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John Barleycorn is a British folksong. The character of John Barleycorn in the song is a personification of the important cereal crop barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whisky. 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.
Kathleen Herbert draws a link between the mythical figure Beowa (a figure stemming from Anglo-Saxon paganism that appears in early Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies whose name means "barley") and the figure of John Barleycorn. Herbert says that Beowa and Barleycorn are one and the same, noting that the folksong details the suffering, death, and resurrection of Barleycorn, yet also celebrates the "reviving effects of drinking his blood."
In their notes to the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (London, 1959), editors A L Lloyd and Ralph Vaughan Williams ponder whether the ballad is "an unusually coherent folklore survival" or "the creation of an antiquarian revivalist, which has passed into popular currency and become 'folklorised'". It is in any case, they note, "an old song", with printed versions dating as far back as the sixteenth century.
The idea of a grain god who dies, is buried, and is reborn as the current year's crop dates back at least to dynastic Egyptian myths of the god Osiris. In the Coffin Texts, the deceased person states: "I am Osiris. I have come forth and entered into thee, I have flourished in thee, I have grown in thee, I have fallen into thee, I have fallen on my side. The gods live by me. I live and grow as Neper [Corn], whom the august gods bring forth that I may cover Geb [the earth], whether I be alive or dead. I am barley, I am not destroyed..." Elsewhere in the Coffin Texts, the formula of Becoming Barley of Lower Egypt states that the deceased "is this bush of life [barley] which went forth from Osiris to grow on the ribs of Osiris and to nourish the common people, which makes the gods divine and spiritualizes the spirits..."
Countless versions of this song exist. A Scottish poem with a similar theme, "Quhy Sowld Nocht Allane Honorit Be", is included in the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568 and English broadside versions from the 17th century are common. Robert Burns published his own version in 1782, and modern versions abound. Burns's version makes the tale somewhat mysterious and, although not the original, it became the model for most subsequent versions of the ballad.
Burns's version begins:
There was three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.
An early English version runs thus:
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.
Earlier versions resemble Burns's only in personifying the barley, and sometimes in having the barley be foully treated or murdered by various artisans. Burns' version, however, omits their motives. In an early seventeenth century version, the mysterious kings of Burns's version were in fact ordinary men laid low by drink, who sought their revenge on John Barleycorn for that offence:
Sir John Barley-Corn fought in a Bowl,
who won the Victory,
Which made them all to chafe and swear,
that Barley-Corn must dye.
Another early version features John Barleycorn's revenge on the miller:
Mault gave the Miller such a blow,
That from [h]is horse he fell full low,
He taught him his master Mault for to know
you neuer saw the like sir.
Jack London gave the title John Barleycorn to his 1913 autobiographical novel that tells of his struggle with alcoholism. Many versions of the song have been recorded, most notably by Traffic, whose 1970 album John Barleycorn Must Die is named after the song. The song has also been recorded by Fire + Ice, Gae Bolg, Bert Jansch, The John Renbourn Group, Pentangle, Finest Kind, Martin Carthy, Roy Bailey, Martyn Bates in collaboration with Max Eastley, the Watersons, Steeleye Span, Jethro Tull, Joe Walsh, Steve Winwood, Fairport Convention, The Minstrels of Mayhem, Galley Beggar, Donnybrook Fair, Oysterband, Frank Black, Chris Wood, Quadriga Consort, Maddy Prior, Heather Alexander, Leslie Fish, Tim van Eyken, Barry Dransfield, Of Cabbages and Kings and many other performers. The song is also a central part of Simon Emmerson's The Imagined Village project. Martin and Eliza Carthy perform the song alongside Paul Weller on The Imagined Village album. Billy Bragg sang in Weller's place on live performances. Rock guitarist Joe Walsh covered the song live in 2007 as a tribute to Jim Capaldi. Lithuanian folk-blues band Working Hobo performs this song in Lithuanian which is called Džonas Miežis.
In the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man, a Scottish Policeman played by Edward Woodward searches for a missing child on the west Scottish island of Summerisle, which is populated by modern-day pagans who engage in various Celtic rituals, one of which is the baking of barley bread into the figure of a man known as John Barleycorn, who is referred to by the baker as "The life of the fields".
Also the subject of a poem called "John Barleycorn" by Carol Ann Duffy in her 2011 anthology "The Bees".