John Barleycorn is a tale steeped in folklore - one of the best surviving versions of the tale is a poem by Robert Burns. The poem follows the fate of John Barleycorn – a personification of the grain used to make whisky. The poem is graphic, telling of John Barleycorn’s maturity in summer, suffering in autumn and many stages of death – he is a hero whose blood has to be tasted to understand his sacrifice. There are echoes of the story of Christ in the poem – three kings at the start, the drinking of the hero’s blood, the suggestion that, whatever happens, John Barleycorn’s resurrection after his lifeforce has been spilled will ensure the continuation of the cycle of growth and harvest.
The three kings at the start of the poem swore a solemn oath that John Barleycorn would die. Though they plough’d him down and put clods upon his head John Barleycorn got up again, and sore surpris’d them all. Thus John Barleycorn was allowed a summer of growth and an autumn of aging before his enemies attacked him once more. They were not gentle, cutting him at the knee with a sharp weapon, tying him to a cart, cudgelling him as he lay on his back, hanging him in the face of a storm and turning him so that he was fully exposed to the bad weather.
Yet still John Barleycorn would not die, so his enemies spread him out on the floor to work him further woe. His spirit would not be quenched, so they toss’d him to and fro.
John Barleycorn’s death knell came with burning and grinding – Burns’ description heartrendingly vivid:
They wasted, o’er a scorching flame,
The marrow of his bones;
But a miller us’d him worst of all,
For he crush’d him between two stones.
John Barleycorn’s death gave life to whisky (the translation of the Gaelic name for whisky is water of life). The last four verses of Burns’ poem celebrate the heroism of John Barleycorn, the joy he gives and his ability to make men forget their woes. Burns’ version ends with a toast to the hero of his tale:
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland!
Musical versions of the John Barleycorn story abound, mostly based on English versions of the story for it was a tale that crossed borders, a parable that spoke to all who harvested grain to brew pleasure. The rhythm, metre and lyricism of Scottish and English versions are similar, lending themselves to song. Burns’ poem was published in 1782 – it is likely the origins of his tale came from generations before Burns’ time.