The Ballad of Sir John Barley-corn


The version given here (my favourite) appears in The Roxburghe Ballads and is early seventeenth century. The Exeter Riddle No. 28 'Ale' appears to be an early predecessor (eleventh century, perhaps earlier), and there is a sixteenth-century Scottish version, 'Alan a'mault'. 'Master Malt he is a Gentleman' is a related ballad and was (according to Bickerdyke, Curiosities of Ale and Beer) often printed on the same sheet. 'The Little Barleycorn' is another related ballad.

Some versions finish without the final laying low of the men by Sir John, which diminishes the sense and structure of the ballad. Burns did a version of this work, (not the Scottish ballad) but without much alteration. His main intention seems to have been to make its locale 'Scottish'. Other versions suggest that it originated in the West Country (Dixon, Ancient Poems, Ballads, and Songs) but this is highly speculative, whilst the version here sets it in the 'North Countrey'. Regionalism has obviously played its part in creating alternative versions. The band Traffic covered the song on their 1970 album, 'John Barleycorn Must Die'.


As I went through the North Country
I heard a merry greeting;
A pleasant toy and full of joy -
two noble men were meeting:

And as they walkd for to sport
upon a summer's day,
Then with another nobleman
they went to make a fray:

Whose name was Sir John Barley-corne;
he dwelt down in a dale;
Who had a kinsman dwelt him nigh,
they cal'd him Thomas Goodale.

Another namd Richard Beere
was ready at that time;
Another worthy knight was there,
call'd Sir William White Wine.

Some of them fought in a Black-Jacke,
some of them in a Can;
But the chiefest in a Blacke-pot,
like a worthy noble man.

Sir John Barly-corne fought in a boule,
who wonne the victorie,
And made them all to fume and sweare
that Barly-corne should die.

Some said "Kill him," some said "Drowne,"
others wisht to hang him hie-
For as many as follow Barley-corne
shall surely beggers die.

Then with a plough they plow'd him up,
and thus they did devise
To burie him quicke within the earth,
and swore he should not rise.

With harowes strong they combd him,
and burst clods on his head:
A joyfull banquet then was made
when Barly-corne was dead.

He rested still within the earth
till raine from skies did fall,
Then he grew up in branches greene,
which sore amazed them all.

And so grew up till Mid-sommer,
which made them all afeard;
For he was sprouted up on hie,
and got a goodly beard.

Then he grew till S. James's tide,
his countenance was wan;
For he was growne unto his strength,
and thus became a man.

[Wherefore] with hookes and sickles keene
into the field they hied;
They cut his legs off by the knees,
and made him wounds full wide.

Thus bloodily they cut him down
from place where he did stand,
And, like a thiefe, for treachery,
They bound him in a band.

So then they tooke him up againe,
according to his kind,

And packt him up in severall stackes,
to wither with the wind.

And with a pitch-forke that was sharpe
they rent him to the heart;
And like a thiefe, for treason vile,
they bound him in a cart.

And tending him with weapons strong,
unto the towne they hie,
And straight they mowed him in a mow,
and there they let him lie.

There he lay groning by the walls
till all his wounds were sore;
At length they tooke him up againe,
and cast him on the floore.

They hyrd two with holly clubs,
to beat on him at once;
They thwackd so on Barly-corne
that flesh fell from the bones.

And then they took hime up againe
to fulfill women's minde;
They dusted and they sifted him
till he was almost blind.

And then they knit him in a sacke,
which grievd him full sore:
Then steep'd him in a Fat, God wot,
for three dayes space and more.

Then they tooke him up againe,
and laid him for to drie;
They cast him on a chamber floore,
and swore that he should die.

They rubbd and they stirrd him,
and still they did him turne;
The malt-man swore that he should die,
his body he would burne.

They spightfully tooke him up againe,
and threw him on a kill;
So dried him there with fire hot,
and thus they wrought their will.

Then they brought him to the mill,
and there they burst his bones;
The miller swore to murther him
betwixt a paire of stones.

Then they tooke him up againe,
and serv'd him owrse than that;
For with hot scalding liquor store
they washt him in a Fat.

But not content with this, God wot,
that did him mickle harme,
With threatning words they promisd
to beat him into barme.

And lying in this danger deep,
for feare that he should quarrell,
They took him straigh out of the Fat,
and tunn'd him in a barrell.

An then they set a tap to him,
even thus his death begun;
They drew out every dram of blood,
whilst any drop would run.

Some brought jacks upon their backes,
some brough bill and bow;
And every man his weapon had
Barly-corne to overthrow.

When Sir John Good-ale heard of this,
he came with mickle might,
And there he tooke their tongues away,
their legs, or else their sight.

And thus Sir John, in each respect,
so paid them all their hire,
That some lay sleeping by the way,
some tumbling in the mire.

Some lay groning by the wals,
some in the streets downe right;
The best of them did scarcely know
What they had done ore-night.

All you good wives that brew good ale,
God turne from you all teene;
But if you put too much water in,
The devill put out your eyne!