Article MT232

John Barleycorn revisited

Evolution and Folk Song

In a paper on the song John Barleycorn in 2004 I traced the origin of the song from precursors1.  This established that the song we have sung in the current revival belongs to a family of songs on the same theme, and whereas the concept of Barley as a person dated back to the 16th century, it took a single event of great inspiration to create the character 'Sir John Barleycorn' in the early 17th century, and later another act of creation which resulted in the modern song, sometime about the mid 18th century.  That song has stood the test of time over 250 years by proliferation of both text and tunes to make it one of the most popular folk songs in the English speaking world, the vast majority of which were found in England.  As an ex-geneticist, I naturally draw parallels between the development of organisms and songs, and the study of John Barleycorn certainly was a great stimulus in this regard.  However, much of the material I wrote at that time was considered too 'speculative' for Folk Music Journal.  Whilst respecting the scholars' opinion, I did not agree with it, and having looked at it again, I thought it might be timely to publish it elsewhere, and I hope readers will agree.  Let us first look at previous thoughts about evolutionism and folk song.

Evolutionism and Folksong

Darwinian evolutionary theory was applied to English folksong by Sharp early on2, and other scholars have used Darwinian terminology such as variation, selection, development, transmission3.  Of course, all these words have general meanings which predated The Origin of Species4, including the word 'evolution' itself, which interestingly Darwin did not use until the final page of his work.  The word has several meanings, but the most commonly understood one is that of a gradual development, especially from simple things to complex things or to a wider range of things, the latter being the more relevant to the development of songs.

There are three essential features of Darwinian evolution, viz. continuity, variation, and selection.  In living organisms, the first is provided by reproduction, the second by random mutation, and the third by 'survival of the fittest'.  In traditional song, continuity is provided by the social performance of a song over a long period of time, perhaps hundreds of years.  In other words, the song is a success, it survives.  It is unfortunate that Sharp used continuity differently, to mean 'invariance'5, and more recent scholarship has put this right by using the word stability.  Thus Russell makes the point that 'stability' and 'change' are more appropriate than 'continuity' and 'variation', since the latter terms imply 'wider relationships which cannot be proven.'6  In other words, there is no force at work, driving the songs in a particular direction, simply that we can get both stability and change at different points in time and place.

Sharp's analysis of variation led to his assertion, by the use of a very few examples, that:

To be fair to Sharp, he had not intended to be definitive14, and was perhaps guilty of joining in too quickly with the then current vogue of applying 'social Darwinism' to many areas of human culture.  However, there has been little attempt by scholars since Sharp to change these views.  The working definition of 'folk music' adopted by the International Folk Music Council in 1954, quoted by Lloyd15 includes the following: 'The factors that shape the tradition are: (i) continuity which links the present with the past; (ii) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or group; and (iii) selection by the community, which determines the form or forms in which the music survives.'  Whilst it is pleasing that item (ii) allows for creativity by the singer, Lloyd appears to support Sharp's view that this applies to the tunes, whereas the words show continuity (stability)16.  Russell, looking at a living tradition in a small area near Sheffield in the 1970s, supports this to some extent17, although as we shall see, this is not the case with John Barleycorn.

The analogy with species evolution starts to get limited at this point for the simple and obvious reason that whereas each song needs an original creator, living organisms do not.  The chemical changes (mutations) which cause variation in living organisms are entirely random, and can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful in their effect.  Natural selection then chooses between these.  There is no consciousness at work here, either by a God or by the organisms themselves.  In folksong, there are both accidental (random) changes and conscious (semi-random?) changes.  Whilst it is obvious that in a purely oral culture, changes will accrue due to forgetfulness by the singers, it is equally clear that they have made alterations to the songs they had inherited for reasons of personal preference, artistic judgement, bringing an older song into a contemporary and/or local context, or in an effort to explain an otherwise incomprehensible phrase.  Thus the variation by the singer has been twofold, accidental and conscious.  The same is true of the other people who have been involved in a song's transmission through history.  Collectors and editors have made errors in noting down the original, have made deliberate changes between collection and publication for reasons of artistic and/or moral judgement, or denied us a version considered too boring, because they were simply after yet another tune.

The kind of variation just described has been happening, I suspect, since language first evolved, and we are the better off culturally for it.  It is conventional currently to call the process 're-creation', a term I find a touch strong, but will adopt in this paper.  Even in the case of Chevy Chase, which bids fair to be the first authentic folk song to be recovered from the tradition (1550)18, where we have the name of the singer (Sheale), he is merely a re-creator of somebody else's earlier creation.  Although the Thomson paper is entitled 'The Transmission of Chevy Chase', we are not able to glean much about the oral process, due to its having lost popularity after about 1830.  However, in another paper by the same author, where the song The Foggy Dew is seen to have survived into the popular music of the mid-20th century, there is more to be learnt about the oral process, and there is a useful comparison of this with broadside transmission, including a 250 year pedigree.19

However, there are bigger, often more interventionist causes of variation we need to consider.  Examples abound of early ballads recounting a real event, which have changed with the course of time.  Thus The Gosport Tragedy has given rise to The Cruel Ship's Carpenter and the American Pretty Polly which whilst being good songs, have lost the specifics of the original20.  It also has been adapted to suit a local event, as has The Captain's Apprentice.21   In the case of Bold Captain Avery there is evidence of changes introduced for political and moralistic reasons.22  It has been observed by many writers that when a song is first created, it often at first uses the tune of an existing song, and although many such songs have diverged to find their own tune by evolution thereafter, some have unashamedly stuck with the original.  For example, The King of the Cannibal Islands created in the 1830s, has provided the tune for some 41 other songs23 though it must be said that none of them appear to have been recovered from the tradition, and probably had only a transient broadside existence.  The tune of a song will of course determine very largely its textual structure, and as a result we find families of songs related by structure.  The 'Come-all-ye' format is an obvious example, but another one which has received detailed analysis is the Sam Hall/Captain Kidd grouping, where the structure of the song is apparently traceable back to Tudor times.24  Another cause of change is the 'siamesing' of several songs to make a new one.  Burrison has shown how Child's James Harris arrived in the United States in about 1800, taking its title from the English The House Carpenter, but with its text a fusion of this and the Scottish The Demon Lover.25  The versions collected in Britain since Child show either a similar fusion, or are firmly the Scottish version, or in one case appear to be a deliberate reworking of the original.  Some of this has come about by geographical isolation, particularly with emigration to America, a situation analagous to the arrival of new species of organism by the 'founder principal'.

As stated previously, the term 'evolution' can mean the development of a complex form from a simpler original, or the proliferation of many forms, different, but not necessarily more complex.  In living organisms, both meanings seem to apply, but in folksong, probably only the second meaning applies.  There may be examples of songs that were born simple and got more complex by exposure to the people, but it seems that more commonly the process has been neutral in this respect, and in some cases we have inherited a 'decayed' version of a fine original.  Thus Gilchrist has analysed the two distinct versions of Lambkin, Scottish and Northumbrian'26, showing how a fine song based on a real event can undergo a long period of degradation as it loses contact with the original story.  Although she uses the term 'evolution' there seems no positive developmental period, only degradation, though it is not clear what part is played in this by 'creative re-working', oral transmission, or interference by collectors and editors.  There must surely be a development before a decay period, but this might not happen if the song is based on a real event, as is suspected with Lambkin.  In the case of John Barleycorn, a long elaborate original has been greatly simplified and shortened by positive action by an individual ('re-composition'), which has stood the test of time without further dramatic intervention.

The Barleycorn Family

As described in detail in the FMJ paper already alluded to, the first song which characterized Barley as a person was Scottish, prior to 1568, and called Allan-a-Maut ('Alan of the malt')27, and the first mention of John Barleycorn as the character was in a 1624 London broadside entitled A Pleasant new Ballad.  To be sung evening and morn, of the bloody murder of Sir John Barleycorn, which I will abbreviate to The Pleasant Ballad .28  All the elements of the later song John Barleycorn are here: knights swearing an oath to kill him, rain followed by sun, the beard, and most vividly the miller grinding him between two stones.  It was reprinted several times in broadsides during the 17th and 18th centuries, but somebody felt the need to rewrite the song, keeping all the elements, but with modern language, and making it much shorter.  Candidates for the first version of the song are two found in oral tradition in Scotland, one collected by Burns and one by Jamieson, and a version in a chapbook The Mountain of Hair Garland, in Newcastle and London, all three dating between 1750 and 1775.29  Two other English broadsides are probably 18th century, and have texts which are very similar to later versions.  One of these, The Flower of England, is particularly important in the rest of this paper.  The other will be referred to as the Harvard broadside30.  So, England and Scotland are vying for the first version, but it is probably impossible to decide, so let us get on with the story of the song after this.  Prior to this event, three other songs on the same theme had been created: Allan o'Maut, an 18th century version of Allan-a-Maut, and The Little Barleycorne and Mas Mault, both 17th century broadsides concerned entirely with the effect of drink on drinkers.  This family of six songs was outlined by Jamieson in 180631 and is summarized in Fig.1.  The present article, however will deal with the story of John Barleycorn after this date.

Versions from oral tradition

The two Scots versions of the song, each 18th century recoveries from oral tradition, were reprinted in several 19th century collections.32  The first English oral recovery was not printed until 1846, and is seminal to our analysis.33  James Dixon, though heavily criticised generally for his Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the peasantry of England, performed an invaluable service for scholars of 'The West country ballad Sir John Barleycorn', declaring it to be '... the only version that has ever been sung at English merrymakings and country feasts ... a better claim to antiquity than any of the three ballads in Evans' collection [Pleasant Ballad, The Little Barley-Corne, Mas Mault] ...  The common ballad does not appear to have been inserted in any of our popular collections.'

The Dixon text links the 18th century English broadsides with a late Victorian recovery, in that it shows almost complete identity with the Flower of England broadside and a version collected from James Mortimore on behalf of Baring Gould in Princetown, Devon , in 1890.34  Sharp certainly recognised the importance of this link, and in the second edition of Songs of the West manipulated the Mortimore text to much more closely accord with that published by Dixon.35  A few years later in Folk Songs of England, Sharp did something similar with a version collected by Gardiner36, and in English Folk Songs he openly put Dixon's text to a splendid tune for which he only had one verse.37  Fig.2 shows this example of stability over a period of at least 140 years.  There is also a hint of an older link with Allan-a-Maut, where the very last line runs: 'And it will cause a man to drink till he can neither go nor stand' in Dixon and Mortimore.  The commoner final line is 'Put barleycorn in the nut brown bowl for he proved the strongest man'.  The 'neither go nor stand' phrase is found twice in Allan-a-Maut, and though it is not found in the Flower of England broadside, is found in a slip-song version in the Madden collection38 which is again undated, but almost certain to be before the Dixon publication, and is therefore included in Fig.2, which includes other examples of stability which will be discussed later.

This remarkable example of stability in oral tradition is in contrast to a huge amount of change/variation amongst other versions.  Only one further version saw print in books before 1900.  Barrett published a version in 1891, markedly different from the Dixon text, with no information other than that it was English .39  The Edwardian collectors in southern England found John Barleycorn to be both abundant and highly variable in both text and tune.40  Between June 1905 and December 1908, Sharp, Hammond, and Gardiner obtained 10 full texts, and 19 fragments of the song, almost all from Somerset, Dorset, and Hampshire.  Other collectors garnered versions from Surrey and Sussex, with Vaughan Williams in the same period obtaining four tunes from Essex.  Source singers continued to provide versions of the song up until the 1980s, adding most of the southern English counties and a couple from the north midlands to the song's distribution.41

In species evolution, it is thought that a positive change happens say once, and is so advantageous that it spreads in a radial way geographically from the original, and is often traceable in the genes of today's organisms.  Despite the debunking of the 'radial waves' concept in the spread of a tradition, notably by von Sydow42, it is important that the theory that should be regularly tested, and there are enough versions of our song for such a test.  The county with the most full versions of the song is Hampshire with four.  Neighbouring counties Somerset and Dorset have three and two versions respectively.  Is there a discernible pattern here?  Regrettably, the answer is negative.  There is as much variation between the four Hampshire versions as between any two versions taken at random from the south of England.  Thus the Devon version is closer to the Oxfordshire one than it is to any of the three Somerset versions next door, which themselves show no greater similarity to each other.  The Sussex and Surrey versions are as different from each other as any other two, and so on.  Overall, in the south of England there are nine adjacent counties providing some 42 versions, but no pattern emerges.  In Northern Ireland, two quite different fragments have been collected from neighbouring villages.43  In this case, von Sydow was right-there is clearly no radial evolution of texts at work here!

Despite its early appearance in Scotland, the song did not show particularly thereafter.  Gavin Greig got one version44, with the Burns text and an indifferent tune, and later Scottish publications also tended to include the Burns version.  The song has occurred patchily in Ireland, notably in O'Lochlainn45 and Behan46.  Kennedy quotes a Tyrone singer who believed the song to be about whisky47, and Morton has a version from John Maguire.48  (It is interesting to find the odd line in Irish texts seen in The Pleasant Ballad, but not in any other versions since, as in 'Some of them said drown him and the others said hang him high, for whoever sticks to the barley grain, a beggin he will die').  There are two versions from New England and one from Canada.49  In all, this study has analysed some 43 separately collected full texts and a further 27 fragments, a total of 70.  (There have been 46 repeats of some of the full texts, giving 116 versions in all).

Nineteenth Century Broadsides

John Barleycorn was very popular amongst English broadsides in the middle of the nineteenth century, and most of the major collections include versions.50-53  Amongst over 20 broadsides consulted, there are only 3 different texts, due to printers mostly taking the easy way of copying from each other.  In my experience, the first line of a song is often used by singers, especially ageing ones like myself as an aide-memoire rather that the title, and in the case of broadside versions of our song this aspect is particularly interesting.  Nearly always there are three people, men, noblemen, knights or kings, and they come from the north, the west, or the east swearing to kill the poor John.  In this regard, the most likely 'original' is 'Three Knights North', on the basis that The Pleasant Ballad is set in 'the North Country' and has four knights, three of whom, Sir Richard Beere, Sir Thomas Good Ale, and Sir William White Wine, swear to kill the fourth, Sir John Barleycorn.  A clear logic, this - all of them need 'dead' barley for their creation, assuming the wine is barley wine of course.  Interesting then that the commonest broadside text has this first line, 'Three Knights North', which is not found in any version collected from oral tradition but is identical to the Harvard broadside from the 18th century.  This example of stability in printed versions is shown in Fig.2.  The last example of stability is that of the Burns' text, which with 'Three Kings East' is the next most popular, perhaps not surprising, given the popularity of the poet's work in the 19th century, and this last line of stability is also shown in Fig.2.  The commonest first line in oral tradition, 'Three Men West', only occurs in one 19th century broadside, printed by Jackson of Birmingham between 1842 and 1855.  Interestingly this is almost identical to The Flower of England broadside and Dixon, which raises questions about the movement of songs between print and oral tradition.

Here is a comparison of the 'Dixon' text and that of The Pleasant Ballad:

Dixon text

The Pleasant Ballad of John Barleycorn
There came three men out of the West
Their victory for to try
And they have taken a solemn oath
Poor Barleycorn should die.

They took a plough and they harrowed him in,
And harrowed clods on his head
And then they took a solemn oath
Poor Barleycorn was dead.

There he lay sleeping in the ground
Till rain from the sky did fall
Then Barleycorn sprung up his head
And so amazed them all.

There he remained till Midsummer,
And looked both pale and wan,
Then Barleycorn he got a beard,
And so became a man.

Then they sent men with scythes so sharp
To cut him off at knee;
And then poor little barleycorn
They served him barbarously.

Then they sent men with pitchforks strong
To pierce him through the heart
And like a dreadful tragedy
They bound him to a cart.

And then they brought him to a barn
A prisoner to endure
And so they fetched him out again
And laid him on the floor.

Then they sent men with holly clubs
To beat the flesh from his bones
But the miller he served him worse than that
For he ground him betwixt two stones.

O! Barleycorn is the choicest grain
That was ever sown on land
It will do more than any grain
By the turning of your hand.

It will turn a boy into a man,
And a man into an ass
It will change your gold into silver
And your silver into brass.

It will make the huntsman hunt the fox
That never wound his horn
It will bring the tinker to the stocks
That people may him scorn.

It will put sack into a glass
And claret in the can
And it will cause a man to drink
Till he neither can go nor stand.
    Yestreen, I heard a pleasant greeting
A pleasant toy and full of joy, two noblemen were meeting
And as they walked for to sport, upon a summer's day,
Then with another nobleman, they went to make affray

Whose names was Sir John Barleycorn, he dwelt down in a dale,
Who had a kinsman lived nearby, they called him Thomas Good Ale,
Another named Richard Beer, was ready at that time,
Another worthy knight was there, called Sir William White Wine.

Some of them fought in a blackjack, some of them in a can,
But the chiefest in the black pot, like a worthy alderman,
Sir Barleycorn fought in a boule, who won the victory,
And made them all to fume and swear, that Barleycorn should die

Some said kill him, some said drown, some to hang him high
For as many as follow Barleycorn, shall surely beggars die
Then with a plough they ploughed him up, and thus they did devise
To bury him quick within the earth, and swore he should not rise.

With harrows strong they combed him, and burst clods on his head
A joyful banquet then was made, when Barleycorn was dead
He rested still within the earth, till rain from skies did fall
Then he grew up in branches green, which sore amazed them all

And so grew up till midsummer, which made them all afeared,
For he sprouted up on high and got a lovely beard
Then he grew up till St James' tide, his countenance was wan,
For he was grown unto his strength and thus became a man

Then with hooks and sickles keen, into the fields they hied
They cut his legs off at the knees, and made him wounds full wide
Thus bloodily they cut him down from the place where he did stand
And like a thief for treachery, they bound him in a band.

And they took him up again, according to his kind
And packed him up in several stakes, to wither in the wind
And with a pitchfork that was sharp, they rent him to the heart,
And like a thief for treason wide, they bound him in a cart.

And tending him with weapons strong, it's to the town they hied
And straight they mowed him in a mow, and there they let him lie
There he lay groaning by the walls, till all his wounds were sore
And at length they took him up again, and cast him on the floor

They hired two with holly clubs, to beat him at once
And thwacked so on Barleycorn that flesh fell from his bones
And then they took him up again, to fulfill women's mind
They dusted him and sifted him, till he was almost blind

And then they knit him in a sack, which grieved him full sore
And steeped him in a fat, Godwot, for three full days and more
Then they took him up again, and laid him for to dry
They cast him in a chamber floor, and swore that he would die

They rubbed him and stirred him, and still they did him turn
The maltman swore that he would die, his body he would burn
They spitefully took him up again, and threw him on a kill,
And dried him there with fire so hot, and there they wrought their will.
    Then they brought him to the mill, and there they burst his bones
The miller swore to murder him, betwixt a pair of stones,
Then they took him up again, and served him worse than that
For with hot scalding liquor store, they washed him in a fat

But not content with this Godwot, they did him mickle harm
With threatening words they promised to beat him into barm
And lying in this danger deep, for fear that he should quarrel,
They took him straight out of the fat, and turned him in a barrel

And then they set a trap to him, een though his death begin
They drew out every drop of blood, whilst any drop would run
Some brought jacks upon their backs, some brought bill and bow
And every man his weapon had, Barleycorn to overthrow

When Sir John Goodale he came with mickle might
Then he took 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 groaning by the walls, some in the streets downright,
The best of them did scarcely know, what they had done oernight
All you good wives that brew good ale, God turn from you all teen
But is you put too much liquor in, the Devil put out your een.

Distant Relatives of the family

So far, we have six members of the family, the 'five ancestors' and John Barleycorn.  The seventh member, as mentioned earlier, is Hey John Barleycorn, whose history contrasts with that of John Barleycorn in several ways: we know the author, an Irishman J B Geogoghan of Sheffield54; it is only about John Barleycorn as ale; was as common as John Barleycorn in 19th century broadsides55; and is distinctly rare in the tradition.  This writer has only managed to find four printed sources of this song56, and it is notable that the Edwardian collectors never came across it other than a couple of two-line fragments found by Sharp in Somerset and Carey in Surrey.  This song, then, has had a more music-hall kind of history, with every version having exactly the same text, and where a tune is indicated or available, it is the same one.

In addition to these seven, there have been several creations which feature the name and character of John Barleycorn, including a late seventeenth century broadside entitled The Arraignment and Inditing of John Barleycorn, Knight 57, a broadside tract of 1785, A Hue and Cry after Sir John Barleycorn'58, a (presumed) nineteenth century broadside John Barleycorn Triumphant or The teetotallers in the dumps'59, a parody of a Scottish song, John Barleycorn my Jo60 and an interesting Suffolk chimaera of John Barleycorn with The Barley Mow61.  That the tale continues to fascinate cannot be denied.  The Web gives three kinds of hits for 'John Barleycorn', one for either John Renbourne or the rock group Traffic, both of whom had albums of this title, another for one of the American early 20th century writer Jack London's characters, and the last for 'whole earth' cults who use the theme to support their philosophies.  Plays have been written, and at least two 20th century poems, including one by a poet laureate.62

The Tunes

The Pleasant ballad was set to the tune Shall I Lie Beyond Thee? on the broadside.63  This tune is quoted by a number of sources by a variety of very similar titles, including Lie Lulling Beyond Thee .  It is this writer's belief from a variety of considerations, including Simpson64 that these are one and the same tune.  There has been some confusion regarding the use of the tune Stingo for various members of the family.  Several publications say that John Barleycorn should be sung to this tune, (including Dixon), and some people have assumed this was the tune for The Pleasant Ballad.  These impressions seem to have originated from Chappell65, who meant that Stingo was the tune for another member of the family The Little Barleycorne, a view which accords with his own comments on the version in the Roxburghe Ballads66, with Simpson, and Baring-Gould who says '[Stingo] is not the air used in the broadsides nor in the west of England'67.  Two further tunes, The Friar & the Nun and Twas when the seas were roaring, are mentioned by Simpson.  Mas Mault has been suggested to be set to the tune Triumph and Joy, the original title of Greensleeves.68

John Barleycorn has been sung to a wide range of tunes, some splendid, and some rather humdrum.  The commonest tune is the one used by Vaughan Williams in his Folk Song Suite, and named by him in the score as John Barleycorn.  Some 16 versions out of a total of 62 separate versions with tunes (24 per cent) have this tune or a close variant.  Of the other 46, only the two Shropshire versions have the same tune.  In other words, 45 different tunes have been used for this song.  Some use well-known tunes, such as Dives and Lazarus, The Star of the County Down, Blow Ye Winds, and The Lincolnshire Poacher.  Others, whilst not recognisable to this author, sound like hymn tunes (e.g. Christie69 and Dunston70).  Other tunes are familiar to us through the intense exposure of the revival, such as a Shropshire version by Fred Jordan, a Bedfordshire version by Steeleye Span, a Lincolnshire version via the Haxey Hood ceremony, and the Dublin version by The Johnstones.  Perhaps the best of this category is the Young Tradition's 1965 recording which used one of Sharp's Somerset fragments.  (So taken was Sharp by the tune, that though the singer, John Stafford, could only recall one verse, the collector asked him to return a week later, when he still couldn't get beyond verse 1.  But this didn't stop Sharp from using this tune in his English Folk Songs, to another text.

So attractive does the song remain, that it has continued to be set to different tunes or creative adaptations of existing ones in the last 50 years.  Notable amongst these have been Martin Carthy, Pete Coe, and Ken Langsbury.  Ken, formerly of the Gloucester group The Songwainers, tells how the rhythm of the machines in his printing shop seduced him into putting the song to the tune of We Plough the fields and Scatter, an event of singular inspiration, still recalled instantly by all those who heard the group performing the song in the late '60s.

Tune 1. John Stafford

Sharp visited John Stafford on 27th August 1906, when the singer only gave him the first verse.  (It should at this point be noted that this is the only version of the song the writer has encountered that indicates "south" as where the murderers came from).  So taken was Sharp with the tune that he returned to Bishop's Sutton a week later for more of the song, but the singer was unable to provide it.  When Sharp published English Folk Songs in 1920, he used the Dixon text (sic), which by then I believe he had come to regard as the definitive text, but set it to Stafford's tune.  And so it came to pass that The Young Tradition folk group used that version when they recorded it in 1965, and made such a great job of this fine tune.  For this writer, the tune is quite distinct from all the other tunes used for the song, and gives an impression of great antiquity.

Click the graphic above to play the tune.

Here are Sharp's notes about the song in his English Folk Songs:

No. 34. John Barleycorn
For other versions with tunes of this well- known ballad, see Songs of the West (No. 14 and note, 2nd ed.); Barrett's English Folk-Songs (No.8); Journal of the Folk-Song Society (volume i, p. 81; volume iii., p. 255); and Christie's Traditional Ballad Airs of Scotland (volume i., p.134).

The earliest printed copy of the ballad is of the time of James I (i.e. The Pleasant Ballad).  Versions with words only are given in Dick's Songs of Robert Burns (p.314); Roxburghe Ballads (volume ii., p. 327); and Bell's Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England (p.80).  Chappell gives Stingo or Oil of Barley as the traditional air; while Dick says it is uncertain whether Burns intended his version of the ballad to be sung to that tune or to Lull Me Beyond Thee (Playford's English Dancing Master, 1st ed.).

It is not easy to express in musical notation the exact way in which the singer sang this song.  He dwelt, perhaps, rather longer upon the double-dotted notes than their written value, although not long enough to warrant their being marked with the formal pause. The singer told me that he heard the song solemnly chanted by some street-singers who passed through his village when he was a child.  The song fascinated him, and he followed the singers and tried to learn the air.  For some time afterward he was unable to recall it, when one day, to his great delight, the tune suddenly came back to him, and since then he has constantly sung it.  He gave me the words of the first stanza only.

The remaining verses of the text have been taken from Bell's Songs of the Peasantry of England [i.e. the Dixon text].  The tune, which is in the Aeolian mode, is such a fine one that I have been tempted to harmonize it somewhat elaborately.  Those who prefer a simpler setting can repeat the harmonies set to the first verse.

Tune 2: Shepherd Haden

This tune has hints of the ubiquitous Dives and Lazarus.  Haden's version was popular in the early days of the revival due to its inclusion in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

Click the graphic above to play the tune.

Tune 3: Robert Pope

This the commonest tune in oral tradition, and was called John Barleycorn by Vaughan Williams in his Folk Song Suite.

Click the graphic above to play the tune.

Tune 4: Fred's tune

Used by Fred Jordan, and the other Shropshire singer, Bert Edwards.

Click the graphic above to play the tune.


Although there has been some speculation about John Barleycorn's links to pagan rites71, most scholars have either reported such speculation without comment72 or disagreed with it73.  Many have preferred Lloyd's suggestion of 'an antiquarian revivalist' as the originator of the song74, but this is perhaps in retrospect just a more sophisticated way of linking the song to pre-history, and there is as little evidence for it as for the former speculation.  It seems just as likely that some person had the idea of barley as a maltreated person, and the ability to produce the song.  We hear the idea first in the 16th century Allan-a-maut, but we do not know that this song was the first, and in some ways, even allowing for difficulties in translation, it gives the impression of a decayed song which has lost a lot of its original content.75  We also do not know for a fact that the creator of The Pleasant Ballad re-composed Allan-a-maut, particularly since the amount of textual continuity is minimal, or that the other members of the family were re-compositions of either of these.  However, the balance of probabilities suggests that such a good idea probably only happened once.  It is a 'family' linked by an unusually potent concept rather than a continuity of text or structure which seems to be the accepted concept of 'family' in folk song and ballad scholarship.  Alan-a-Maut had the two essential elements of the theme, i.e. the plant's ill-treatment by humans and its re-emergence as beer to take its revenge.  The song either assumes the brewing process, or has lost that element (in common with most of the family, the exceptions being The Pleasant Ballad and Alan o' Maut and two or three variants of John Barleycorn).  Assuming that The Pleasant Ballad was based on Allan-a-Maut, the creator appears to have used only the concept, the text having little similarity.  It was an act of exceptional imagination and skill, and introduced us to 'Sir John Barleycorn' for the first time, and although The Pleasant Ballad spends very little time on John Barleycorn as beer, both the character and the plot have acted as stimuli to other writers to develop this aspect exclusively to a high degree.  Mas Mault is somewhat metaphorical, and appears rather complex for uneducated people to have sung much, whereas The Little Barley-corne is more straightforward and witty.  Two quite distinct songs, and each distinct from The Pleasant Ballad, but linked by theme, albeit highly selective.  The later arrival Hey John Barleycorn also dealt entirely with the effects of beer, with yet another structure and tune, but his time using the character.

We have no information about any oral transmission of the five ancestors of John Barleycorn, although different prints of The Pleasant Ballad show the sort of variation typical of orally-transmitted songs.  We are also told by Jamieson that Alan-o-Maut was popular in north-east Scotland in the late 18th century.76  By contrast, as we have seen, we know a great deal about that of John Barleycorn, which since its arrival in the 18th century has undergone the process of 're-creation'.  In this, each rendition can be seen as unique, and expected to show some variation, either of text or tune, which may be retained or rejected, consciously or unconsciously, at the next 'outing'.  This aspect of John Barleycorn is explored a little later.  However, the song's creation was in my view an altogether different process.  The comparison of texts discussed earlier can leave no doubt that somebody methodically and skilfully reduced the length of The Pleasant Ballad, not by removing content, but by use of much more concise language more appropriate to the period.  The brewing process has been removed, and the whole tone of the final part changed by inserting two verses from The Little Barley-corne and adding the 'toast' as a final verse.  This is not the sort of small change described earlier as 're-creation', does not appear to happen very often with traditional songs, and should be distinguished by using a different term, such as 're-composition', a term according with at least one seminal paper on the subject of textual variation in folksong.77  Although the term 'rewrite' is inappropriate, this process is too complex a one to be achieved without its being written.  It is my view that the process has created a new song, and references to The Pleasant Ballad as an 'early version' of John Barleycorn are misleading.  Other scholars seem reluctant in such a case to agree with this78, but I feel that such a quantal jump is not only quantitatively different from 're-creation', but is qualitatively different as well.  It has lost the somewhat somber, dark tone of The Pleasant Ballad, and despite the beer aspect still being only a small part, it seems to be classified from this point on as a 'drinking song'.  Its very sparseness and directness made it much easier for people to remember, which allowed it subsequently to become enormously popular.  This conversion of long 17th century broadsides to shorter 19th century songs by re-composition as opposed to re-creation has happened with other popular folk songs such as The Nightingale and The Wild Rover.79  With many songs, the record will not allow us to decide between re-creation (slow changes over a vast period of time) or re-composition (single act by one person) as responsible (compare for example Bonny Susie Cleland as a variant of Lady Maisry80).

Given that somebody in the mid-18th century sat down and deliberately re-composed The Pleasant Ballad to create a new song we call John Barleycorn, do we know which was the original?  Of the five 18th century versions discussed, none of them presents an overwhelming case for being the first, so the safer working hypothesis is that there is a 'missing link' from which all have derived.  Putting the Burns version aside, the others show for the most part the kind of variation typical of oral transmission.  However, the Jamieson and 'West' versions include verses from The Little Barley-corne which the other two lack.  Either these were added later to add another dimension, as for example happened in some North American versions of Barbara Allen81, or were in an original and been dropped from the other versions.  Some years before his 'antiquarian revivalist' idea, Lloyd appeared to support this view in saying that '... a song supremely beautiful, supremely dignified, and supremely candid ... taken for a drinking song ...'82 In other words, an item of great cultural significance, nothing to do with ale, had been debased and usurped for frivolous pleasure.  MacColl and Seeger also appear to support this theory, suggesting that '...the [Part C] verses had perhaps been taken from Mas Mault...' [although they manifestly meant The Little Barley-corne].83  I prefer deletion, as it accords with my concept of an outstanding single act of re-composition, but the evidence will not allow a decision.  If it was a later addition, then it happened very quickly after the first act of re-composition.

Another intriguing aspect is the first line, which has been used so far as a label to identify variants, but as argued earlier, first lines have special significance and so require some attention.  If 'Three Knights North' was the original, then why such a rapid change to 'Three Kings East' in oral tradition in Scotland by the 1770s, and 'Three Men West' and 'Two Brothers on yonder Hill' in English broadsides at about the same time?  As the introduction outlines, change can be subconscious mainly due to loss of memory on the part of a singer.  (i.e. any point of the compass would do, did it matter if they were knights, kings, or men?, etc.), or deliberate.  If the latter, can we detect reasons other than artistic preference?  Speculation has suggested the West because it means sunset, or place of death, whilst the Wise Men came from the East (sunrise, place of life?) bringing promise of death to the infant Jesus.  However, there seems to be little support for these ideas.  'Two brothers on yonder hill' has only occurred once again, in the Lincolnshire Haxey Hood version, but apart from the first verse, the version has no resemblance to the 18th century broadside.

As has already been pointed out, the 43 full versions of John Barleycorn considered here manifest both stability and change.  What is clear from the analysis in this paper is that three of the '18th century five' led to lines of stability as shown in Fig.2.  Two of these were print-based, leaving only 'Three Men West' featuring strongly in oral tradition, particularly in southern England.  Although Fig.2 suggests a route by which the broadside and oral tradition of 'Three Men West' may have reinforced each other, the former is very limited, and further doubt is cast upon this idea by the fact that the commonest mid-19th century broadside text has not been recovered from the tradition..  The same is true of Hey John Barleycorn, which was very common as a broadside in the mid-19th century, but has rarely been found in oral tradition.

If broadsides in general have not played a significant part in the oral tradition of this song, it may well explain the vast amount of variation in the versions recovered in the early 20th century, in keeping with other studies.84  Interestingly, the variation does not show any of the decadence which has elsewhere been attributed to the lack of a printed version, such as Lamkin and The Foggy Dew85.  This may be explained by our song being a metaphor whereas Lamkin is based on a real event whose details have been lost, and that the interpretation of the term 'foggy dew' is somewhat uncertain.

It had been hoped that the tunes might have helped in the search for an evolutionary path.  Whilst the 16 versions which use the John Barleycorn tune are located in the West country, most of them are fragments collected by Sharp in Somerset, which makes the search for textual similarity between them difficult, and the full texts using this tune show no greater kinship than do the population as a whole.  However, the fact that there are so many reflects the song's great popularity.

Returning to the geography of the song, it is notable that it is absent from great swathes of the Midlands and North.  Either nobody looked for it in these areas, or it wasn't there to be found.  The former is supported by the fact that counties such as Suffolk, Gloucestershire, and Shropshire, which had not been collected in the first revival of the 1900s, yielded versions in the second revival after 1950.  However, this probably does not apply to the northernmost English counties, which each had at least one notable 19th century collection of folksongs.  There were also mid-19th century broadside versions in Birmingham, Preston, Manchester and Newcastle, and a print of Mountain of Hair in Newcastle, which perhaps reinforces the idea that for this song the later broadsides had very little influence over the oral tradition.  In the case of the north-east, the area has had more printed versions of ballads and songs over the last two hundred years than any other area of England, and yet John Barleycorn does not show.  This is particularly puzzling given its proximity to Scotland, which as we have seen had a thriving tradition of the song in the 18th century.

Of course, we should remind ourselves that working people did not generally travel much, unless they were drovers, journeymen, seasonal agricultural workers, merchants and the like.  Although several people have suggested these as major transmitters of songs, this is not supported by our song; some of the most major droving routes being across the English/Scottish border.  Perhaps the singers didn't drove?  Why, if it was widespread in Scotland before 1800, and in Devon before 1846 was it not in Northumberland?  One tempting possibility is maritime transfer by reason of war.  One thing that the Napoleonic wars achieved, as did all wars, was to put men together from all over the Kingdom.  The few who survived would probably have had to take their chance on repatriation, so that many Scots soldiers may have been discharged at the most convenient naval port, i.e. Plymouth or Portsmouth.  They might have eventually got back home, or might have stayed down south.  Either way, if John Barleycorn was a Scots song, here is a means by which it might have become a west country English song.  Of course, it might have happened the other way, and anyway these men would have swapped songs whilst thrown together in barracks and holds all over Europe.


So, how does all this relate to the evolutionism we considered at the start?  If we look first at the Barleycorn family of seven songs, we have variation/change, where each one entailed a deliberate of creation by a songwriter, based on a common idea.  The majority of these consider only the drink aspect, but in very different ways.  The original idea however was chiefly concerned with the barbaric treatment of the plant, and here we have continuity/stability in the line leading from Allan-a-Maut to The Pleasant Ballad to John Barleycorn. Whether selection operates at the family level is a moot point.  One might rather fancifully say that John Barleycorn and Hey John Barleycorn have been 'selected for' on the grounds that the others have not come down to us in oral tradition.  However, I suspect that the others were inaccessible to ordinary people and so never got tested.

As discussed earlier, Hey John Barleycorn has demonstrated total stability since its creation in the mid 19th century, but John Barleycorn is more interesting.  Here we find the widest variation in both text and tune.  Whilst much of this has been due to conscious changes by singers and songwriters, it is also likely that, as argued in the introduction, many changes have been by forgetfulness or subconscious change of a word and these are much more like the randomness of mutations in DNA.  But, whatever the causes of the changes, the third aspect of evolution, selection has played its part.  If a singer makes a change on one occasion and prefers it, he'll keep it, if the audience prefers one version over another, it will be requested more, and so on.  We have also seen a very good example of stability over about 120 years from Flower of England via the Dixon version to the Devon version of the 1890s.  I like to see this as selection by the people rather than the professionals, though without evidence of course.  But this line also shows selection by these people in what Sharp did to the Mortimore version when he published it.

Pete Wood - 11.2.10
using material written in 2004 but not previously published


Article MT232

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