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Who is John Barleycorn?

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John Barleycorn was likely introduced in a traditional ballad, sung in rural England as early as the 15th century although the lyrics were not published until the early 17th century . The song describes a ritual in which the blood of the sacrificed folk figure, Barleycorn, waters the grain fields and strengthens those who eat the barley cakes. In keeping with the agricultural cycle, John Barleycorn continually returns to life.

There was three men came out of the west,
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
John Barleycorn should die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,
Throwed clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
John Barleycorn was dead.

Robert Burns, the revered Scottish poet, reworked the ballad in a 1782 poem and in the process transformed Sir John into the personification of alcoholic drink.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne'er fail in old Scotland.

Nineteenth century temperance sermons predicted the death of John Barleycorn would herald a new era of order and prosperity. In 1913 Jack London, the popular author of The Call of the Wild, published John Barleycorn, an anti-alcohol novel embraced by the prohibitionist movement. The resurrection of Sir John in 1933 with the repeal of the Prohibition amendment also led to his obscurity as the wars over liquor subsided. A new generation made his acquaintance in 1970 when Traffic, a British rock group, recorded the traditional ballad as the title track of the album John Barleycorn Must Die


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