Song of the day: TRAFFIC – John Barleycorn (1970)

I’ve never been a massive Traffic fan. I have tried, but to no avail. One song of theirs I adore, though, is their take on the ancient English folk ballad “John Barleycorn”. I’ve heard many versions of the song (a mere fraction of those that exist), but it’s Traffic’s reading that I always come back to. It has a sense of drama, and some superbly judged flute playing from Chris Wood. It’s odd that one of the greatest recordings of the English folk-rock period came from a band for whom the song was almost an exercise in dilettantism. They never recorded anything else like it.

“John Barleycorn” is, essentially, a song about brewing whose origins go back centuries. It is an allegory, describing how the men impose unimagined suffering on the little bearded fellow, but cannot kill him. In the end, he has the last laugh. He provides their beer – without him they could not survive. Although the song may have originated in pagan times, the early Christian church saw its value as a metaphor for the crucifixion and resurrection. The humble barleycorn is put through all manner of torture, and yet is reborn as the stuff of life. I’m not big on Christian symbolism, but even so, I can see how they got there.

There are countless variations on the words of the song, as would be expected by something that has been handed down as part of an oral tradition. Over the centuries, many writers have laid down on paper the version that they knew, including Robert Burns. I like Traffic’s lyrics. They convey the great age of the song and its rural background well without lapsing into cod-Shakespearean or Chauceran English. At ten verses, it’s probably shorter than many other versions, but the story survives intact. 

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.

They let him lie for a very long time
Till the rains from Heaven did fall,
And little Sir John sprung up his head
And so amazed them all.

They’ve let him stand till Midsummer’s day,
Till 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 the 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 the sharp pitchforks,
Who pricked him through 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,
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn oath
On poor John Barleycorn

They’ve hired men with the crab-tree 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 nor pots
without a little barley corn

I like this alternate, temperate ending:

Put brandy in a keg, me boys, put cider in a can,
But Barleycorn in an old brown bowl
will floor the strongest man.

He’ll turn your gold to silver, your silver into brass,
He’ll make a boy become a man, and a man become an ass


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