This is the second version of ‘John Barleycorn’ to appear on this blog. I posted a Shropshire version back in Week 61, and there’s also the – largely unrelated – ‘John Barleycorn’s a Hero Bold’. I’ve also recorded a third version – collected from Charlie Hill of Devon in the 1970s – on the Magpie Lane CD A Taste of Ale. That CD can still be purchased from our website (so don’t pay £34 for it from Amazon!), or downloaded from Amazon, iTunes etc. etc. (I notice on Amazon we are described as “Oxfordshire folk supergroup” – not sure we’re quite in the Traveling Wilburys league).
Ian and I sang this version of the song on the first Magpie Lane CD, The Oxford Ramble, back in 1993, and I suppose we’d better revive it for the ‘Songs from Bampton’ session we’re running at the English Country Music Weekend at the end of this month. It’s the best-known version – indeed I’d say it’s one of the best known English folk songs, thanks to the fact that it was included in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, and to recordings by Mike Waterson, Martin Carthy, Traffic, Chris Wood… and Martin Carthy again, with Paul Weller of all the unlikely people, on the first Imagined Village album.
Cecil Sharp noted the song at Bampton in Oxfordshire, on 31st August 1909, from the eighty-three year old Shadrach ‘Shepherd’ Haden.
Another, completely different version of the song, also collected in Bampton, was included in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Steve Roud’s notes to the song say
It was perhaps inevitable that this song would attract the ritual-origins theorists who claimed that it was all to do with corn spirits and resurrection, but it is now generally agreed that such notions were romantic wishful thinking and there is no evidence either for the theories themselves or for this song to be anything other than a clever allegory.
And I’ll go along with that. Long live Occam’s Razor.
And here’s Ian Giles and me singing the song at the very first Magpie Lane gig, Holywell Music Room, May 1993.