Wednesday, August 3, 2011

John Barleycorn Must Die

This is an old folk song that addresses the spirit of the season, the harvesting of grains, wheat and corn. The melody has stuck in my head ever since I heard Traffic's abbreviated version of it, and enjoy singing the song. I thought you might appreciate having the words to the full version, as collected by the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns. Burns did not write the song, he simply wrote down the words for us, because the song had been around for a long time before him. As a person who enjoys folklore and old music, I find myself feeling like hearing some of these at the same time every year, as the seasons turn.

When I first heard the song, I thought it was a ballad about a murder. It was later that I appreciated the metaphor of the way the plants have to die so that we can live and the metaphor for both the hard work and the gratitude for the results. One of the harvest rituals was to bake and bless a loaf of bread from the new harvest, and another was to toast the spirit of the alcoholic beverages made from the grains, the spirit that was given the name John Barleycorn. Although corn and wheat are bigger staple crops for us, in some places, barley was very important.

So let's appreciate what we have received this season, and raise a toast to old John Barleycorn.

John Barleycorn Must Die
traditional, collected by Robert Burns

There were three men came out of the west,
their fortune for to try;
and these three men made a solemn oath,
John Barleycorn must die.

They plowed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,
threw clods upon his head;
and these three men made a solemn vow,
John Barleycorn was dead.

They let him lie for a very long time,
till the rains from heaven did fall;
and little Sir John sprung up his head,
and so amazed them all.

The sultry suns of Summer came,
and he grew thick and strong:
His head was armed with pointed spears,
that no one should him wrong.

The sober Autumn entered mild,
when he grew wan and pale;
His bending joints and drooping head
showed he began to fail.
His colour sickened more and more,
as he faded into age;
'Twas then his enemies began to show
their violent deadly rage.

They hired men with the scythes so sharp,
to cut him off at the knees;
they rolled him and tied him by the waist,
serving him most barbarously.

They hired men with the sharp pitchforks,
to prick him to the heart;
and the loader he has served him worse than that,
for he's bound him to the cart.

They wheeled him around and around the field,
till they came unto a barn;
and there they made a solemn oath,
on poor John Barleycorn.

They hired men with crabtree sticks
to cudgel skin from bone,
and the miller he has served him worse than that
for he's ground him between two stones.

Then they filled up a darksome pit
with water to the brim,
Then they heaved in John Barleycorn
to let him sink or swim.

They've taken his very hero blood
and drank it round and round.
Still the more and more and more they drank,
their joy did more abound.

John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
of noble enterprise,
For if you do but taste his blood,
it will make your courage rise.

'Twill make a man forget his woe,
'twill heighten all his joy,
'Twill make a widow's heart to sing,
though tears were in her eyes.

Here's little Sir John in the the nut brown bowl
and he's brandy in the glass
and little Sir John in the nut brown bowl
proved the strongest man at last.

For the huntsman he can't hunt the fox,
nor loudly blow his horn;
and the tinker he can't mend kettle or pot,
without a little Barleycorn.

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