“John Barleycorn”, the personification of the cereal/grain of barley, is also a metaphor for all the alcoholic beverages made from barley….including beer and whisky.
He is also the subject of – and hero of – literally hundreds of different versions of the same song – ‘John Barleycorn’ – in which he suffers attacks, death and indignities which, metaphorically, correspond to the different stages of the barley harvest (reaping, threshing malting). At the end of his brutal trials and tribulations, John Barleycorn always dies – but is then reborn in alcohol – in beer, barley-whine and whisky – so that he may live forever –
This is my blood, drink of it.
John Barleycorn songs date back to 16th Century England and, some believe, draw their inpisration and origins even earlier, from the Anglo-Saxon deity Beowa, the guardian spirit of grains, a figure of mythic power and potency –
and, according to some, the origin of the mythical/legendary figure of Beowulf. Some wonder: could Beowulf truly have defeated the monster Grendel, without first imbibing a tankard or three of the blood of his namesake deity?
And as generations of whisky drinkers can testify, when you raise your glass and drink John Barleycorn’s blood, you are suffused with divine wit, wisdom and vision….for a few hours, anyway.
In an early and now classic version by Scottish poet Robert Burns –
There was three kings into the east, Three kings both great and high, And they hae sworn a solemn oath John Barleycorn should die.
But in a 17th century English version, Burns’ kings have become ordinary men, laid low by the powers of demon drink, who subsequently seek their revenge on John Barleycorn for taking advantage of them
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.
But whether you be king or commoner, John Barleycorn has the power to raise you up…and bring you down lower than low. To make you smile, to make you laugh, to give you a golden tongue. To embolden you when you need courage most…or, on an even more basic level, to get you good and fucked up when you need to….and even when you don’t.
Traffic, the English group, did their own version.
Here is their recording of John Barleycorn Must Die. Featuring Stevie Winwood on acoustic guitar, piano, vocals; Jim Capaldi on tambourine, vocals; and the intimitable flautiest Chris Wood, flute, percussion.
And here finally (in the Beginning was the Word…but sometimes it comes at the End too), the lyrics of Traffic’s version.
John Barleycorn (Must Die)
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 clods 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, ’til the rains from heaven did fall
And little Sir John sprung up his head and so amazed them all
They’ve let him stand ’til Midsummer’s Day ’til 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 their 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 their sharp pitchforks who’ve 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 a field ’til they came onto a pond
And there they made a solemn oath on poor John Barleycorn
They’ve hired men with their crabtree 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 or pots without a little barleycorn
The part about laying mighty men low is true. Not just men. Women too! And not just the ‘mighty’….the rest of us too. That includes writers….and sometimes we take our inspiration wherever we can get it….even in the bleeding sheaves of sheaves of barley, lying intertwined like dead lovers on the field of battle. Or even….the residue at the bottom of one’s glass.
Have to stop writing now. Time to raise my glass to the long-suffering martyr, rebel and demi-god, John Barleycorn. Not any old glass….some of the good stuff. And I’ll do it along with Jack London –
“John Barleycorn’s inhibition rises like a wall between
one’s immediate desires and long-learned morality.”
― Jack London (John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs)