John Barleycorn: The Evolution of a Folk-Song Family

By Wood, Peter | Folk Music Journal, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview

John Barleycorn: The Evolution of a Folk-Song Family


Wood, Peter, Folk Music Journal


Analysis of the early ancestors of the popular folk song 'John Barleycorn' reveals a family of songs, each appearing to be a separate positive act of re-composition based on a common theme. Between the mid sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries, at least six separate songs enjoyed circulation in either Scotland or England, until the 'final flowering' in the song we know today. This was of such a quality that it has continued to spread, thrive and diversify by re-creation without another act of major re-composition for a further two hundred and fifty years.

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This paper sets out to trace the origins and early evolution of a classic folk song by analysing as far as practicable all available printed and recorded versions. There are a number of reasons why 'John Barleycorn' is a good candidate for such treatment. Its unusual, if not unique, anthropomorphic theme of barley as a person being grossly mistreated by humans, its relation to the seasonal growth of crops, its use in making beer with its humorous and salutary effects on drinkers, and the plant's final revenge, is indeed a powerful and fascinating one. 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'. (1) Perhaps this very uniqueness has made it one of our most popular traditional songs, with a large number of different tunes, and featuring equally prominently in the rural oral tradition, the broadside trade, and the current folk revival. As this study shows, the theme has been re-composed several times in the last 450 years to yield a family of seven different songs, the 'Barleycorn family', as well as some more distant relatives. There are two sub-families, one, including 'John Barleycorn' itself, seeing the character mainly as the plant, and the other mainly as beer. The existence of this pedigree has greatly facilitated the present study, revealing perhaps more about origins and evolution of the main song, 'John Barleycorn' than would be the case with most other songs. In addition, the song's history jumps with fascinating frequency between England and Scotland.

The Barleycorn Family

We need to be clear from the outset which song or songs we are discussing. The 'Barleycorn family' contains seven distinct songs, each, I suggest, generated by a single creative act by an individual. However, five of these appear to have been extinct for nearly two hundred years, since when the 'main song' of the family, which I shall call 'John Barleycorn' (often called 'Sir John Barleycorn') has dominated. Here is a representative version of the song published in 1846: (2)

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

The idea of a 'Barleycorn family' of songs comes from Robert Jamieson's Popular Ballads and Songs published in 1806. …

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