Have you been to the fields? A personal top 10 of John Barleycorn and related songs

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There is a vast amount of history behind the folk song John Barleycorn; written sources can be traced back to the 1500s, and its genealogy goes back further. But that, as they say, is another story and if you do want that story, I suggest you read Pete Wood’s 2009 essay John Barleycorn revisited: Evolution and Folk Song ).

Nor am I going to to look back at different versions that have been passed down through time and then ‘restored’ and revived. Though you can find two recordings that have captured the old song and that are local to Cirencester; a cylinder recording of a snippet of John Barleycorn recorded at Avening sometime between 1927 and 1935, and another noted recording from Highworth and Lechlade .

What I have done is certainly no academic study, instead it’s my personal favourite versions of the folk song alongside a couple of other songs inspired and related to John Barleycorn, and you can listen along via my Spotify playlist.

  1. John Barleycorn (Must Die)
    Traffic, 1970

This is a true classic of the 1970s folk-revival period. It’s clear, tuneful and easy to listen to, making it the perfect introduction to the folk-song. It is here at the top of the playlist as a bit of a benchmark. Plus, Steve Winwood is a Cotswolds resident, so I’m happy to put him at the top.

2. John Barleycorn: His Life, Death and Resurrection
Xenis Emputae Traveling Band, 2007

I’m just going to quote this straight from the internet, because I don’t think I understand this summary: “The project is a one-man 'band', with occasional collaborators, dedicated to playing an avant-folk music which draws mainly upon psychogeographic practices and folklore in order to 'channel' the physical and psychic landscapes.” – I think that puts it concisely, whatever it means. I’ll leave it at that.

3. The Miller’s Song
Sandra Kerr & John Faulkner, 1974

Ok, so I’ve put in because I love it, I think it is beautiful. Like John Barleycorn, it articulates the agricultural year and the annual processes that transform seed-grain into bread. It’s not a traditional folk song, but if it sounds familiar it’s because it is from the soundtrack of Bagpuss. For many 70’s kids like me, Bagpuss was an introduction to folk music, as well as an introduction to the stories that we can create around objects. In an interview in the Guardian in 2018 Sandra Kerr talks about The Miller’s Song, a song so good you can’t believe it was recorded for a lunchtime children’s TV programme. “That’s my favourite” , Kerr says, “I suppose it has entered the folk tradition, which is very gratifying.”

4. John Barleycorn
The Imagined Village (with Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy and Paul Weller), 2007

This version is great if you ask me. Martin Carthy has remained one of the most influential figures in British traditional music, his daughter Eliza is a double Mercy Prize nominee, and then Paul Weller joins in; how’s that for English music royalty?

5. England Half English meets John Barleycorn
The Imagined Village and Billy Bragg, 2007

This one had to be next and played back-to-back with the previous song. Here, Billy Bragg uses the same backing track, the drone of the hurdy-gurdy, behind this version of his 2002 song about racism in England. In the current Brexit climate, the themes of asylum seekers and our history of absorbing, borrowing and even stealing from other cultures seems so pertinent. The song uses cultural icons such as the lions on the English football team's shirts, Britannia, St. George and the nation's favourite dish (curry) to convey how English culture is shaped and influenced by the waves of immigration that have taken place, and continue to take place.

6. Johnny Barleycorn
Frank Black, 2006

Just the thought of Frank Black doing a folk song got me excited. I don’t think it’s his finest tune (it’s not the Pixies). But what this song brings to the playlist is a focus on the rebirth element of John Barleycorn.

“Bring down the blade on Johnny Barleycorn,
this is the day that surely he will be reborn.”

7. John Barleycorn
Fairport Convention, 1978

This one is a bit slow if you ask me, but the interesting thing here is the tune. Fairport Convention’s version is to tune of We Plough the Fields and Scatter, making it one fantastic agricultural mash-up. I’m not sure if Fairport Convention were the first to bring these two songs together; it seems a Gloucester group, The Songwainers, first did this in the late ‘60s. Glos Folk mentions that Ken Langsbury – formerly of 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. They call it, and I think I agree, ‘an event of singular inspiration’.

8. John Barley Corn
Jem Finer & Andrew Kötting, 2011

Here’s the arthouse one. Jem Finer is founder member of the Pogues, whose credits include co-writing a Fairytale of New York and creating Longplayer, (an Art Angel commission), a piece of music designed to last 1000 years without repetition). Andrew Kötting is a British artist, writer, and filmmaker.

While I said I wasn’t going to include any of the historical recordings of the traditional song, this uses a couple of lines from a lovely recording of the song. The CD blurb describes the album from which this is taken as

Cut-ups and smidgeons abound. A veritable bricolage of things folk laureate. Voices from a bygone zeitgeist weave their way throughout the beautifully constructed soundscapes. Elegiac, beguiling and always haunting the compositions mend their merry way. Hurdy Gurdies, Zithers, Melodicas and Harmoniums transport the listener to places they have not been before. Contemplative sonic landscaping at its very best. A right carry on.’

9. John Barleycorn
Vulcan’s Hammer, 1973 (then re-released 2006)

This version contains a different set of lyrics from most of the other versions of John Barleycorn here on this playlist. Here we have the kiln, and the thresher and the mashing-tub as extra ways to cruelly torture Sir John. I love the onomatopoeia of the thresher.

10. Sumer Is Icumen In
The Futureheads, 2012

Remember the Miller’s Song from earlier on the playlist? Well, think about the lovely round the Bagpuss mice sing…

We will find it, we will bind it, We will stick it with glue, glue, glue.

The Mouse round is a version of Sumer Is Icumen In, a mid-13th century round in the Wessex dialect of Middle English. This a capella version is by Sunderland post-punk band The Futureheads.

But, here’s where it all comes together… the madrigal is also sung by the Summerisle community during the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man as they watch the infamous human sacrifice scene at the end. We’ll be screening the classic film as part of our exhibition at New Brewery Arts on Friday 12th July at 7:30pm.

So, John Barleycorn, it’s more than just barley, corn dollies and agriculture – it’s folk-horror, drinking and human sacrifice. And it sounds like a great top 10.