Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What brand storytellers can learn from John Barleycorn

In medieval Europe some ballads were composed, then cheaply printed and sold as broadsheets.  

This post is devoted to the artful use of words and verse to convey, powerful, imaginative, cohesive, and memorable narratives. Ballads, for example, a narrative form often set to music, trace back to medieval times when many were composed, then cheaply printed and sold across Europe as single sheet broadsheets.

The ballad has evolved over the years, though it remains characteristically narrative - a concise story using vivid imagery rather than description. The central theme is often anchored in repetition, sometimes in the fourth lines in succeeding stanzas. 

Today we talk about the value of word-of-mouth marketing and brand narratives. How might a great balladeer tell a brand story?

An especially old and wonderful ballad is the English folksong "John Barleycorn," in which the character of John Barleycorn personifies the cultivation of barley for making beverages like whisky and beer. The song is set at harvest time, and it chronicles John Barleycorn's demise during the process of reaping and malting. It's a grizzly story, true, but it is told provocatively and beautifully. 

It's hardly surprising that some versions of "John Barleycorn," date back 500 years; many of us may know it as the song John Barleycorn Must Die, recorded in 1970 by the English rock band Traffic. Theirs is a fantastic rendition, and it is best enjoyed by listening and reading (or singing) along.

- Ballad-Lyrics - 
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've plowed, they've sown, they've harrowed him in
Threw clods upon his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead

They've let him lie for a very long time, 'til the rains from heaven did fall
And little Sir John sprung up his head and so amazed them all
They've let him stand 'til Midsummer's Day 'til he looked both pale and wan
And little Sir John's grown a long long beard and so become a man
They've hired men with their scythes so sharp to cut him off at the knee
They've rolled him and tied him by the way, serving him most barbarously
They've hired men with their sharp pitchforks who've pricked him to the heart
And the loader he has served him worse than that
For he's bound him to the cart

They've wheeled him around and around a field 'til they came onto a pond
And there they made a solemn oath on poor John Barleycorn
They've hired men with their crabtree sticks to cut him skin from bone
And the miller he has served him worse than that
For he's ground him between two stones

And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl and his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl proved the strongest man at last
The huntsman he can't hunt the fox nor so loudly to blow his horn
And the tinker he can't mend kettle or pots without a little barleycorn

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