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John Barleycorn

[ Roud 164 ; G/D 3:559 ; Ballad Index ShH84 ; trad.]

This old ballad of the death and resurrection of the Corn God was recorded in many versions by lots of musicians:

A.L. Lloyd sang John Barleycorn in 1956, accompanied by Alf Edwards on English concertina, on English Drinking Songs. This recording was also included in 1994 on his Fellside anthology CD Classic A.L. Lloyd. Lloyd commented in the latter's sleeve notes:

The song is related to the ancient idea of the Corn King. Perhaps too neatly so, hence the suspicion that it may not be a genuine piece of primitive folklore. It is old (it was already in print c.1635) and has been passed on by generations of country singers. The tune is a variant of Dives and Lazarus.

A group of Boggans from Haxey, Lincolnshire, sang John Barleycorn in the 1950s in a recording made by Peter Kennedy and Seamus Ennis. It was included on the anthology Songs of Ceremony (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 9; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970).

Mike Waterson sang John Barleycorn on the Watersons' 1965 LP Frost and Fire. His first three verses are quite similar to Lloyd's, the first half of the fourth differs more and his fifth verse is completely different from Lloyd's fifth and sixth verse. Mike Waterson's recording was also published on the Topic Sampler No. 6, A Collection of Ballads & Broadsides and in 2004 on the Watersons' 4CD anthology Mighty River of Song. A.L. Lloyd commented in Mike's original recording's sleeve notes:

Sometimes called The Passion of the Corn. It's such an unusually coherent figuration of the old myth of the Corn-king cut down and rising again, that the sceptical incline to think it may be an invention or refurbishing carried out by some educated antiquarian. If so, he did his work long ago and successfully, for the ballad was already in print in the early years of the seventeenth century, and it has been widespread among folk singers in many parts of the English and Scottish countryside. Cecil Sharp obtained this version from Shepherd Haden of Bampton, Oxfordshire.

Fred Jordan sang John Barleycorn in a recording made by Bill Leader and Mike Yates in a private room in The Bay Malton Hotel, Oldfield Brow, Altringham, Cheshire, in 1966. It was included in the same year on his Topic album Songs of a Shropshire Farm Worker and in 1998 on the Topic anthology They Ordered Their Pints of Beer and Bottles of Sherry (The Voice of the People Series Volume 13). Another recording made by Mike Yates in 1965 was included in 2003 on his Veteran anthology A Shropshire Lad.

Martin Carthy sang John Barleycorn in 1966 on Songs from ABC Television's “Hallelujah” and, accompanied by Dave Swarbrick, on their 1967 LP Byker Hill. This version is quite similar to Mike Waterson's, see the lyrics below. It was reissued on the compilation album This Is... Martin Carthy. Another version is on his 1974 album Sweet Wivelsfield. A live recording from Memphis Folk Club, Leeds dating from 1973 can be found on The Carthy Chronicles. He also sang it live in studio in July 2006 for the DVD Guitar Maestros. Martin Carthy commented in his original album's sleeve notes:

A.L. Lloyd in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs points out that if John Barleycorn is a folklore survival of the ancient myth of the death and resurrection of the Corn God, it is remarkable if only for its coherence, but, he says, it could be the work of some more recent writer which was somehow absorbed into the tradition. It is certainly powerful enough to be the former but also quaint enough (not to use the word in its pejorative sense) to be the latter. It might be interesting to speculate further of the three men coming from the West (sunset—the place of death?) bringing with them the promise of live (for no matter what they do they succeed only in giving John Barleycorn new life) and the Three Wise Men coming from the East (sunrise—the place of life?) to see Jesus, bringing as gifts the promise of death. It is found all over the British Isles; this version was taken down in Bampton, Oxfordshire, by Cecil Sharp.

and in the Carthy Chronicles:

Forget the academic stuff about death and rebirth, fertility symbols and corn gods! The reason that this is one of the best known and most popular of all ballads—and one which has crossed a great many musical thresholds—is that it's actually about that other activity which most commonly accompanies the singing of traditional songs—drinking!

Dave and Tony Arthur sang The Barley Grain for Me in 1967 on their Transatlantic album Morning Stands on Tiptoe.

The Young Tradition sang John Barleycorn in 1968 on their last LP, Galleries. This track was included in 1994 on the Ronco anthology The British Folk Collection as the first Young Tradition track reissued on CD. They also sang it on November 17, 1968 at their concert at Oberlin College, Ohio, that was published in 2013 on their Fledg'ling CD Oberlin 1968. Heather Wood commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

From the Cecil Sharp collection. One of the many songs which we picked up by a process of osmosis.

Traffic recorded John Barleycorn as title track of their 1970 album John Barleycorn Must Die with verses nearly identical to Mike Waterson's. In fact, Steve Winwood learnt the song from the Watersons. This track was also included in 1975 on the famous anthology Electric Muse: The Story of Folk into Rock.

Derek and Dorothy Elliott sang John Barleycorn in 1972 on their eponymous Leader album, Derek & Dorothy Elliott.

Steeleye Span's version on their 1972 album Below the Salt is again similar in the beginning to the previous versions but differs in the last verse. They recorded John Barleycorn a second time in 2002 for their CD Present. A live recording from The Forum, London on September 2, 1995 was released on their double CD The Journey. Their singer Maddy Prior recorded John Barleycorn in 2003 for her solo album Lionhearts; this track can also be found on her anthology Collections: A Very Best of 1995 to 2005. Their first recording's sleeve notes commented:

Adam, Cain and Abel staggered manfully across the field carrying a plough, a harrow and a grain of wheat … John Barleycorn—mysterious intimations from above told them to dig three deep furrows and bury him—this done they returned home and started to draw up plans for the first ale house.

Bob Hart sang John Barleycorn at home in Snape, Suffolk in July 1972 in a recording made by Tony Engle. It was published in 1973 on his Topic album Songs from Suffolk. Another recording made by Rod and Danny Stradling in July 1969 was included in 2007 on his Musical Traditions anthology A Broadside.

Ernest Austin sang John Barleycorn in a recording made by Tony Engle at Bentley, Essex, in November 1973 that was published in 1974 on the Topic album Flash Company.

Bob Blake sang John Barleycorn in a recording made by Mike Yates at Broadbridge Heath, Sussex in 1974 that was included in between 1987 and 1995 on the Veteran Tapes cassette of traditional singing in Sussex, Ripest Apples (VT107), and in 2001 on the Veteran CD anthology of “traditional folk music from rural England”, Down in the Fields.

Tom Smith of Thorpe Morieux (b. 1918) learned John Barleycorn from his father Bert Smith and sang it in a John Howson recording on the Veteran Tapes cassette Songs Sung in Suffolk Vol 2 (VT102, published in 1987-89), on the 2000 Veteran CD Songs Sung in Suffolk, and on the CD accompanying The Folk Handbook (2007).

Austin Flanagan sang The Barley Grain at home in Luogh, Doolin, Co. Clare, in August 1974. This recording made by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology Troubles They Are But Few (The Voice of the People Series Volume 14).

Barry Skinner sang John Barleycorn in 1974 on the Argo album The World of the Countryside.

Roy Bailey learned John Barleycorn from The Constant Lovers, edited by Frank Purslow, and sang it in 1976 on his album New Bell Wake.

The Songwainers sang John Barleycorn in June 1976 at the festival Eurofolk '76 in Ingelheim, Germany.

The John Renbourn Group sang John Barleycorn in 1977 on their Transatlantic album A Maid in Bedlam.

Louis Killen sang John Barleycorn in Winter 1977 at the Eldron Fennig Museum of American Ephemera; this recording was published in the following year on his album Old Songs, Old Friends.

There are several Fairport Convention live recordings of John Barleycorn, e.g. on Forever Young (Cropredy 1982), The Boot (Cropredy 1983), and The Cropredy Box (Cropredy 1997).

Andy Turner first learned John Barleycorn from Steeleye Span's album. On Magpie Lane's first album, The Oxford Ramble (1983), he an Ian Giles sang the classic Shepherd Haden version collected by Cecil Sharp, though. He sang a version collected in the 1970s by Gwilym Davies on Magpie Lane's 2000 CD A Taste of Ale. Andy Turner and Chris Wood recorded another version on a demo tape in ca. 1985 which he used as the October 22, 2012 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week. This version was collected from Bert Edwards of Little Stretton, Shropshire, by Peter Kennedy and printed in the latter's Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, and is similar to Fred Jordan's version.

Pete Morton sang John Barleycorn in 1990 at the Folk Festival Sidmouth.

Barry Dransfield sang John Barleycorn in 1994 on his Rhiannon CD Be Your Own Man. This track was also included in 2007 on the anthology Old Wine New Skins.

Coope, Boyes & Simpson sang John Barleycorn on their 1998 CD Hindsight.

Chris Foster sang Jack Barleycorn in 2003 on his Tradition Bearers CD Traces.

Jim Causley sang John Barleycorn in 2005 on his WildGoose CD Fruits of the Earth.

Chris Wood sang John Barleycorn in 2005 on his CD The Lark Descending.

Duncan Williamson sang John Barleycorn at the Fife Traditional Singing Festival, Collessie, Fife in May 2006. This recording was included a year later on Festival anthology Some Rants o' Fun (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Volume 3). His version was also included in the EFDSS book of songs of English and Scottish Travellers and Gypsies, Traveller's Joy.

Tim van Eyken sang Barleycorn “after Fred Jordan” in 2006 on his Topic CD Stiffs Lovers Holymen Thieves. This track was also included in 2009 on Topic's 70th Anniversary anthology, Three Score and Ten.

Paul Weller and Martin and Eliza Carthy sang John Barleycorn in 2007 on The Imagined Village's eponymous first CD, The Imagined Village.

The Lark Rise Band recorded John Barleycorn in 2008 for their album Lark Rise Revisited.

Jon Boden sang John Barleycorn as the April 13, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He noted in his blog:

Another ‘big song’ that I’ve only just got around to learning. There are so many good versions around, to choose from, but this is basically Carthy’s version I think.

Mark T sang John Barleycorn in 2011 on his CD Folk Songs & Ballads.

Lyrics

A.L. Lloyd sings John Barleycorn Mike Waterson sings John Barleycorn

There was three men come out of the west
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn should die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,
Throwed clods upon his head.
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn was dead.

There were three men come out of the west
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn should die.
They've ploughed, they've sown, they've harrowed him in,
Throwed clods on his head.
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn was dead.

They let him lie for a very long time
Till the rain from heaven did fall,
And little Sir John sprung up his head
And that amazed them all.
They let him stand till midsummer
And he growed both pale and wan.
Then little Sir John, he growed a long beard
And so become a man.

They've let him lie for a very long time
Till the rain from hea'en did fall,
And little Sir John sprung up his head
And soon amazed them all.
They've let him stand till midsummer day
Till he looked both pale and wan.
And little Sir John's grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.

They hired men with the scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee.
And poor little Johnny Barleycorn
They served most barbarously.
They hired men with the sharp pitchforks
To pierce him to the heart.
And the loader, he served him worse than that
For he bound him to the cart.

They've hired men with the scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee.
They've rolled him and tied him by the waist,
Serving him most barbarously.
They've hired men with the sharp pitchforks
Who pricked him to the heart.
And the loader, he served him worse than that
For he's bound him to the cart.

They wheeled him all around the field
A prisoner to endure,
And in the barn poor Barleycorn
They laid him upon the floor.
They hired men with the crab tree sticks
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller, he served him worse than that
For he ground him between two stones.

They've wheeled him round and around the field
Till they came into the barn
And there they've made a solemn mow
Of poor John Barleycorn.
They've hired men with the crab tree sticks
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller, he has served him worse than that
For he's ground him between two stones.

I'll make a boy into a man,
A man into an ass.
I'll change your gold to silver, lass,
And your silver into brass.
I'll make the huntsman hunt the fox
With never a hound or horn.
I'll bring the tinker into gaol
Says old John Barleycorn.

Here's little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
And here's brandy in the glass
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last.
For the huntsman, he can't hunt the fox
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker, he can't mend kettles nor pots
Without a little barley corn.

Oh barley wine is the choicest drink
That was ever drunk on land.
It will make a man do miracles
By the turning of his hand.
You can tip your brandy in a glass,
Your whiskey in a can,
But barley corn and his nut-brown ale
Will prove the stronger man.

Martin Carthy sings John BarleycornSteeleye Span sing John Barleycorn

Oh there were three men came out of the west
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn should die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,
Throwed clods upon his head.
Then these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn was dead.

[spoken] There were three men
Came from the west
Their fortunes for to tell,
And the life of John Barleycorn as well.

They have laid him in three furrows deep,
Laid clods upon his head,
Then these three man made a solemn vow
𝄆 John Barleycorn was dead. 𝄇

They let him lie for a very long time
Till the rain from heaven did fall.
Then little Sir John he raised up his head
And he soon amazed them all.
They let him lie till the long midsummer
Till he looked both pale and wan.
Then little Sir John growed a long, long beard
And so became a man.

They let him lie for a very long time
Till the rain from heaven did fall,
Then little Sir John he sprang up his head
And 𝄆 he did amaze them all. 𝄇

And they let him stand till the midsummer day,
Till he looked both pale and wan.
The little Sir John he grew a long beard
And 𝄆 he so became a man. 𝄇

Chorus (from here on after every verse):
Fa la la la it's a lovely day
Sing fa la la leia
Fa la la la it's a lovely day
Singing fa la la leia

They hired men with the scythes so sharp
To cut him off down by the knee.
They rolled him and tied him around by the waist,
Served him most barbarously.
They hired men with the sharp pitchforks
Who pierced him to the heart.
But the loader, he served him far worse than that
For he bound him to the cart.

So they have hired men with the scythes so sharp,
To cut him off at the knee,
And they rolled him, they tied him around the waist,
𝄆 They've served him barbarously. 𝄇

They rode him around and around the field
Till they came into a barn,
And there they made a solemn mow
Of poor John Barleycorn.
They hired men with the crab-tree sticks
Who cut him skin from bone
But the miller, he served him far worse than that
For he ground him between two stones.

And they have hired men with the crab tree sticks,
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller, he has served him worse than that,
𝄆 He ground him between two stones. 𝄇

Here's little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
And brandy in a glass.
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
Proved the stronger man at last.
For the hunter, he can't hunt the fox
Nor so loudly blow his horn,
And the tinker, he can't mend his kettles or his pots
Without a little bit of John Barleycorn.

And they have wheeled him here and they've wheeled him there,
They've wheeled him to a barn,
And they have served him worse than that,
𝄆 They've bunged him in a vat. 𝄇

Well, they have worked their will on John Barleycorn
But he lived to tell the tale,
For they pour him out of an old brown jug
And 𝄆 they call him home brewed ale. 𝄇

Acknowledgements and Links

Lyrics transcribed by Garry Gillard and Reinhard Zierke

See also Pete Wood's article John Barleycorn revisited: Evolution and Folk Song at Musical Traditions.