Saturday, 19 March 2016

Everybody hates John Barleycorn

Dear people who have enough time to read my pointless rants: I am troubled.

I am troubled by all the hate I see towards John Barleycorn. Why does everyone want to kill him? So far I’ve heard bands such as Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention and Traffic sing it, and according to the internet, this has been going on for centuries and many other bands. Poor guy.

If my calculations are correct, this introduction may be in my top 5 lame attempts to sound funny, and that’s saying a lot, so let’s stick to music.

John Barleycorn is a very old song. Very, very very. In fact, even if the versions I’ll show you in this post aren’t that grandfather sounding (only a bit). According to a couple of websites, there is a version of the song included in the Bannatyne Manuscript in 1568 (really old), but I’ve also read that the earliest copy is the one in the Pepoysian collection from 1465 (really, really effing old).

By the way, Johnny is not a man, so don’t worry, he hasn’t been melodically beaten to death throughout the centuries. Johnny is actually a personification of barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whisky.

If you have a look at the lyrics (you’ll find the lyrics for the Traffic version at the end of the post) you’ll see that all the terrible, terrible things people do to Little Johhny correspond to the different stages of barley cultivation (reaping, malting, etc).

The funny part is the last verse, though. Because, after all, who can live without “a little Barleycorn”? (Note: I am not an alcoholic, I promise… I don’t even like whisky!)

I first heard the Jethro Tull version included in the live album A Little Light Music (yes, I took this blog’s name from there). Three or four years later I heard the song by Fairport Convention, and last year I listened to the version by Traffic included in the album John Barleycorn Must Die, which by the way is very good.

The three versions are good and I can’t really choose. The one by Fairport Convention is suprisingly different from the others, to be honest it sounds like a different song. The version by Traffic is the most relaxing one and the one that has the most delicate arrangement. Anyway, it’s up to you to judge. Here are the three versions, as well as the lyrics.

The nonsense I have to write to do something more than just posting music videos, right ?







There were three men came out of the West
Their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die

They've plowed, they've sown, they've harrowed him in
Threw clouds upon his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead

They've let him lie for a very long time
Till the rains from heaven did fall
And little Sir John sprung up his head
And so amazed them all

They've let him stand till midsummer's day
Till he looked both pale and wan
And little Sir John's grown a long, long beard
And so become a man

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 way
Serving him most barbarously

They've hired men with the sharp pitchforks
Who pricked him to the heart
And the loader he has served him worse than that
For he's bound him to the cart

They've wheeled him around and around the field
Till they came unto a barn
And there they made a solemn oath
On 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

And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl
And his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last


The huntsman, he can't hunt the fox
Nor so loudly to blow his horn
And the tinker he can't mend kettle nor pot
Without a little Barleycorn

1 comment:

  1. Never heard of this before.

    I usually like folk songs, but this...yeesh.

    It sounds depressing and morbid, like they're singing about the bubonic plague.

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