To Thread - Forum Home

The Mudcat Café TM
10 messages

Twisted roots of John Barleycorn...

06 Oct 20 - 01:28 PM (#4074512)
Subject: Twisted roots of John Barleycorn...
From: GUEST,BlackAcornUK

Ever wanted to know about the twisted roots of John Barleycorn...?

I've penned this exploration of the song's intertwining with folklore, myth and custom, as well as charting its abiding influence on artists of all disciplines (including Ted Hughes, Mark Wallinger, David Rudkin & beyond).

I wrote it for last week's harvest moon, but realised I forgot to share it here.

I've had a crack at singing the 'John Stafford' version, too, but you may want to give that a miss as I'm very much a novice and it's a tricky one to tackle!

Many thanks to anyone that finds the time to take a look, and even more fulsome gratitude to anybody that likes it enough to share!

06 Oct 20 - 01:29 PM (#4074513)
Subject: RE: Twisted roots of John Barleycorn...
From: GUEST,BlackAcornUK

PS The link also contains a Spotify playlist I've compiled of 64 renditions that I could find thereabouts (it's probably about 2/3s of those on the platform, but most of the rest are fairly straight trad-ish retreads of the Traffic arrangement of the 'Shepherd Haden' version - distinctive guitar intro and all).

07 Oct 20 - 05:21 AM (#4074587)
Subject: RE: Twisted roots of John Barleycorn...
From: Jack Campin

A few years ago I came across a prose version of the same story from the Renaissance (in an anthology of letters about art) but about murdering grapes to make wine. I wonder if that was part of a parallel song tradition?

For that matter the same theme could work for any of the plants that people ferment into alcohol around the world.

08 Oct 20 - 07:35 AM (#4074727)
Subject: RE: Twisted roots of John Barleycorn...
From: Richard Mellish

> Wood traces multiple ancestors of Allan-a-Maut ...

I think you meant descendants.

08 Oct 20 - 01:04 PM (#4074765)
Subject: RE: Twisted roots of John Barleycorn...
From: GUEST,BlackAcornUK

I did indeed, but have now opted for the slightly more flowery 'progeny'. Thanks for reading, and for sub-editing!

08 Oct 20 - 02:18 PM (#4074773)
Subject: RE: Twisted roots of John Barleycorn...
From: Brian Peters

Interesting blog, Black Acorn. I was intrigued by the comparison with Christ's passion, though in general I'm of the Steve Roud / Pete Wood opinion on the song. A couple of points:

Bert Lloyd was far more in thrall to Frazer's Golden Bough when he wrote 'The Singing Englishman', the full text of which can be found at the Musical Traditions site and is worth checking for the section on the 'Corn King' etc. He had backed off the whole witch-cult / paganism thing by the time he got round to 'Folk Song in England', presumably in a drive for greater credibility - not that FSE isn't still full of dodgy theories. And personally I wouldn't place too much reliance on 'Where is St George?'.

There's an interesting article by Andy Letcher of Telling the Bees, wearing his academic's hat, on Paganism and the British Folk Revival, available free at Academia, which discusses the importance of JB to neo-pagans, but is as sceptical as Roud about any actual pagan content. He mentions the Frost and fire sleeve notes too, though he doesn't seem to have twigged that Lloyd wrote them. I think he's right when he says that ‘traditional music in Britain is categorically not of pagan provenance’, but identifies a ‘need for that assumption to be true’.

Is Shepherd Haden's tune really 'Dives and Lazarus'? I can hear some similarities but they are not the same tune, whereas the other numerous examples of the D&L tune in traditional song generally conform to it much more closely. I did some research on the tunes for JB at one point, and was struck by how many quite different ones there were.

BTW (since you're welcoming sub-editing), your link to Pete Wood's page on MT is pointing the wrong way.

08 Oct 20 - 03:38 PM (#4074779)
Subject: RE: Twisted roots of John Barleycorn...
From: GUEST,BlackAcornUK

Cheers Brian - it's John McMahon - I'll fix that link;

I actually just received Lloyd's Folk Song in England at the weekend, but haven't delved into it yet; I also followed a link yesterday eve to The Singing Englishman on Mustrad, but have only read Georgina Boyes's intro.

To emphasise - I agree with you, Roud and Wood totally on the origins of the song; the perspective I put forward is that perhaps the song has gathered those other meanings and associations over time, through different iterations, lyrical evolutions and in the hearts and minds of later singers; and perhaps such re-interpretation is now bound into its DNA.

I also agree with you on Bob Stewart - very speculative and factually shaky - but he has an interesting knack for driving at the feelings, atmospheres and associations that songs evoke - and this has value, too. Its a bit like the quotes attributed to Robert Graves as he received criticism for the highly questionable historical detail of The White Goddess - he tetchily emphasised his 'poetic' interpretation of myth and ritual, beyond 'mere scholars'.

Re: D&L - you'll know far better than me on this. I did intend to write 'a variation on', but that detail got lost in an attempt to not fall too far down the rabbit hole (similar situation with not name-checking all the paired Goddesses that Fraser invokes). I'll make that tweak, too.

The version of Dives & Lazarus I'm most familiar with has a very similar tune to Shepherd Haden, but I won't link to it here as I subsequently discovered that the artist in question is widely thought to have a pretty dark political outlook.

Thanks for the Andy Letcher tip - I'll check that out - and I hope you and Margaret are keeping well

08 Oct 20 - 04:31 PM (#4074782)
Subject: RE: Twisted roots of John Barleycorn...
From: RTim

John Barleycorn, in all it's versions is a great song and I have taken the liberty to add my version here as it is NOT include in the Spotify list above.
Assistance was given here from the Canadian Group - Finest Kind and a wonderful brass player from Ontario, Brian Sanderson.
The recording is from my Home From Home CD.

Tim Radford

08 Oct 20 - 04:39 PM (#4074785)
Subject: RE: Twisted roots of John Barleycorn...
From: GUEST,.gargoyle

Very nicely done.

I will digest it this evening.

Thanks for the nod to Jack London's "John Barleycorn - memoires of an alcoholic" it is an excellent read.


"He is the king of liars. He is the frankest truthsayer. He is the august companion with whom one walks with the gods. He is also in league with the Noseless One. His way leads to truth naked, and to death. He gives clear vision, and muddy dreams. He is the enemy of life, and the teacher of wisdom beyond life's wisdom. He is a red-handed killer, and he slays youth."

02 May 21 - 04:41 PM (#4104374)
Subject: RE: Twisted roots of John Barleycorn...
From: keberoxu

"John Barleycorn Must Die" concluded the second set
of Martin Carthy's live-streamed performance on 1 May 2021,
which several hundred people, Mudcat members included,
tuned in for in real time.

Martin Carthy having had this song in his repertoire for who knows how many years,
took the liberty of introducing the song by describing
an Arthur Ransome collection in his childhood home titled
Old Peter's Russian Tales,
English translations of Russian legends and stories.
This English-language book honors certain Russian words by
presenting them with English definitions, words like
"bogatir" and   "moujik", which Carthy quoted.

Carthy emphasized the English translation "Men of Power" which
turns out to be the title of one of Arthur Ransome's translated tales.
And Carthy concluded his introduction by
describing John Barleycorn as
an English counterpart to the Russian "man of power".

And then he sang the song, of course.