Caught by the River

The Ripe and Bearded Barley

Melissa Harrison | 29th August 2018

Melissa Harrison introduces the music born of her latest novel, All Among the Barley.

Making things alone is difficult, and often painful. But making things with other people is an absolute joy. That’s how it works for me, anyway: I love few things more than the buzz of collaborating on a project with creative people who know how to make things I have no idea about. There’s something thrilling about the moment when two (or more) previously separate visions come together; it feels as though you’re jointly conjuring something from thin air. The sense of connection it creates between the people involved is lasting – and addictive.

Caught by the River regulars will remember the 10” record that accompanied my last novel, At Hawthorn Time, its two tracks inspired by scenes from the book and its beautiful sleeve designed and printed by Lucie Murtagh at Luma Studio in Bethnal Green. And you might have heard about the four limited-edition screenprints inspired by my new book, All Among the Barley, created by Lewis Heriz and printed by Lucie and Mark Stonehouse at Luma Studio. Well, I’m proud to reveal that once again, something I’ve written has become a catalyst for music – this time a haunting new version of the song that gave the book its title, recorded in a field of ripe and bearded barley and unforgettably voiced by my friend and Suffolk neighbour, the songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist Helena Ward. You can listen to it here:

For me, the purity and simplicity of Helena’s vocal captures perfectly the innocence of 14-year-old Edie Mather in All Among the Barley – and her troubling vulnerability, too. Recording it on location was key to that, and brought other benefits: the sound of skylarks and a yellowhammer (‘larks and yellow buntings’, as Edie would have called them), and the gentle susurration of the breeze in the barley and in the leaves of a huge sentinel oak, over 700 years old. It was such a magical morning’s recording, in fact, that we created a second, simple version, with very little production, which you can listen to here:

I first met Helena last December, only a few days after moving to Suffolk from South London, and it’s a mark of her kindness that she invited me to spend New Year’s Eve with her and her friends after talking to me for just a few minutes. We went to a proper locals’ pub with neither kegs nor a bar, but live folk music that included one old boy playing the cow bones on his thigh. I’ve rarely felt so far from the big city, or my day job at Mixmag; it was brilliant.

As I found out more about Helena’s background on the London music scene – including her work with DJ/producer Marcus Marr, Andy Gill of Gang of Four, The Futureheads and The Young Knives – I realised how much culture we had in common and what an absolute find she was, given the tiny rural village I’d moved to. Plus, she has a really excellent dog.

Helena’s hard at work on her second, self-released album at the moment, which she’s recording at Bob Kidby’s studio in a lovely old Suffolk barn. You can listen to her first album, The Lake, as well as some tracks from the new one, here. I think she’s something special. I hope you do, too.

Extraordinarily – given  how central it was to become – ‘The Ripe and Bearded Barley’ didn’t feature in the first draft of the book. It came to me as a gift from Sam Lee, who, with Jeff’s help, I contacted on a painfully fraught day when, the manuscript already overdue, I was struggling to come up with two things: a song to close it with and, separately, a title. Sam gave me both, and helped me avoid a complete nervous breakdown. Thank you again, Sam!

A little background: sometimes titled ‘All Among the Barley’, the part-song, in tonic sol-fa notation and given the motto ‘Redeem misspent time by industry’, was written by English composer and organist Elizabeth Stirling (1819–1895) and won one of the very first prizes offered by the Novello firm, in 1850. It remains the most popular of any of Stirling’s compositions, by a long chalk.

As far as I can tell (the history of traditional folk music can be convoluted, and I am no expert) there have been several arrangements, one being by someone called Mike Gabriel, from Cheltenham (who he was, and how his relates to Stirling’s I’m afraid I don’t know). I do know that Alfred Williams collected it in his 1923 book Folk Songs of the Upper Thames, having obtained it from one Henry Serman, a farm hand.

A final note: I make no apologies for the fact that I chose not to quote all the verses in the novel (and thus, to record a similarly abbreviated version); nor for the fact that ours deviates from the more canonical renderings. I see what we have created as a small contribution to what is an endlessly malleable and jointly owned tradition, and hope that our good intentions and respect for it as a historical artefact shine through. Do seek out the other recordings available on YouTube to hear the breadth of responses this haunting song has inspired – and keep an eye on Helena’s website to hear her new album when it comes out.


All Among the Barley is our Book of the Month for August. Read Katharine Norbury’s review here. You can buy yourself a copy here.