John Barleycorn is proclaimed dead but springs to life when the rain/dew falls on him. At midsummer he grows a beard; then men with scythes cut him, bind him to a cart, wheel him to a barn, and brew him into beer. The last verse praises his merits
A version of this was remade by Robert Burns, but it is obviously older. - RBW
MacColl & Seeger speculate that "John Barleycorn" was derived from the Scots ballad "Allan-a-Maut," found in the Bannatyne manuscript, 1568; its theme is similar. - PJS
Of course, the legend of the eternal grain is old -- as is the legend of the dying-and-resurrected God. Jesus, obviously, is the prototype of this, but there is also the Greek Persephone legend and others.
Incidentally, when Prohibition was passed in the United States, John Barleycorn was given a bonus funeral, beyond the annual supply. The February 2005 issue of _American History_ magazine showed an actual tombstone:
Died Jan. 16, 1920
There are also broadsides commemorating his death, e.g. NLScotland, Ry.III.a.10(099), "A Hue and Cry After Sir John Barleycorn," unknown, after 1720. The notes to the broadside state that this was made in respone to Robert Walpole's 1725 imposition of the malt tax -- but, in context, it seems likely that the idea was lifted from an early form of this song. - RBW
The Bodleian broadside Douce Ballads 3(83a) appears to be older than the other broadsides. Unfortunately, Bodleian has neither the printer nor date estimate. The tune is noted as "Shall I lye beyond thee."
Broadside LOCSinging as100660 appears to be the same as Bodleian 2806 b.9(38) printed by P. Brereton (Dublin). - BS