John Barleycorn
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John Renfro Davis

John Barleycorn appeared in the Journal of Folk Song Society Volume VIII, 41. It was printed in the reign of James I but is said to be much older. There were several 17th century broadsides of the song. It was well-known throughout England. Variants from Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey, Somerset and Wiltshire were published in the Journal of Folk Song Society.

The ballad relates the tale of the Corn King, or Corn-God. According to James George Frazier's The Golden Bough, the Corn King was selected from the men of the tribe, treated as a king for a year, then at a pre-set time, danced the corn maze and was killed. His body was then dragged through the fields so the blood would run in the furrows and make the barley grow. Afterwards, he himself may have been eaten.

The barley was made into cakes and stored for the winter. Around the solstice, when it was evident the sun would come back for another year, the cakes were given to children to imbue them with the spirit of the corn king. They were called 'soal cakes' (soul cakes), and in England, kids still go a-soalin' for cookies. (Thank you, John Davis for the information!)

Barley is an ancient crop and was the chief bread grain in Europe as late as the 16th century.

There was three men came out of the west,
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
John Barleycorn should die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,
Throwed clods upon his head,
And these three man made a solemn vow,
John Barleycorn was dead.

Then they let him lie for a very long time
Till the rain from heaven did fall,
Then little Sir John sprung up his head,
And soon amazed them all.
They let him stand till midsummer
Till he looked both pale and wan,
And little Sir John he growed a long beard
And so became a man.

They hired men with the scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee,
They rolled him and tied him by the waist,
And served him most barbarously.
They hired men with the sharp pitchforks
Who pricked him to the heart,
And the loader he served him worse than that,
For he bound him to the cart.

They wheeled him round and round the field
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn mow
of poor John Barleycorn.
They hired men with the crab-tree sticks
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller he served him worse than that,
For he ground him between two stones.

Here's little Sir John in a nut-brown bowl,
And brandy in a glass;
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
Proved the stronger man at last.
And the huntsman 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 Barleycorn.
Related Links
From The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs
See Bibliography for full information.
And Bruce Olsen's Roots of Folk: Old English, Scots, and Irish Songs and Tunes