Best of the Barley

A lovely ballad by the Scottish songwriter Brian McNeill from his collection Back O’ The North Wind. It tells the true story of his uncle’s immigration to the United States where he found work as a woodworker in 1920s Michigan–successfully finding drink even in the midst of Prohibition. (“To find a dram in a foreign land is the natural gift of a Falkirk man/and Lady Liberty looked the other way”).  He endured the depression and returned to his native Scotland to serve in the Second World War and storm the beaches at Normandy. He married a girl he had waved at from the deck of the ship on one of his voyages. McNeill’s lyrics tell a powerful story of resilience and persistence in the face of adversity.

I learned the song from a recording by Ed Miller a Scottish singer, songwriter, and folklorist from Austin, Texas. When I was a kid, Ed would occasionally host the “Folkways” show on KUT on Saturday mornings. As a performer, he is wonderfully funny and engaging.

My uncle Jim, he served his time
On the shores of the Forth as a joiner
And £3.10 a week was all he earned
But the wages were better working Michigan pine
So he sailed on an ocean liner
To build a better life with the trade he’d learned

But the shore he reached in ’23
The home of the brave and the land of the free
Was as dry as the devil’s tongue on judgment day
But to find a dram in a foreign land
Is the natural gift of a Falkirk man
And Lady Liberty looked the other way
Or so I’ve often heard my uncle say

He’s the best of the barley
The cream of the crop
Easy on the water and I’ll tell you when to stop
Would you please charge your glasses
With a real, pure drop
And drink to the best of the barley

My uncle Jim was a child of his time
And the tricks of the time they were dirty
But the dirtiest of all was the one they played
On a working man’s dollar and poor man’s dime
In between ’29 and ’30.
For they killed all the steady jobs in the building trades

And the only way that Jim could see
Was to play the game with Lady Liberty
Though no one ever told him all the rules
So while fainter hearts were homeward bound
Jim sold Michigan ice by the pound
With a leather sling and an iron hook for tools
To show those Yankees how to keep their cool

He’s the best of the barley . . .

My uncle Jim could keep good time
When the band played an eight-some reel
And he loved to waltz away the summer nights
And the spring in his step kept him in his prime
To the turn of fortune’s wheel
And spun him round the darkness and the light

And to dance the jig called history
Jim took the hand of the century
And never let her steal a backward glance
From the D-day beaches to the cold lake shore
He twirled her ’round and around the floor
To show her how a Scotsman takes his chance
And they never missed a measure o’ the dance

He’s the best of the barley . . .

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