Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
John Barleycorn is an ancient folksong from Britain. The character "John Barleycorn" in the song is a personification of the important cereal grain crop barley, and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whisky.
A version of the song 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 goes as follows:
- There was three kings into the east,
- Three kings both great and high,
- And they hae sworn a solemn oath
- John Barleycorn should die.
- They took a plough and plough'd him down,
- Put clods upon his head,
- And they hae sworn a solemn oath
- John Barleycorn was dead.
- But the cheerful Spring came kindly on,
- And show'rs began to fall;
- John Barleycorn got up again,
- And sore surpris'd them all.
- The sultry suns of Summer came,
- And he grew thick and strong,
- His head weel arm'd wi' pointed spears,
- That no one should him wrong.
- The sober Autumn enter'd mild,
- When he grew wan and pale;
- His bending joints and drooping head
- Show'd he began to fail.
- His coulour sicken'd more and more,
- He faded into age;
- And then his enemies began
- To show their deadly rage.
- They've taen a weapon, long and sharp,
- And cut him by the knee;
- Then ty'd him fast upon a cart,
- Like a rogue for forgerie.
- They laid him down upon his back,
- And cudgell'd him full sore;
- They hung him up before the storm,
- And turn'd him o'er and o'er.
- They filled up a darksome pit
- With water to the brim,
- They heaved in John Barleycorn,
- There let him sink or swim.
- They laid him out upon the floor,
- To work him farther woe,
- And still, as signs of life appear'd,
- They toss'd him to and fro.
- They wasted, o'er a scorching flame,
- The marrow of his bones;
- But a Miller us'd him worst of all,
- For he crush'd him between two stones.
- And they hae taen his very heart's blood,
- And drank it round and round;
- And still the more and more they drank,
- Their joy did more abound.
- John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
- Of noble enterprise,
- For if you do but taste his blood,
- 'Twill make your courage rise.
- 'Twill make a man forget his woe;
- 'Twill heighten all his joy:
- 'Twill make the widow's heart to sing,
- Tho' the tear were in her eye.
- Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
- Each man a glass in hand;
- And may his great posterity
- Ne'er fail in old Scotland!
Burns's version makes the tale somewhat mysterious; if it is not the original, it became the model for most subsequent versions of the ballad. Earlier versions resemble it only in personifying the barley, and some in having the barley being 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, and 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.
Many versions of the song have been recorded; most notably by Traffic, whose album John Barleycorn Must Die is named after the song. The song has also been recorded by Bert Jansch, Steeleye Span, and many other performers. Jack London gave the title John Barleycorn to his 1913 autobiographical novel that tells of his struggle with alcoholism.
The song is frequently overinterpreted by devotees of Sir James George Frazer and his well known work The Golden Bough as being evidence of the antiquity and survival of the institution of the Frazer sacred king and spirit of vegetation, who died as a human sacrifice in a fertility rite. Masonic symbolism may be a source of the trials of John Barleycorn as set forth in the Burns version. Burns became a Freemason in 1781 , and a ritual death and rebirth does form a part of some Masonic rituals. If there is occult symbolism in the poem, this seems the likeliest source, and the immediate cause of Burns's somewhat obscure retelling of the tale.
As shown above, the point of the tale told by the original versions is twofold: it focuses not only on the death and resurrection of John Barleycorn, but also on Barleycorn's revenge upon the tradesmen who misused him. Burns, remaking the poem into a celebration of whisky, chose not to dwell on Barleycorn's vengeance.
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