John barleycorn

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John Barleycorn (also Sir John Barleycorn)

One of the most popular folk songs in the rural tradition, the broadside trade, and the folk revival. Versions from the tradition are overwhelmingly English in origin, despite the likely origin of the theme in Scotland. It is commonly regarded as a drinking song, but here is a “standard” version of the text:

There came three men out of the west, their victory to try
And they have taken a solemn oath poor Barleycorn should die
They took a plough and ploughed him in and harrowed clods on his head
And then they took a solemn oath John Barleycorn was dead

There he lay sleeping in the ground till rain from the sky did fall
Then Barleycorn sprung up his head and so amazed them all
There he remained till midsummer and looked both pale and wan
Then Barleycorn he got a beard and so became a man

Then they sent men with scythes so sharp to cut him off at knee
And then poor little barleycorn they served him barbarously
Then they sent men with pitchforks strong to pierce him through the heart
And like a dreadful tragedy they bound him to a cart

And then they brought him to a barn a prisoner to endure
And so they fetched him out again and laid him on the floor
And they sent men with holly clubs to beat the flesh from his bones
But the miller he served him worse than that for he ground him between two stones

Oh Barleycorn is the choicest grain that ever was sown on land
It will do more than any grain by the turning of your hand
It will make a boy into a man and a man into an ass
It will change your gold into silver and your silver into brass

It will make a huntsman hunt the fox that never wound his horn
It will bring the tinker to the stocks that people may him scorn
It will put sack into a glass and claret in the can
And it will cause a man to drink till he neither can go nor stand

Note that beer is not mentioned until the last couple of verses, when the more ludicrous effects of drunkenness are described, and there is no mention of the brewing processs. Mostly it describes the barbarous treatment given to the barley plant by farmers, imagining the plant to be a human creature. Whilst the basic theme was put into verse early in the 16th century in Scotland, it took a London songwriter in Shakesperean times to come up with the brilliant idea of making him a knight. In the opening verses of “The Pleasant Ballad of Sir John Barleycorn” first printed in 1624, there are three knights, Richard Beere, Thomas Good Ale, and William White Wine, who come from the north and swear to kill Sir John. Why? Because these creatures can only be made by the death of the barley plant. Then it all makes sense……..! But anthologists have found it difficult to classify the song, having placed it such diverse categories as “Good Company”, “Rural Life”, “Sport and Diversion”, “Songs of Ceremony”, and “The Joys and Curse of Drink”. Perhaps this very uniqueness is the reason for its popularity, and why it has attracted the largest number of different tunes over the years. The character has escaped from the folk world on many occasions. He’s been used in diatribes from teetotalists, and as a drunken sleuth by the American author Jack London. In the 1970s, folk rock artist John Renbourne and rock group Traffic issued albums of this name. And there are countless inns, diners, and hotels with the Barleycorn name, especially in America. The power of a good idea!

Back to the song though. There is little doubt that the Jacobean “Pleasant Ballad” is the progenitor of the song we know today, but how, where, and when that arose is uncertain. Sometime around the mid 1700s certainly, but it could be England or Scotland. Many people think the latter because of the sheer popularity of Burns in the early 19th century, and therefore his version of the song, which he admits he patched together from fragments he’d remembered from boyhood. Although most versions do not dwell on drink, there is a separate evolutionary route where these aspects are to the fore. This met its final flourishing in the 1850s with the song “Hey John Barleycorn”, written by a professional songwriter. A salutation to beer it is, with nothing about farming. It is interesting to note that the Copper family of Sussex, the quintesscence of the English tradition, has this song, which was collected by the family from a local roadworker, but did not have a version of John Barleycorn.

An article by Peter Wood on the analysis of the evolution of the song is be found in the 2004 issue of Folk Music Journal.