Traffic: John Barleycorn Must Die
Before I begin, I would like to thank my fellow Star Makers for their help gathering the songs for this post. I could never have done it without you.
I am old enough to have heard Traffic’s classic John Barleycorn Must Die when it first came out, and young enough to have been a child at the time. My oldest brother brought it home, and made sure I heard it. I made two incorrect assumptions at the time. I thought Traffic wrote the song. And I heard a fair amount of psychedelic music at the time; I assumed that the lyrics told the strange tale of a man who kept being treated in cruel and unusual ways, but I never guessed that there was any deeper meaning. I knew that I loved the sound of the song, and that was enough.
But now I am older, and I understand more. John Barleycorn Must Die is a traditional English song. There is a record of a version from the 1300s, and it is likely older than that. Over time, many variants have arisen, with changes to both the melody and the words. The song became widely known throughout the British Isles. Scottish poet Robert Burns even wrote a version.
And the story is deeper than I knew. John Barleycorn is the personification of the grain, and the song tells the story of the grain from planting to harvest and beyond. The song usually begins with Barleycorn’s first death; he is buried, and dirt is heaped upon him. This, of course, is the planting of the grain. In midsummer, he grows a “long long beard” and “becomes a man”. The song goes on to describe threshing and harvesting. Barleycorn is bailed and taken to the barn. And then the grain is parceled out. Some is taken to the miller to make flour for bread. And some is saved and brewed in a vat to make ale. And some is planted, so that the whole cycle can begin again.
It is likely that versions of John Barleycorn were sung in pre-Christian times, to accompany harvest rituals. Some of these rituals survive to this day in modified form, most famously the sacrifice of the wicker man. These rituals tell the story of the death and rebirth of the god of the grain.
The lyrics used by Traffic start with three men who came from the west. This reminds me of the three wise men who came from the East in the Nativity story. The first Christians who came to the British Isles often looked for parallels between native myths and the Story of Christ, in order to help the natives accept Christianity. So these three men from the west may be an example of this. John Barleycorn shares with the Christ Story the theme of death and rebirth.
Jethro Tull: John Barleycorn
Jethro Tull’s version of the song is just called John Barleycorn, but it is otherwise a straightforward cover of the Traffic version, sharing the same melody and lyrics. But Jethro Tull has created an arrangement that is wholly original, and shows off the classic Jethro Tull sound. Ian Anderson’s trademark flute sound arrives midway through the song.
Tim van Eyken: Barleycorn
Tim van Eyken has proved himself to pure traditionalists in the English folk scene. He even played with Waterson: Carthy, the ultimate traditional English folk group. But here, he gives Barleycorn, as he calls it, a folk rock treatment. He uses a different melody and slightly different lyrics than Traffic and Tull. His three men at the beginning come not from the west but from Kent.
Steeleye Span: John Barleycorn
Steeleye Span gives us yet another variant on the song. Again, we have a different melody, and some variations in the lyrics. And Steeleye Span adds a refrain of “Fa la la la, it’s a lovely day” etc. This sounds like it may have originally belonged to another song entirely. There are numerous examples of this in English folk music.