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A TOAST TO JOHN BARLEYCORN


Edouard_Manet_006Some of us refer to this season as “Fall”, while to others it is “Autumn”, I suppose it depends upon which part of the country one comes from. At any rate, the season between summer and winter prior to the 17th century was referred to as harvest season, and wheat, corn and barley were at their ripest before the winter freeze. The hops too were ready for harvest, which incidentally provided the raw materials and may led to the making of more flavorful beer, since the hops provided the “seasoning” or flavor to the beer.

I have written before about the year during the War, when Oregon’s hop crop was in dire prospect of drying on the bines for lack of harvesters. The city of Grants Pass, Oregon actually closed down banks, shops and postponed school openings. The entire town came out and picked the crop. I was one of the high school students who faithfully arrived at daybreak and stripped the bines of their glory.

hops2

The process of barley harvesting was revered and even mythologized. The song or poem “John Barleycorn” is primarily an allegorical story of death, resurrection, and drinking. The main character, John Barleycorn, is the personification of barley, which is attacked, beaten, and eventually dies—or as we prefer to think of it, grown, reaped, and then malted.

After John Barleycorn’s death, he is resurrected as beer, bread and whiskey, a reference some say, to Christian transubstantiation. There are many different versions of the story, which began appearing around 1568. Scottish poet Robert Burns published his own take on the story in 1782. In the British folksong, John Barleycorn is a personification of the important cereal crop barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whiskey. In the song, John Barleycorn is represented as suffering attacks, death and indignities that correspond to the various stages of barley cultivation, such as reaping and malting.

170px-The_Brewer_designed_and_engraved_in_the_Sixteenth._Century_by_J_Amman

Countless versions of the song exist, and though it wasn’t the original, Robert Burns version became the model for most subsequent versions of the ballad. In later years, the words were put to music and one of the most famous of these is by the band Traffic on their 1970 album, “John Barleycorn Must Die”.

An early English version runs like this:

There was three men come out o’ 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, throwed clods upon his head,
Til these three men were satisfied John Barleycorn was dead.

Jack London gave the title John Barleycorn to his 1913 autobiographical novel that tells of his struggle with alcoholism.

220px-Edouard_Manet_-_At_the_Café_-_Google_Art_Project

As truly sad as I am for the death of John Barleycorn, I am happy to say that this years’ harvest has provided the opportunity for many Octoberfest celebrations. We were guests at a local Octoberfest two weeks ago, where eight different beers were sampled, after being served by authentic “German” frauleins dressed in charming costume, and pretzels, German sausage, polka dancing and music got the blood flowing.

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Munich Octoberfest

The two paintings were by Eduard Manet, At the Cafe

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10 comments on “A TOAST TO JOHN BARLEYCORN

  1. I learned a lot from this post: the resurrection of John Barleycorn, Jack London’s autobiographical novel and the botanical distinction between vines and bines. It’s good to see the Manet paintings again, as well: they were great favourites of mine in my university days.

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  2. I’m so glad you liked this mrsdaffodil. I have to admit that until a few years ago I did not make the distinction beween “vine” and “bine”. The summer I helped pick the hops was quite an experience for me. A city girl suddenly in the midst of farm life! I was supposed to start in a new school, which had to wait till the hops were picked, so I met all my new schoolmates who were also picking hops.

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  3. And a good time was had by all;

    Trink, trink, Brüderlein, trink,
    lass doch die Sorgen zu Haus!
    Trink, trink, Brüderlein, trink,
    zieh doch die Stirn nicht so krauss!
    Meide den Kummer und meide den Schmerz,
    dann ist das Leben ein Scherz!
    Meide den Kummer und meide den Schmerz,
    dann ist das Leben ein Scherz!

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  4. Double Dutch I presume? Danke, mein Herr.

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  5. What would you say if I told you that I first read the town’s name as “Grass Pants” ??!
    😀

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  6. I’d say you must be a native. That’s what we always called it too!

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  7. My word for the today will be “bine”! Not sure if this will work but here is a link to a fine version of John Barleycorn by Martin and Eliza Carthy and Paul Weller https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vFj_jPG_TU Another fine tale Kayti.

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  8. Couldn’t get your link to work, but I found it on another. They sent John Barleycorn out on a mournful note didn’t they? I do remember hearing the song in the ’70s, but can’t remember by whom.

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  9. I’ve never heard the word “bines.” And although I’ve heard of John Barleycorn, I didn’t know the song, or the history. Craft brewing is big in Houston, and once I was introduced to the estimable St. Arnold’s Brewery and their products, I’ve learned a lot. Right now, I’m having an occasional Oktoberfest. During the summer, I’m rather fond of Weedwacker. Their names are creative, and the beers and ales are wonderful.

    Here’s a brewery tidbit for you. You surely know of San Francisco’s Anchor Steam brewery. Well — from their website:

    “[In 1965] during a meal at the Old Spaghetti Factory, a North Beach restaurant known more for its eclectic décor and Anchor Steam® Beer than its spaghetti, a young Stanford grad named Fritz Maytag learned that the makers of his favorite beer were soon to close their doors forever. Despite its primitive equipment and financial condition, Fritz rushed to buy 51% of the historic little San Francisco craft brewery —for a few thousand dollars—rescuing Anchor from imminent bankruptcy.”

    Fritz, of course, was part of the very same Maytag family that gave my home town its identity. I didn’t know him personally, but some of the Maytags lived across from us for a short time, and Bob was in school with us for a time, before heading off to military academy. As I recall, Fritz went to Deerfield before Stanford. Now, he’s involved with the Maytag Dairy Farms, which produces a blue cheese to rival anything out of France. In fact, I just received my pre-holiday order. Autumn and winter just aren’t complete without that blue cheese. The farm is on the same street our first house was on — East 8th Street North, in Newton, Iowa.

    I wonder if it’s too late for a beer….

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  10. I first tasted Anchor Steam beer in Martinez years ago. I thought “how fancy” they pull the handle and there it is–in your glass!” At the recent Octoberfest tastings Anchor Steam was the best of the day in my estimation. They don’t advertise much. Maybe they don’t have a need. When in Ireland where everyone was drinking Guinness, we were introduced to Smithwick’s pronounced “Smithick’s”. Lighter but still dark colored. We found a small Irish pub in the Mission district in S.F. which served it too. Along with wonderful soda bread. I asked if they sold the bread and they do—huge round loaves, which we took turns carrying as we walked back to the BART.

    Ahh! the old Spaghetti Factory. How I loved it. They had one in Seattle too.

    I have tasted the Maytag cheese and agree—it is delicious. Is the Maytag connected with the old washing machine? My sister-in-law had one for years. Never wore out.

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