John Barleycorn


“Another ‘big song’ that I’ve only just got around to learning. There are so many good versions around, to choose from, but this is basically Carthy’s version I think.”

Actually according to Mainly Norfolk this follows Bert Lloyd’s version, having the extra verse, which seems to be about John Barleycorns revenge. We are of course at the other end of the cycle, having had Hey John Barleycorn back in September. Back then I think I gave you this link, which is worthwhile if a little involved on the John Barleycorn family of songs and the folk process in general. It’s interesting to read Martin Carthy’s notes at MN about the possible symbolism of three men coming “out of the west.” Bert’s notes about “refurbishment” brought a wry smile to my lips as well as by reputation, he’s surely in the know as far as that goes. Mind you I don’t suppose it much matters if you take the line of the folk song “as a live and growing thing, coloured and shaped in its course through centuries by the many minds through which it has passed.” It’s one of the nuggets that that fairly long article puts forward and although not the only take, it’s the one that strikes a chord with me. Anything else suggests an attempt to do for folk as the three from the west would do to John here. Thankfully that approach also seems to be equally unsuccessful. Should I mention Traffic, probably not but I have done, as they’ve been a big band in my life for more years than I care to mention. Along with several of their Island label cohorts they provided the first taste of folk music of my own choosing, long before I really had any idea of what it was.



31 Responses to “John Barleycorn”

  1. Neil says:

    Great rendition, mind you, my favourite rendition of this is the Osyterband/June Tabor/Steve Knightly version on ‘The Big Session Vol I’ that’s one to get you up on your feet that it.

  2. Stuart C says:

    Our latest Morris incarnation ‘Wytchwood Morris’ have written a dance to this tune and our percussionist Steve Podger sings the first and last verses while Clive plays fingerpicked acoustic guitar. It makes for a very atmospheric dance (and the tune really sticks in your head).

    Top stuff Jon

  3. John Bryson says:

    A particular favourite of mine this song, I think this is a super rendition

  4. Mark says:

    One of the first folk songs I heard too, though my first taste of it was through The Imagined Village. That tune just sounds right, don’t you think?

  5. Jan says:

    This is probably for me the definitive folk song, and Jon sings a fine version (although I use the Steeleye Span one which has a chorus).

    The best final verse I’ve come across is in Folksongs of Britain and Ireland ed. Peter Kennedy, which mentions an Irish version based on whisky –

    Of all the sins that I came through
    Sure this was the worst of all
    When a big man swallowed me down his throat
    And he pissed me against the wall!

    And, Simon, you most definitely should mention Traffic.

  6. Phil says:

    I think this is very unusual as a folk song – there are no divided lovers, no unplanned pregnancy and no deaths worthy of the name. More to the point, it’s one big metaphor. Really it’s an extended gag, a bit like the Trooper’s Horse (or, if my theory was right, Scarborough Fair).

    I first heard it on the Traffic album at the impressionable age of about ten, and thought whoa, it’s all about death and rebirth and yet it’s all about beer… wow… A couple of years later I got Below the salt, heard the song again and thought, this is a load of pseudo-pagan fakelore that’s been cooked up by somebody who got the Golden Bough for Christmas. Apparently I was wrong about that – it does seem to go back quite a long way – but it still strikes me as rather an arty and self-conscious piece of work. And I don’t believe it’s about anything other than brewing. Apart from anything else, the furthest it goes back is about 500 years – which is quite a while ago, but not a time when pagan ritual was rife among the broadside-reading classes.

  7. Jane Ramsden says:

    I love it! Echoing all the positive points above about Traffic, theirs was the first version of this I heard and Below The Salt one of my all-time favourite albums too. I’m sure I posted a YouTube link to one Steve Winward version earlier in the project, but here’s the same/another, with plenty of Tullian-type flute!

  8. J Barleycorn Esq says:

    THank you AFSAD for bringing my case to light.
    THere I was, minding my own business, when these three ruffians came out of the West and treated me most shamefully.
    I complained to the Sheriif at the time……did he do anything…did he ‘eck my lovelies, and so it was left to me to eek my own revenge on them and their offspring, for all time.
    Yes…I’m still at it….I don’t even wait for closing time, nowadays, to demonstrate my powers!

  9. Diana says:

    Liked this one very much.
    Reynard Error 404 is haunting us again.

    At John B Esq above “eck my lovelies” gives you away although you are wide enough awake not to repeat.

    Here is another “Traffic” fan – loved “Hole in my shoe” even if it was rather weird.

  10. Diana says:

    Sorry Reynard it was yesterday I got the error message. Found my way today via MN.

  11. Simon says:

    Diana, I got the error message today and went in the back end to look at the link and couldn’t see anything wrong with it. Even so I tried resetting it and something very peculiar happened to the post for a few minutes, so I had to rummage through my document archive to get the text back. Most peculiar.

    To carry on from yesterday… I regularly make space for music. It’s better than the guff that’s generally on the telly. Last night I ended up playing two recent vinyl purchases, the Fotheringay album and Caravan’s In The Land Of Grey & Pink. I’m lucky enough to be indulged by my family and have my own room – records, CDs, hi-fi and two chairs.

    Last night’s reminiscence means new stuff and especially Fay tonight, although there will also be a trip to the pub involved. It’s a sequence of events that often finds me waking up in my chair at two in the morning, cold and a little befuddled with several CDs or records scattered around. I reckon I generally make three or four albums before the shutters come down. Of course if it’s a record that I finish with, then there is the accompanying gentle ‘thunk, thunk, thunk’ of the stylus in the run-out groove to greet me.

    Anyway on the subject of Fay, Henry is “More commonly known as ‘Edward’, or in Scotland ‘My Son David’… A version very recently appeared on the wonderful Ragged Kingdom of course, but Fay’s is set to a completely different tune. You’ll have to wait for the CD to hear the results and read the full notes, but first impressions, even in the office are very good. With Sam Sweeny and Rob Harbron retained from the touring trio and Andy Cutting, Jon and Martin Simpson making up the Hurricane Party, quality is assured.

  12. Diana says:

    Sorry Simon if I have put you to a lot of unnecessary trouble, if I can’t tell yesterday from today – but I definitely got the error message on “John Blunt” but it is ok now – so thanks. I see you have put Reynard’s mind at rest telling him which song “Henry” is – he will be delighted to know.

  13. Reynard says:

    Thank you very much, Simon! No wonder Fay has been called supremely intelligent recently; she does have a knack of finding obscure versions of seemingly well-known songs. Roud 200 lists 247 versions but none of them is titled Henry, and the Ballad Index doesn’t know Child 13 by this name either…

    Diana, the link error may have been a local error and not your or Simon’s fault; due to a certain Fox of Very Little Brain our nameserver had had problems this morning which led to, may I say, interesting behaviour.

  14. Diana says:

    How intriguing Reynard but I am sure I do not know who you are talking about with the certain Fox etc. I am quite relieved that I was not the cause of all these problems for the two of you or else I would have had to hide my face in shame.

  15. Jane Ramsden says:

    I love this rendition, Jon. Not least is the instant taking-me-back effect, of course, but the song and the singing, simply wonderful.

    Now I am some the wiser ref Fay’s ‘Henry,’ but not entirely, so I guess it’s the hardship of listening to the CD then! Can’t wait! Totally agree with you about television, Simon. With the exception of a few very good crime series, I am dispensing with it gradually and back to just books and music.

    @ John Barleycorn Esq. No use trying to hide behind yet another mask. As Diana says, ‘eck, my lovelies’ gave you away, but also ‘eeking your revenge’… I am thinking that must be yet another one of your sock animal inventions… the woolly mouse… hahahahahahaha!

  16. Peter Walsh says:

    Yes Janie, he does sound like one of the Surrey Barleycorns, hahaha!

  17. Diana says:

    @Jane: That fella sure does change his name and thinks we are fooled. Remember the “Anonymouse” one from way back? There is something about his wording that gives him away each time. I am actually listening to any adverts I come across to hear the ticky-tacky song. That would explain why it got stuck in my head recently – it must be almost subliminal only listening and not seeing. I fancy Jane that you probably like the same crime shows I watch – a lot of them foreign with subtitles. But all the cookery programmes, doing up the house ones etc. get turned off as there are far too many of them. Here endeth the lesson!

  18. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Diana: Anonymouse? ‘Eeking revenge? Are you having a giraffe! Hahahahahaha!

    I don’t do the foreign subtitled crime dramas, only the English, or occasional American one. I don’t like to miss the plot when a cat visually distracts me! At least with language i can understand, I’ve a chance of following what’s going on!

    As you can imagine, since I gave up ironing many years ago, I do not really cook either. I suppose you could say I assemble food… I like ‘Homes under the Hammer – tho’ my house is more ‘before’ than ‘after’! I like ‘Relocation, Relocation, Relocation’ too… it gives me hope of getting away from the ‘before’ home in ‘Under the Hammer’!

  19. Diana says:

    @ Jane I also watch the ones in english be they home grown or american, (I do use the term english loosely where the americans are concered as they tend to misuse the language) but I do like some of the programmes like “The Killing” or “Those who kill” – both scandinavian. Am I making any sense here Jane – I think I am tired having had a very late night last night.

  20. John Blunt Esq (yesterday's Man) says:

    ‘ere………..these three men that came out of the West and did unspeakable things to John Barleycorn…
    could they be the same three from whom I saved my dear, stubborn,scolding,you-can-‘ave ‘er , wife in yesterday’s song….they need to be stopped before they get into other folk songs and cause more mischief..

  21. Linda says:

    This is one of my favourites , it seems to be one that many people have sung.

  22. Linda says:

    Still one of my favourite and got to hear Ian Giles sing it last night at The Royal along with some backing from Jon during the evening . A really good night. Can recommend a visit.

  23. Linda says:

    I still love this song…….

  24. Old Muzza (N.W.Surrey UK) says:

    Hey Lindy Lou……………..glad to see you still hangin’ in there…..quite a laugh re-reading the comments from the good old days!

  25. Linda says:

    Still think this is a brilliant song in the way it tells the story of barley as if it is a human .Another song I like is one called Wallbreaker by Benji Kirkpatrick which is the story of how we abuse water and is told from the waters point of view. I hope that made sense.

  26. Linda says:

    Happy Easter all, hoping to try some of John Barleycorn this weekend, still hanging in there Muzza…….

  27. old Muzza(N.W.Surrey.UK) says:

    Hi Lindy Lou……..still smilin’ at the comments from long ago

  28. Linda says:

    Nice one to start the day……. getting ready for the Folk on foot festival this afternoon…….

  29. Jane (Maryland) says:

    Before this I only knew the Traffic version. Jon’s a cappella performance is amazing!

    In the interest of filling in missing pieces, here is what may be the video that Jane R. posTED above that is no longer available:

  30. Linda says:

    Enjoyed this again…..

  31. Linda says:

    Just catching up have heard many different versions of this a love the ideal of the barley being treated as a human

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