John Barleycorn Must Die
Amy Louise Smith | Lancaster University
There were three men came from the west
Their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn should die*
‘John Barleycorn’ is the titular character of English and Scottish folk song, with satisfyingly ancient origins. He is the personification of barley, and thus of the beer, ale, and whisky made from it. Folklorists have traced him back, beyond the sixteenth-century Allan-a-Mault (Alan of the Malt), to Anglo-Saxon Pagan traditions and the mythical figure of Beowa (barley). He first appeared in print in 1624, in ‘A pleasant new Ballad to sing both Even and Morne, Of the bloody murther of Sir John Barley-corne’, and appears in many subsequent variations, rewritten throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1782, Robert Burns wrote his own version, bringing a more Romantic aesthetic to the traditional tale.
There are as many as seven distinct versions of the song, with many more minor variations. They all agree, however, that John Barleycorn must die. In the songs, the men murder Sir John Barleycorn and plough, sow, and harrow him into the earth. The ballads recount how, over the year, Sir John began to grow again, growing tall and pale, with a long beard. Again, John Barleycorn was cut down, mashed, brewed, and sold. Sir John’s sufferings serve as a metaphor for the process of the planting, harvesting, brewing, and selling of beer, ale, and malt whisky.
The cyclic narrative of seasonal growth and harvest is as old as agriculture. In the song, the annual ritual of planting and reaping plays out around the character of Sir John; his murder and his return can be read as a process of birth and rebirth that underpins the early-modern agrarian economy. The ballads also show clearly a connection between understandings of life, growth, and death in the human world, as in the natural one. He is a portrait of Merry England, premodern England, where human lives move with and are ruled by, natural cycles.
Folklorist Sir James George Fraser, in the Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion, compared John Barleycorn to the sacrificial ‘Corn Kings’ of ancient world religions. He noted that cereal crops, particularly corn, wheat, and barley, have historic connection to fertility rites and suggested that the murder of John Barleycorn symbolised a similar ritual sacrifice in service of continued growth and productivity in English fields. References in some of the ballads to the ‘blood’ of Sir John certainly lend weight to Fraser’s argument.
Yet, the later seventeenth- and eighteenth-century interest in Sir John indicates more complex relationships with nature and drink. No longer wholly pastoral, but political, Sir John's name became appropriated by religious reformers, and advocates of temperance and prohibition.
While we can be reasonably certain that the 1624 ballad was not Sir John's first outing, it may have been the first time he was brought to an urban audience. The early-modern period saw increasing urbanisation, mercantilism, and diversity of vocation, and so many city-dwellers were able to live their lives without any direct experience of farming. Printed ballads were also an extremely popular medium, and repackaging the folk hero in this way made him accessible to a whole new generation.
Over the next few decades, Sir John was turned to express the contemporary concerns of new writers and singers. The first two-thirds of the seventeenth century were religiously tumultuous and given over to much reflection on custom and social conduct. According to historian Peter Burke, the Reformation had worked to sweep away the 'little traditions' of rural England and done away with superstition and any remnants of Pagan festivity. Church-Ales, for instance, became a thing of the past. This was undoubtedly a slower and more subtle process than is often suggested; despite the Puritanical fervour, the people of England held fast to their folklore. Rather than being wholly removed from popular memory, characters such as John Barleycorn became sanitised and drawn from folklore into common fiction.
Attitudes toward beer and whisky were changing, particularly among the elite and religious thinkers of the day. Traditionally, small beer (low-alcoholic beer with an ABV of between 0.5% and 2.8%) was drunk as a safe alternative to water. It was consumed by everyone, even children, for nutrition as well as hydration. Ale was also the most affordable drink of pleasure as it was relatively easy to brew; small breweries were common cottage industries.
Yet, by the middle of the seventeenth century, beer and whisky were no longer the only social drinks available, and alcohol was increasingly cast in a negative light in favour of coffee and, later, tea. Workers were encouraged to drink coffee for its stimulating effect, and alcohol, for causing sluggishness or sociability, was deemed sinful and incompatible with economic productivity. Additionally, authorities’ desires to control enterprise led to crackdowns on those producing alcohol without a license. Many sympathetic pamphlets decry the cruel treatment of the ‘alewives’ – women brewers making and selling ale to supplement their families’ income.
This change is present in the conclusion of the ballad itself. Some early versions ended with a toast to Sir John, and the 1624 example ends with Sir John humorously taking his revenge on those who have abused him:
…And there he tooke their tongues away,
Their legs or else their sight.
And thus Sir John in each respect
So paid them all their hire,
That some lay sleeping by the way
Some tumbling in the mire.
Some lay groning by the wals,
Some in the streets downe right,
The best of them did scarely know
What they had done ore-night.
Others try to distance Sir John from over-indulgence and drunken behaviour, reading instead as an ardent defence of Sir John, and his place in English life:
For the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox
Nor loudly blow his horn
Nor the tinker he can’t mend kettles or pots
Without little Lord Barleycorn
Thus, John Barleycorn found himself at the centre of a national battle over beer.
In a 1675 pamphlet, Sir John Barleycorn was arraigned in a mock court presided over by Oliver Cromwell and the Devil. The piece presented both sides of the argument – numerous characters come to the court to claim that through drinking, enticed by Sir John, they were undone, drawn to sin and left in sickness. Sir John was easily scapegoated by those complaining of financial ruination, of their employees’ (or husbands’) inactivity, and of general immoral behaviour.
Yet the ballad accompaniments plead for clemency – and several figures come forward to advocate for Sir John: the ploughman, the brewer, hostess, the exciseman, whom all rely on Barleycorn for their livelihood. The court pardons Sir John, and the piece concludes with the cry: 'I pray let him live if you love the Common-wealth'.
While Sir John escaped with his life, the need to defend him demonstrates the shift in the societal attitudes to alcohol consumption.
As time went on, many, it seems, felt that that changing attitudes and cultural reform had put paid to social drinking. A ballad from 1725, A Huy and Cry after Sir John Barleycorn, A base Rebel denounc’d at the Horn, Fled from the Country where he was bred and Born, printed an epitaph mourning Sir John, signed from ‘all the Drunkards of the Nation’:
Blyth has he been, but now He’s gone,
Of Commerads the best:
What will we do without Sir JOHN,
With Grief we’re sore oppress’d:
A better Subject and a Friend
The Kingdom never saw;
But ah! He made a fatal End,
And yet He dy’d by Law.
A much later pamphlet, from 1800, printed a full mock retrial of Sir John Barleycorn, wherein he was accused of appropriating good grain to manufacture his ‘unwholesome beverage’, to the ‘great injury of the health and morals of the community’. Named a corrupter of the youth, Sir John Barleycorn was found guilty and sentenced to death. Prohibition and temperance finally won out over the financial (and festive) needs of the people.
Better understandings of the dangers of overconsumption of alcohol and alcoholism may have threatened Sir John’s reputation. Yet, we are still caught by the dualism of drink: in 1913, American writer Jack London, in his autobiographical novel titled John Barleycorn, presented the power of alcohol to lead a man to blind and stumbling drunkenness, or to great heights of ecstasy and inspiration. His name appears in ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ literature, but he is celebrated in pub signs nationwide.
Hundreds of years after the first version, we are still writing and rewriting the story of John Barleycorn. As recently as 2017, folk darling Johnny Flynn produced his own version simply titled ‘Barleycorn’. The song brings a modern twist:
The season to destroy you
comes year after year
It’s the same darn machine
Taking ear after ear
Rather than scythes, we might instead picture a combine harvester cutting down poor Sir John.
Enemies of John Barleycorn long forget the central message of the ancient song – though he must die, he will rise again, year after year.
*Unless otherwise stated, extracts in the text are from the version printed in The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. It is number 164 in the Roud Folk Song Index.
Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (New York: Harper, 1974).
Sir James George Fraser, Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion, ed. Theodor H. Gaster (New York: Criterion Books, 1959 ).
Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, ed. by Steve Roud and Julia Bishop (London: Penguin Classics, 2014).
Traffic, John Barleycorn (must die), (London: Island Records, 1970).
Steeleye Span, John Barleycorn (London: Sound Techniques, 1972).
Fairport Convention, John Barleycorn (London: Vertigo, 1978).
The Imagined Village, John Barleycorn (Wiltshire: Real World Records, 2007).
Johnny Flynn, Barleycorn (London: Transgressive Records, 2017).
Amy Louise Smith is a third year PhD student in the department of History at Lancaster University. Her research explores how song was used by the early-modern commons to express grievance and to challenge authority. She is also the Art Director and Cultural Editor for EPOCH Magazine.