Tuesday, January 25, 2011

John Barleycorn Must Die

Today is the 252nd anniversary of the birth of Scots poet Robert Burns. His re-working of "John Barleycorn" is a lyrical description of beer (and whisky) making. A barleycorn —a kernel of barley— contains the fermentable starch material of beer and whisky.

[The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley: See Alexander Mitchell's comment, below, concerning authorship.]

In 1970, the English rock group Traffic put the verses to music, and had a Top 10 hit with John Barleycorn Must Die, from an influential album of the same name. The Brookston Beer Bulletin has selected the song as one of the 10 best ever sung about beer. (View a performance of the band performing the song in concert: here.)

John Barleycorn Must Die, by traffic


There were three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
An' they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.

They took a plough and ploughed him down,
Put clods upon his head;
An' they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.

But the cheerfu' spring came kindly on,
And show'rs began to fall;
John Barleycorn got up again,
And sore surprised them all.

The sultry suns of summer came,
And he grew thick and strong;
His head weel armed wi' 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,
He faded into age;
And then his enemies began
To show their deadly rage.

They've ta'en a weapon long and sharp,
And cut him by the knee;
Then tied him fast upon a cart,
Like a rogue for forgerie.

They laid him down upon his back,
And cudgelled him full sore;
They hung him up before the storm,
And turned him o'er and o'er.

They filled up a darksome pit
With water to the brim;
They heaved in John Barleycorn,
There let him sink or swim.

They laid him out upon the floor,
To work him farther woe,
And still, as signs of life appeared,
They tossed him to and fro.

They wasted, o'er a scorching flame,
The marrow of his bones;
But a miller used him worst of all,
For he crushed him 'tween two stones.

And they hae ta'en his very heart's blood,
And drank it round and round;
And still the 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,
'Twill make your courage rise;

'Twill make a man forget his woe;
'Twill heighten all his joy:
'Twill make the widow's heart to sing,
Tho' the tear were in her eye.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne'er fail in old Scotland!

1 comment:

  1. Actually, Burns didn't compose that work (and a lot of others credited to him) so much as he did collect and publish what had been a folk song/tale for some time before. At least that's what the Burns anthologies I have say.

    I'll take the Fairport Convention version, myself.


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