection, Library of Congress.


Hall, Stephanie, “Filling the Cornucopia,” Folklife Today, November 27, 2019.

Winick, Stephen, “Don’t Worry, Turkey on Thanksgiving is Historically Accurate!” Folklife Today, November 22, 2017. The podcast includes more songs related to Thanksgiving.

Winick, Stephen, “Festive Foods Podcast in Time for Thanksgiving,” Folklife Today, November 19, 2018.


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