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John Barleycorn must die!

Roud 164 ; G/D 3:559 ; Ballad Index ShH84 ; MusTrad MT232 ; VWML CJS2/9/2124 , RVW2/3/195 ; Bodleian Roud 164 ; Wiltshire 857 , 859 ; trad.]

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John Barleycorn
John Barleycorn

John Barleycorn is a traditional song spread in England and Scotland, and more generally in the British Isles, focused on this popular character, embodiment of the spirit of beer and whiskey.
There are several text versions collected at different times; the oldest known is from 1460.
As often happens with the most popular ballads we talk about family in reference to a set of texts and melodies connected to each other or related.

The plot traced by Pete Wood is well documented in his essay and we refer you to his John Barleycorn revisited (2004) for the deepening: the first ballad that identifies a man as the spirit of barley is Allan-a-Maut (Allan del Malto) and it comes from Scotland .
The first ballad that bears the name John Barleycorn is instead of 1624, printed in London “A Pleasant new Ballad.To be sung evening and morn, of the bloody murder of Sir John Barleycorn” shortened in The Pleasant Ballad: as Pete Wood points out, all the elements that characterize the current version of the ballad are already present, the oath of the knights to kill John, the rain that quenches him, and the sun that warms him to give him energy, the miller who grinds him between two stones.

John Barleycorn revisited - Pete Wood

John Barleycorn must die!

John Barleycorn Paul Bommer
Original screenprint by Paul Bommer

I fell in love with Paul Bommer‘s illustrations, especially the 2010 Advent Calendar (images that I often took as a starting point for a Terre Celtiche blog post). In this screenprint by John Barleycorn, Paul Bommer 2011 we see a bearded little man astride a barrel, as well as the god Bacchus was sometimes depicted (winking the design of the dripping tap between the legs that inevitably recalls the male organ).

The three Xs on the barrel indicate that the whiskey has been distilled three times.
Eyebrows, mustache and beard are modeled like ears and the hawk on the ground recalls the ritual of the “torture”.
A smoking pipe in the pocket recalls the saying “Bacchus, Tobacco and Venus”. Ceramic jug and pewter mug (as it was used in the eighteenth century) raised with the right hand in the gesture of the toast: “Then let us toast John Barleycorn, Each man a glass in hand!”
The verses are by Robert Burns (stanzas XIII and XIV) who wrote between 1783-1785

John Barleycorn: Robert Burns

It is in fact the version published by Robert Burns in 1786 (Poems Chiefly in the Scots Dialect) which, in reworking the ancient folk song, becomes the basis of subsequent versions and ultimately of the modern version.
Burns had already transcribed it in his “First Commonplace Book” (1783-1785), on which he wrote in June 1785: ‘I once heard the old song, that goes by this nam [John Barleycorn] e, sung; & being very fond of it, & remembering only two or three verses of it viz. the 1st, 2↑d↓ & 3↑d↓, with some scraps which I have interwoven here & there in the following piece. –’

Three kings arrive from the East and solemnly swear to kill John Barleycorn. It is the spirit of the Wheat (the sun god) that dies and is reborn. Sir James Frazer in his The Golden Bough, cites John Barleycorn as proof of the worship in the British Isles of a god of vegetation, who was sacrificed to bring fertility to the fields.

History is the detailed transformation of the grain spirit, grown strong and healthy during the summer, reaped and threshed as soon as autumn arrives, and turned into alcohol; and the much more detailed description (always compared to the standard version) of the pleasures that it provides to men, so that they can draw from the drink, intoxication and inspiration. Robert Burns was notoriously a great connoisseur of whiskey and the last verse is right in his style!

The indicated melody is Lull [e] Me Beyond Thee; other melodies that fit the lyrics are “Stingo” (John Playford, 1650) and “Up in the Morning Early”

Davy Steele from Burns: The Complete Songs, Vol. 5 – 1998
Bill Adair
The version of the Tickawinda takes up part of the text by singing the stanzas I, II, III, V, VII, XV

John Barleycorn- Robert Burns
There was three kings into the east(1),
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(2);
Then ty’d him fast upon a cart,
Like a rogue for forgerie(3).
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(4),
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!

for the English translation

1) Some scholars identify this three man with the Magi followers of the God of Light who wanted to kill the Sun / Christ (the god of the new religion who had supplanted that of the ancient Celtic religion). The martyrdom of Barleycorn could in fact recall the martyrdom of Jesus, his suffering is necessary for the salvation of humanity. A combination that seemed desecrating and in fact in the following versions, for the avoidance of doubt, the three men come from the West!
2) still in the early twentieth century at the end of the harvest in the countryside of the British Isles, a competition was held between the mowers to cut the last sheaf that became the neck
3) those sentenced to death were transported to the place of the gallows on a cart for public mockery
4) we are in full sacred liturgy, the blood of the god drunk by his faithful as the Communion of Christians

The Death-Rebirth of King Barley

Millet - Buckwheat Harvest Summer 1868
Jean-François Millet – Buckwheat Harvest Summer 1868
King of Barley
King of Barley

It is narrated the death of the King of Barley according to myths and beliefs that date back to the beginning of the peasant culture, customs that were followed in England in these forms until the early decades of the ‘900.
According to James George Frazier in “The Golden Bough“, anciently “John” was chosen among the youth of the tribe and treated like a king for a year; at the appointed time, however, he was killed, following a macabre ritual: his body was dragged across the fields so that the blood soaked the earth and fed the barley. Blood sacrifices that the ancient Celts shared with the ancient Norsemen. (see also the Wicker Man)

More recently in the Celtic peasant tradition the spirit of the wheat entered the reaper who cut the last sheaf (who symbolically killed the god) and he had to be sacrificed just as described in the song (or at least figuratively and symbolically). At one time the sacrificial victim was probably a girl and the last sheaf still in some Celtic regions is called the Maiden or the Mother. Then we went on to sacrifice animals and burn a dummy, but the meaning was always the same: the sacrifice of the primordial divinity, who died as king of wheat and whose blood blessed the earth, a guarantee of future and abundant harvests. Even in the nineteenth century the tradition of the “crying of the neck“. was widespread in the countryside of the British Isles.

However, the spirit of the Wheat-Barley never dies because it is reborn the following year with the new crop, its strength and its ardor are contained in the whiskey that is obtained from the distillation of barley malt!

Crying the neck in Cornwall

In Cornwall, Crying the neck was ritualized in a ceremony revived in the 20th century by the Old Cornwall Society.

Crying the neck in Cornwall

John Barleycorn: Folk Revival & Tunes

As many as 45 different melodies have been used for centuries for this ballad, but let’s limit ourselves to the 4 most common!


The Young Tradition

The 1906 version of John Stafford published by Sharp in English Folk Songs is probably the melody that comes closest to the time of James I.

John Barleycorn John Stafford tune


The Shepherd Haden version became “standard” for being included in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.T

Mike Waterson from Frost and Fire 1965: A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs
Traffic 1970 (Learned by Mike Waterson)
Oysterband with Steve Knightley & June Tabor
from The Big Session Volume 1 2004
Whalebone from ‘As turn the Seasons’
A.L. Lloyd 1956
Jethro Tull live from A Little Light Music
Ayreheart from Barley Moon
Giorgio Cordini & Reno Brandoni
from Anema e Corde 2008

There was three men come out of the West (1)
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
Throwing clods all on his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John barleycorn was Dead.
They’ve left him in the ground for a very long time
Till the rains from heaven did fall
Then little Sir John’s sprung up his head
And so amazed them all
They’ve left him in the ground till the Midsummer
Till he’s grown both pale and wan
Then little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.
They hire’d men with their scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee.
They’ve bound him and tied him around the waist
Serving him most barb’rously
They hire’d men with their sharp pitch-forks
To prick him to the heart (2)
But the drover he served him worse than that
For he’s bound him to the cart.
They’ve rolled him around and around the field
Till they came unto a barn
And there they made a solemn mow
Of Little Sir John Barleycorn
They’ve hire’d men with their crab-tree sticks
To strip him skin from bone (3)
But the miller, he served him worse than that,
For he’s ground him between two stones.
Here’s Little sir John in the nut-brown bowl(4)
And brandy in the glass
But Little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl’s
Proved the stronger man at last
For the hunts man he can’t hunt the fox
Nor so loudly blow his horn
And the tinker, he can’t mend Kettles or pots
Without a little of Sir John Barleycorn.


(1) the West, in the wheel of the Year, represents autumn, with the West also indicates the Land of the Dead (where the Sun sets) the three men who “kill” John Barleycorn join the ritual cycle of life-death-rebirth. According to some interpretations, the three men are the three months of autumn, the season that kills plants
(2) the ears on the stem are grouped in sheaves and loaded with the pitchforks on the wagon
(3) threshing
(4) The walnut or oak barrel still used today to age whiskey


The version of Robert Pope taken by Vaughan Williams in his Folk Song Suite
version for choir and orchestra


In rural England the ballad was extremely popular particularly in East Anglia (the present counties of Norfolk and Suffolk). But its diffusion in the South of England went from the east coast to the west. Here is the Shropshire version

Fred Jordan live


Steeleye Span from Below the Salt 1972
Damh The Bard from The Hills They Are Hollow 2003

John Renbourn plays on the melody La Rotta and the standard version of John Barleycorn by inserting a complex vocal polyphony.
La Rotta is a medieval dance in ternary meter that was normally performed at the end of a low dance, the melody of this particular route was combined with Tristano’s Lament (14th century) in Jordi Savall‘s video the route begins at 2:00.
The text is roughly the standard one.

The John Renbourn Group
from “A Maid in Bedlam” 1977

Steeleye Span version
[I (Spoken)
There were three men
Came from the west
Their fortunes for to tell,
And the life of John Barleycorn as well.]
They laid him in three furrows deep,
Laid clods upon his head,
Then these three man made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.
The let him die for a very long time
Till the rain from heaven did fall,
Then little Sir John sprang up his head
And he did amaze them all.
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 so became a man.
Fa la la la, it’s a lovely day
Fa la la la lay o
Fa la la la, it’s a lovely day
Sing fa la la la lay
They have hired men with the scythes so sharp,
To cut him off at the knee,
The rolled him and they tied him around the waist,
They served him barbarously.
They have hired men with the crab-tree sticks,
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller has served him worse than that,
For he’s ground him between two stones.
They’ve wheeled him here,
they’ve wheeled him there,
They’ve wheeled him to a barn,
And thy have served him worse than that,
They’ve bunged him in a vat.
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(1).

1) The oldest drink in the world obtained from the fermentation of various cereals. The beer originally was classified out as “beer” (with hops) and “ale” (without hops) . Its processing processes start with a spontaneous fermentation of the starch (ie the sugar) that is the main component in cereals, when they come into contact with water, due to wild yeasts contained in the air. And just as in bread, female food, EARTH, WATER, AIR and FIRE combine magically to give life to a divine food that strengthens and inebriates.
The English term of homebrewing or the art of home-made beer translates into Italian with an abstruse word: domozimurgia and domozimurgo is the producer of homemade beer in which domo, is the Latin root for “home”; zimurgo is the one who practices “zimurgy”, or the science of fermentation processes. The domozimurgo is therefore the one who, within his own home, studies, applies and experiments the alchemy of fermentation. Making beer for your own consumption (including that of the inevitable friends and relatives) is absolutely legal as well as fun and relatively simple although you never stop learning through the exchange of experiences and experimentation

And finally the COLLAGE of the versions of Tickawinda, Avalon Rising, John Renbourn, Lanterna Lucis Viriditatis, Xenis Emputae, Travelling Band, Louis Killen, Traffic


Pubblicato da Cattia Salto

Amministratore e folklorista di Terre Celtiche Blog. Ha iniziato a divulgare i suoi studi e ricerche sulla musica, le danze e le tradizioni d'Europa nel web, dapprima in maniera sporadica e poi sempre più sistematicamente sul finire del anni 90 tramite il sito dell'associazione L'ontano []

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