Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


John Barleycorn Must Die

I find it simply amazing that, one thousand years ago, people were drinking excellent beer and singing this fantastic song and that even now, one thousand years later, beer is still excellent and the song is still fantastic.


There were three men came out of the west
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die.


They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in
Threw clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.

John Barleycorn is the personification of beer and/or barley and the three men from the west killed him and buried him in the ground.


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.


They’ve let him stand till Midsummer’s day,
Till he looked both pale and wan.
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.

But John Barleycorn springs back to life and grows strong again… until the men cut him down and make sure that he is really dead this time.

They’ve hired men with the scythes so sharp,
To cut him off at the knee,
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the waist,
Serving him most barbarously.


They’ve hired men with the sharp pitchforks,
Who pricked him through the heart
And the loader, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s bound him to the cart.


They’ve wheeled him around and around a field,
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn oath
On poor John Barleycorn

They grind up him up to make beer giving John Barleycorn the chance to get his revenge on those three men from the west.


They’ve hired men with the crab-tree sticks,
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s ground him between two stones.


And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
And his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last


The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker, he can’t mend kettle nor pots
without a little barley corn

The earliest surviving written record is from the sixteenth century but there is evidence that the song and the story is much older – like this twelfth century pub in Hampshire.


I spent a very pleasant day listening to every version I could find – from Martin Carthy to Paul Weller via Billy Bragg and Jethro Tull and The Fairport Convention and many, many more. The best version by far is by Traffic but they each have their own charms.

Turn up the volume and raise a glass to that ancient hero.

John Barleycorn Must Die. Album by Traffic

Long live John Barleycorn!