VERSIONS – “John Barleycorn”

Here we are again with another of our occasional series in which we examine a tune and explore the various ways in which different artists have interpreted them. This time Martin Johnson goes all folk on us but doesn’t stick a finger in his ear and sing “Hey Nonny-Nonny” which is probably a blessing for us all. You may disagree with that, however, so leave us a comment below.

As we are approaching harvest time, let us turn our attention to one of our greatest British folk songs, ‘John Barleycorn’ (Roud 164). Written versions of the song go back as far as 1568 when it was included in a manuscript written by Edinburgh merchant George Bannatyne, but the origins could go back as far as the Bronze Age and possibly even the Neolithic.  The song is a celebration of barley and the alcoholic beverages made from it.  In the song, John Barleycorn suffers many traumas and indignities that relate to the reaping and malting of the crop. Despite his ill-treatment and death, all is not lost as John Barleycorn is finally resurrected.

The opening lines hint at the age of the song. (“There were three men come out of the west their fortunes for to try/ And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn must die”). While at first glance it may appear to be a reference to the Christian tradition, the number three had mystical significance to the Celts and even Neolithic peoples. In Celtic mythology, ‘The West’ is a euphemism for  ‘faerieland’. There is some speculation that the mythical figure of Beowa from Anglo Saxon paganism and John Barleycorn are one and the same. Beowa means barley, and the death and resurrection of John Barleycorn mirrors the annual cultivation cycle. The effects of drinking John Barleycorn’s blood at an obvious level relates to the alcohol produced from the harvested barley, but it could also be a distant echo of human sacrifice from the time when agriculture was first brought to the British Isles. There are many variants of the song, and over the years the words have been sung to various tunes. In modern times the most common tune comes from ‘We Plough The Fields and Scatter’.

Whatever the actual history of the song, it is clearly old, and the lyrics and melody make for a very powerful listening experience, irrespective of the arrangement used. Mind you, the bottom line is that it is a great song celebrating the production and consumption of alcohol, and as such, doesn’t need any further justification. Like the versions of the song itself , there are many recordings by any number of artists. Below is a small selection.

The Watersons (1965) The Watersons were key to the British folk revival. Comprising siblings Mike, Norma and Lal with their cousin Mike Harrison, they came out of the skiffle and trad jazz scene in Hull and established their own folk club so they could follow their new muse. They developed a repertoire of local folk songs, but sung with their own arrangements.  Their first album, ‘Frost and Fire’, was subtitled ‘A Calendar of Traditional Folk Songs’,  and comprised songs reflecting age-old traditions throughout the year. The sleeve notes were by famed folklorist A. L. Lloyd and they look back to the pre-Christian origins of the songs and how they were adopted and adapted over the generations. The album is still powerful today, with a cover that echoes the pagan past within, but at the time of its release, it was considered revelatory. Lead vocals are by Mike Waterson.

Traffic (1970) Rock star Steve Winwood decided to record his first solo album in 1970 following the demise of his supergroup Blind Faith. However, the recording sessions soon became about the reformation of his earlier group, Traffic, when he was joined by old Birmingham mates Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood.  The resulting album, ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’, with its iconic title track and mix of jazz, soul and rock music, is now considered not only one of their best albums, but one of the defining albums of the ‘70s. The centrepiece is their version of ‘John Barleycorn’ which features Steve Winwood’s acoustic guitar and ethereal vocals, Chris Wood’s flute and Jim Capaldi’s simple percussion. Chris Wood had heard the song on The Waterson’s ‘Frost and Fire’ and suggested they try and recorded it. While Winwood was the star of the group and its leading instrumentalist, Chris Wood could be said to have been the differentiator that made Traffic unique in their musical eclecticism. While he wasn’t a great virtuoso in the jazz sense on sax and flute, he had his own sound which brought unique colour to any track he contributed to. There was also the influence of his knowledge of folk and world music.

Martin Carthy (1974) Martin Carthy has recorded ‘John Barleycorn’ a number of times in his career, including versions with Dave Swarbrick and daughter Eliza. The version here comes from his solo album, ‘Sweet Wivelsfield’, which was the first of a trilogy of albums produced by the Guv’nor, Ashley Hutchings. Carthy had worked with Hutchings recently when they were both members of Steeleye Span. It is a true solo album, with Carthy on vocals, guitar and mandolin and all the songs are traditional. However, while the songs may be traditional, Carthy’s arrangements and guitar accompaniment are fresh and new. The album is an excellent example of an artist maintaining and adding to the folk tradition, making this one of his best albums.  However the sparse accompaniment and traditional material means it is not an album for the Carthy novice. Carthy performs the song as a single vocal track with lyrics based on the early Watersons’ recording. The starkness of the rendition allows the listener to fully appreciate the lyrics.

The Dovetail Trio (2014) Bringing our versions up to date, we have one of the best traditional groups on the folk club circuit, The Dovetail Trio. Comprising Rosie Hood vocals,  Jamie Roberts vocals and guitar and  Matt Quinn melodeon and vocals, who all have impressive folk pedigrees. This track shows that the folk tradition is alive and well and safe in the hands of the new generation of artists.  Their version has expanded lyrics and features Jamie Roberts’ guitar prominently and lead vocals by Matt Quinn. It is performed with enthusiasm and passion.

Steve Winwood (2012) To finish this list off we have a solo version by Steve Winwood accompanying himself on guitar. It is ironic that one of the defining songs of the folk-rock movement was recorded by musicians who weren’t part of the genre. While the song is inextricably linked to him, Winwood did not perform the song regularly at the height of his solo success, probably because it didn’t fit well with his then sound.  While this is still a very good version, with Winwood bringing his maturity to bear on the vocals, it is clear just how much Chris Wood brought to the seminal version of this classic song.

5 thoughts on “VERSIONS – “John Barleycorn””

  1. Please don’t attack me for this comment, as I’m not making any judgement (and I also quite like the song), but… Americana? Are we not straying a bit here? Discuss.

    1. Hi Pat, no one should be attacked for honestly held views. Rationale is that UK folk is part of the bedrock of Americana. The Watersons and Martin Carthy have influenced many US musicians from Dylan and Paul Simon down.

      1. Absolutely – Dylan’s Girl from the North Country uses Martin Carthy’s arrangement for Scarborough Fair; for example. Going back a bit further the British who emigrated to the States took their music with them – “Streets of Laredo” is “The young man cut down in his prime”, and ‘Pretty Polly’ is amongst other well known reworked English songs. The Carolina Chocolate Drops albums contain 19th century American tunes that sound suspiciously like Morris tunes. Music travels – sometimes it comes back again.

        And then looking at the more modern Americana – bands like The Decemberists and Midlake are openly building on (mostly) English folk – “The Hazards of Love” isn’t just a hat-tip to Anne Briggs.

        As someone once said (it was Robin Williamson) “there was interchange and colloquy and conversation upon this world” and that seems doubly true when it comes to folk’s influence on Americana.

  2. I’m with Pat Chappelle here and for me this does “stray” too far to be classified as ‘Americana’, much as I wrote about Richard & Linda Thompson recently. However I understand that defining a musical genre with firm borders is probably too personal an exercise to have universal relevance. I’ve commented very favourably in response to the Dan Baird piece yesterday but I’d guess that there will be some who’ll consider his music not to be ‘Americana’.
    It’s great to have these daily prompts though.

  3. Hi Nigel, you have got it in one, the debate is the point. It would be a very regimented world with little real progress if we all thought the same.

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