Thursday, May 22, 2008

John Barleycorn

click photo to enlarge
"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 ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, threw clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn was dead."
Old English folk song (Verse One)

The first version of this folk song that I ever heard was by the English rock group, Traffic. I'd been interested in folk song in the raw and in its use by classical music for a few years, but this particular melody didn't cross my path until the release of their album "John Barleycorn Must Die". In the era of folk rock by bands like Fairport Convention and Pentangle it didn't strike me as odd that they chose a traditional song to set amongst their jazz and soul inflected music, but, with the benefit of hindsight I can see it was a bit odd.

The song exists in a number of versions, the oldest being in George Bannatyne's Scottish manuscript of 1568, which collected verse of various kinds. There are many seventeenth century broadside ballad versions, and Robert Burns published a re-worked interpretation in 1782. Common to all renditions of the song is the personification of barley as "John Barleycorn" or "Sir John", and a succession of "attacks" upon him that represent the cultivation and harvesting of the crop, and its eventual destiny in beer and whisky. There have been attempts to link John Barleycorn's death and resurrection in the song with Christian ideas but I've always thought that to be a metaphor too far. However, it is a wonderfully wrought story with a strong melody. Its survival to the present day is testament to the power and beauty invested in it by its unknown authors.

Ever since I became familiar with John Barleycorn I can't see the hairy ears of barley without the line, "And little Sir John's grown a long, long beard, and so become a man", popping into my head. It did so again when I stopped to photograph this field on the Lincolnshire Wolds near Hameringham. The lone tree, the tractor tracks and the soft clouds against the blue May sky suggested another minimalist landscape composition of the sort I tried at the end of April, so I isolated them with a longish focal length for this image.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 46mm (92mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/1000
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.7 EV
Image Stabilisation: On