John Barleycorn


About John Barleycorn

The Name John Barleycorn

JOHN BAR-LEY-CORN: alcoholic liquor personified (source: Merriam Webster Dictionary).

There are varying opinions as to what year the English folk song “John Barleycorn” became popularized by word-of-mouth (ranging from 1568 to the 17th Century), but it was most likely first published during the 17th Century. The ballad is an allegorical story of death and resurrection and it was a particularly popular drinking song around harvest time.

In the song, John Barleycorn (the personification of barley), is attacked, tortured and eventually killed. After his death, he is resurrected as beer, bread and whiskey. There are many versions of this old folk song in England, Ireland and Scotland, all with a similar storyline. A widely-read version of John Barleycorn was published by Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1782.

Jack London autobiographical novelIn 1913, American writer Jack London published his autobiographical novel “John Barleycorn,” which detailed his enjoyment of alcohol and his struggles with addiction. The book was a smash hit. Temperance advocates promptly used the book to push for Prohibition and the alcohol producers promptly denounced the book. The novel was made into a movie in 1914 with veteran stage actor Hobart Bosworth starring as Jack.

Traffic album coverThere have been many recordings of the song through the years, but the most widely-known is from the band Traffic, who named their fourth album (released in 1970) “John Barleycorn Must Die.” There is also a track on the album called “John Barleycorn,” which is the English rock band’s take on the ancient folk song.

John Barleycorn

by Robert Burns

Robert BurnsThere were three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
An’ they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.

They took a plough and ploughed him down,
Put clods upon his head;
An’ they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.

But the cheerfu’ spring came kindly on,
And show’rs began to fall;
John Barleycorn got up again,
And sore surprised them all.

The sultry suns of summer came,
And he grew thick and strong;
His head weel armed wi’ pointed spears,
That no one should him wrong.

The sober autumn entered mild,
When he grew wan and pale;
His bending joints and drooping head
Showed he began to fail.

His colour sickened more and more,
He faded into age;
And then his enemies began
To show their deadly rage.

They’ve ta’en a weapon long and sharp,
And cut him by the knee;
Then tied him fast upon a cart,
Like a rogue for forgerie.

They laid him down upon his back,
And cudgelled him full sore;
They hung him up before the storm,
And turned him o’er and o’er.

They filled up a darksome pit
With water to the brim;
They heaved in John Barleycorn,
There let him sink or swim.

They laid him out upon the floor,
To work him farther woe,
And still, as signs of life appeared,
They tossed him to and fro.

They wasted, o’er a scorching flame,
The marrow of his bones;
But a miller used him worst of all,
For he crushed him ‘tween two stones.

And they hae ta’en his very heart’s blood,
And drank it round and round;
And still the more and more they drank,
Their joy did more abound.

John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise;
For if you do but taste his blood,
‘Twill make your courage rise;

‘Twill make a man forget his woe;
‘Twill heighten all his joy:
‘Twill make the widow’s heart to sing,
Tho’ the tear were in her eye.

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

History of John Barleycorn

John Barleycorn - Lincoln Park

The building that the flagship John Barleycorn (658 West Belden Avenue) calls home was constructed in 1890. The original structure had a limestone rock foundation, columns and walls that were over two-feet thick, and vaulted sidewalks. The first saloon opened in 1890 and was operated by an Irish immigrant who also happened to be a Chicago police officer.

During Prohibition, the east side of the current restaurant was a Chinese laundry. The laundry served as a front for bootleggers who rolled carts of camouflaged liquor through the laundry to the basement. The laundry’s basement was conveniently connected to the saloon’s basement, providing easy transportation of the booze to the saloon via a small elevator. At the time the front windows on the façade were covered, so from the outside the saloon appeared to be “closed” in accordance with the law. Meanwhile, patrons could enter the speakeasy through the laundry, thus eliminating any suspicion that liquor was being served on the premises.

John DillingerOver the years, many interesting patrons have quaffed a brew here. John Dillinger was a regular patron, and the quiet, well-dressed bank robber used to enjoy “buying the house a round.” Dillinger was shot by federal agents two blocks away near the Biograph Theater (now the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater) in July 1934, thanks to a tip from the “lady in red.”

Several saloons came and went in the building until Eric J. Van Gelder purchased the property in the early 1960s and named it John Barleycorn Memorial Pub. The artifacts, handmade ships and paintings displayed around the restaurant were collected by the eccentric Dutch proprietor. Some of the ships date as far back as the late 1800s and many of the pieces were purchased on Van Gelder’s trips to Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Hong Kong and Europe.

One unusual artifact was not discovered until renovations were underway in 1986. Workmen came upon a crumbling hidden staircase leading to a door. After several unsuccessful attempts with a sledgehammer a hole was finally cut into the door and a workman slipped into the tiny room. In the corner a dust-covered oilcloth concealed a beautiful woodcarving. The carving, which is of an unknown person wearing a crown, is now displayed prominently in our River North location.

The current owners purchased John Barleycorn in 1986. Since then many a celebrity has passed through for a beer and a burger and John Barleycorn was used as a location in two movies: “Primal Fear,” starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney, and “The Babe,” starring John Goodman and Kelly McGillis.

Primal Fear at Lincoln Park

Lincoln Park

John Barleycorn - Lincoln Park

The original John Barleycorn, which opened in 1963, has become a Chicago classic. From its debut as a neighborhood haunt featuring classical music and slideshows of art from celebrated artists to its current format as a neighborhood bar and restaurant, the core of the concept remains the same: quality food at reasonable prices, a full-service bar with a stellar beer list and an eclectic interior which is both welcoming and comfortable.

Today, the focus is sports -- there are multiple projection screens and dozens of HDTVs covering both college and pro teams. The menu has something for everyone from Chicago-style chili to hefty half-pound burgers to beer-battered fish and chips. The lush TV-fitted patio seats 150, there are 50 seats on the sidewalk café and the bar can accommodate 30-500 for private parties. The warm-and-woody nautically themed interior, which is fitted with the original tin ceiling, features an extensive collection of antique handmade ships and nautical artifacts, plus a quirky collection of collectibles such as plaster busts of composers and an oversized moose head.


John Barleycorn - Wrigleyville

This sports-loving sibling of the Lincoln Park stalwart gives Cubs fans all the space they need to spread out. The handsome two-story space features the familiar nautical theme downstairs, and the second level, which is fitted with a soaring ceiling and high-top tables, also features a dance floor and plush booths that are big enough to fit the whole team. Fans love that there’s no shortage of flatscreen TVs and large projection screens showing the day’s top games. This location offers a pared down version of Lincoln Park’s menu (Buffalo-style chicken wings, half-pound burgers and beer-battered fish and chips), and can accommodate 50-1,000 for private parties.

River North

John Barleycorn - River North

The newest spin-off of the legendary Lincoln Park flagship has garnered media buzz for stellar service and knowledgeable staff, and the top-notch food earned it 2013’s “Best New Restaurant” award from the River North Business Association. The gorgeous bi-level venue boasts a stunning interior designed by Rocco Laudizio of slick+designusa and features a warm-and-woody nautically-inspired main floor and a visually-striking second floor fitted with an eye-popping 75-foot retractable glass roof and an enormous 12-panel video wall.

The venue offers something for everyone from a conversation-friendly business lunch to weekend brunch with the family to a private event in the atrium with all the amenities. Expect a lineup of gourmet burgers and American fare with a full bar specializing in craft beers and handcrafted cocktails. Sports fans will appreciate the 80 HDTVs and five video panel walls showing the day’s top games and acclaimed local and national DJs perform every weekend on the second floor.