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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

John Barleycorn Must Die

Anyone familiar with this blog can probably figure out that I have a deep and abiding affection for the folk music of the British Isles. This affection goes back to childhood when I would listen to my mother’s Simon and Garfunkle and Peter, Paul and Mary albums which eventually led me to artists like Fairport Convention, Dougie Maclean, and, later, The Waterboys. During high school I was a big fan of the early Rod Stewart and Faces when they were exploring folk instrumentation and idioms in the context of rock; and I likewise always loved Led Zeppelin’s habitual excursions into folk with songs like “The Battle of Evermore” and “Going to California.” I had a group of friends, mostly girls, who shared my love for this kind of music and we would repair on summer evenings to a valley in a local golf course (this was in Detroit) where we would make a small bonfire, play guitars, drink beer, smoke hash, and dream. One of the girls taught me a few chords on her mandolin and I taught myself the mandolin part from “Maggie Mae” within a few minutes. That was it: I was hooked. If you want a picture of my soul, this is the soundtrack.

These musical enthusiasms eventually led me to an exploration of their sources in Irish, Scottish, and English ballads in my twenties and thirties. This is when I learned about Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) who collected almost countless ballads, reels, dances, and so forth and to whom is owed a great cultural debt. In addition, my love for the music of Ralph Vaughan-Williams and the Anglican hymnal is no doubt due to the rich wellsprings of folk music that nourishes them. My grandfather was from Ireland and one of my best friends growing up was from Scotland, so I also had very personal attachments to this music and the cultures that had produced it.

This interest in folk music eventually brought me to more scholarly excavations of folk tradition when I read Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (the abridged version!) and Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance in my twenties. When I began doctoral studies, I entertained the idea of making my area of specialty the poetry of Robert Burns, many of whose poems are actually folk songs, but balked because I didn’t want to sour on something I loved so much through the kind of academic ennui that often infects the scholarly.

In my years as a Waldorf teacher, I drew on this tradition when working with my students. I would teach them various ballads upon occasion and put together an arrangement of “Greensleeves” for Christmas one year as well as a version of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s take on “A Soalin.” When I taught third grade, I wrote a short play for my class, “The Grain Mother,” which drew on a number of traditions and their mythoi of grains and how when a certain kind of wind blows through the fields it is said that the Grain Mother is passing through. I also wrote a version of the Mummers Play to be performed at a May Day festival by sixth graders. It was a kind of Sir James Frazer meets Monty Python type of deal, and it was dead funny. In addition, I directed three eighth grade classes in performances of Shakespeare’s plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest and set the Bard’s songs to my own tunes and arrangements in a very English-Irish folk manner, one of which from Twelfth Night you can hear below in a version recorded by The Corktown Popes and another from The Tempest during my Waldorf period which features rapper Big Sean when he was still Little Sean and my student.

I often taught students poetry from the tradition, such as the Celtic “He Praises the Trees” and “The Ripe and Bearded Barley.” Often in these poems and ballads, the Things of Nature are personified, though I’m not at all that convinced that personification is the most accurate word; as Kathleen Raine once said, “The pathetic fallacy is neither.” Their words possess a certain magic:

Come out, 'tis now September, The hunter’s moon’s begun; And through the wheaten stubble We hear the frequent gun; The leaves are turning yellow, And fading into red, While the ripe and bearded barley Is hanging down its head. All among the barley, Who would not be blithe, While the ripe and bearded barley Is smiling on the scythe! The wheat is like a rich man, It'’s sleek and well-to-do; The oats are like a pack of girls, They’re thin and dancing too; The rye is like a miser, Both sulky, lean, and small, Whilst the ripe and bearded barley Is the monarch of them all. All among the barley, Who would not be blithe, While the ripe and bearded barley Is smiling on the scythe! The spring is like a young maid That does not know her mind, The summer is a tyrant Of most ungracious kind; The autumn is an old friend That pleases all he can, And brings the bearded barley To glad the heart of man. All among the barley, Who would not be blithe, When the ripe and bearded barley Is smiling on the scythe!

In my twenties, after I left the MusicBusiness™, I would sometimes play coffeehouses or parties, sometimes with my wife or some friends, sometimes alone, and invariably drew on this tradition. Over the past year or so I have been writing arrangements for a number of traditional folk songs, including “Scarborough Fair,” “Wild Mountain Thyme,”and Hubert Perry’s setting of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” (okay, so while not technically “traditional,” it is now). When I was in Dublin in 1989, I heard a powerful version of “Scarborough Fair” performed by the only black man I saw on the entire trip, a busker on Grafton Street upon a Saturday morning. I’ve been trying for years, but finally came up with an arrangement I like inspired by his. I would love to record these songs and others along with my Shakespeare tunes sometime. I plan on winning the lottery this year in order to fund such a project. Don’t judge me.

One song I recently revived from my repertoire is the ballad “John Barleycorn (Must Die).” I first heard it, as I’m sure is the case for many of my generation, in the splendid version by Steve Winwood’s band Traffic. The song tells the story of the death, resurrection, and subsequent revenge on his killers of John Barleycorn. The first verse set up the drama:

There were three men came out of the West Their fortunes for to try And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn must die They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in Threw clods upon his head And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn was dead

The tale, the children’s version of which is certainly “The Gingerbread Man,” progresses through the many tortures to which John Barleycorn (just “barley” to you and me) endures until he revenges himself at the end of the cycle:

And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl And he’s brandy in the glass And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl Proved the strongest man at last The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox Nor so loudly to blow his horn And the tinker he can’t mend kettle nor pot Without a little Barleycorn

This thing just begs for a Frazerian interpretation, in which the Vegetative King is ritually killed and brought back to life in order to renew the cycle of life. Of the king, Frazer writes,

By slaying him his worshipers could, in the first place, make sure of catching his soul as it escaped and transferring it to a suitable successor; and, in the second place, by putting him to death before his natural force was abated, they would secure that the world should not fall into decay wit the decay of the man-god.”

That’s some heavy magic. And is it any wonder that the act of fermenting and distilling (“brandy in the glass”) results in the creation of “spirits”? So much mystery exists in language.

This mystery of language also inhabits the Christian imagination, and it is no great leap to connect the death and resurrection of John Barleycorn with that of Christ. Do we not drink the latter’s blood as wine, eat His body as bread? As I have been writing for a good long while, such a sensibility leads to a way of abundant life absolutely at odds with the technocratic oppression with which we contend. As H.J. Massingham wrote nearly eighty years ago:

When man lived more or less naturally, and at the same time believed the world to be the porch to an otherworldly room, his civilization made rapid and intensive growth, whereas he has made a sufficiently poor job of his own self-glorification in disowning Mother Earth and the Fatherhood of God.”

Rainer Maria Rilke certainly seized upon a similar intuition, though he drew upon not Christian-pagan folk tradition, but Greek mythology. In his Sonnets to Orpheus he precisely describes the phenomenon of which I speak, here in Stephen Mitchell’s exquisite translation of Sonnet I, 5:

Erect no gravestone to his memory; just let the rose blossom each year for his sake. For it is Orpheus. Wherever he has passed through this or that. We do not need to look for other names. When there is poetry, it is Orpheus singing. He lightly comes and goes. Isn’t it enough if sometimes he can stay with us a few days longer than a rose? Though he himself is afraid to disappear, he has to vanish: don’t you understand? The moment his word steps out beyond our life here, he moves where you will never find his trace. The lyre’s strings do not constrict his hands. And it is in overstepping that he obeys.

He has to vanish. And this is why John Barleycorn must die: so that he may rise again.

May we all be so fortunate.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: Flesh & Spirit. Twitter: @Sophiologist_

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