175: Traffic, ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’

Traffic – John Barleycorn Must Die (album version)

Traffic – John Barleycorn Must Die (live video)

Stevie Winwood – John Barleycorn Must Die (solo)

Winwood, Capaldi

July, 1970, two full years after Traffic’s eponymous psychedelic jazz-rock opus magnum, the band disbanded, and world-weary 22-year old Stevie Winwood went into the studio alone to fulfill contractual obligations. But he got stuck and needed a little help from his friends. In came drummer/singer/songwriting collaborator Jim Capaldi. In came reed and woodwindist Chris Wood. Out came “John Barleycorn Must Die”, Traffic’s third LP. 


The American version had only six cuts, and to be frank – despite my opinion that Stevie Winwood was the finest vocalist and multi-instrumentalist of the time, and frequently one heck of a songwriter – it was an underwhelming effort, at least in comparison to “Dear Mr Fantasy” and “Traffic”. But we come not to disparage the album, but to pay tribute to the title track.

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 ploughed, 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.

Photo: Chris Walter

Oh, those three men. I know them, portending something momentous, they are, be it epiphanous or foreboding. Here they’re riding a vehicle dating back to the 16th century, a Goode Aulde British Ballade. A Scottish poem with a similar theme, “Quhy Sowld Nocht Allane Honorit Be”, is included in the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568, and English broadside versions from the 17th century are common. (In case you were wondering, a ‘broadside’ was a single sheet of disposable paper printed on one side with an advertisement, news or a ballad. They were one of the most common forms of printed communication back in those old days.)

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

So what do we have here? An allegory (a rather disreputable literary genre in which characters or events directly represent ideas and concepts; think “Animal Farm”) in which The Three Men are teetotalers (promoting abstinence from alcoholic beverages), ‘respectable society’; versus John Barleycorn, the personified grain, representing demon alcohol.


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 waist 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.

Except that the respectable ones are portrayed as barbarous, vicious, delighting in outdoing one another in the pain they wreak upon poor John. There are even those who have found in John an emblem of Christ’s suffering, crucifixion, apparent death, and wond’rous rebirth.

They’ve wheeled him around and around a field ’til they came unto a barn,
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 

John Barleycorn

Poor little John, the archetypal Innocent. You want to watch out for those innocents. We all know who gets the last word, and just how un-innocent that word so frequently is.

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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