Friday, October 12, 2012

British Folk Music - John Barleycorn

by Jenna Dawlish

John Barleycorn is a famous folk song which was first written down in the 1500's and quite possibly dates back much further. It has regional variations in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, but each tells a gruesome tale.

First, three men make vow that John Barleycorn must die. John is ploughed down, has clods on his head, he's left out in the summer in the sun until the autumn when he grows pale and wan.

Then a sharp object is used to cut him down at the knee, and he's rolled and tied and loaded onto a cart and taken to a pit. Then he is crushed between two stones splitting his skin from bone.

The song then says that both working men and noblemen can't continue to do their work without the death of John Barleycorn, and the drinking his blood from all these three men have done.

This is all gruesome stuff. But you may have already worked out that John Barleycorn isn't actually a man. He represents the personification of cereal crops such as barley, malt and wheat. All used in the production of alcoholic drinks. The song describes the sowing and reaping then production of beer or whiskey etc.

This song has been an enduring and loved folk song, and is especially important at this time of the year in the UK at Harvest Festival time.

This folk song has been recorded many, many times, but below is Martin Carthy's version of the song. I hope you like it.

This link has the lyrics, though often different recordings have slightly different variations.

Jenna Dawlish


  1. That's a very clean and 'classical' version of John barleycorn (as befits Martin Carthy!)

    I am very fond of The New Scorpion Band's version, though I can't find a link to it - other songs of theirs are on YouTube, but seemingly not that one. :-(

    1. P.S. The one I like is not their newer recording 'Hey John Barleycorn' - which is another version altogether. My favourite is the one with the 'folderolderoldo' refrain.

  2. That's such a beautiful song. Thanks so much for sharing. I love old folk songs, they have such lovely rhythm and lively music.

  3. i like Traffic's version best ........ very distinct and to the point


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