The song that introduced a generation to English folk music

If you grew up in America in the 1960’s, your first exposure to old English traditional music was most likely this version of John Barleycorn Must Die by the English band Traffic.

The character of John Barleycorn in the song is a personification of the important cereal crop barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whisky. In the song, John Barleycorn is represented as suffering indignities, attacks and death that correspond to the various stages of barley cultivation, such as reaping and malting.

Traffic “John Barleycorn”

Countless versions of this song exist. 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. Robert Burns published his own version in 1782, and modern versions abound. Burns’s version makes the tale somewhat mysterious and, although not the original, it became the model for most subsequent versions of the ballad.

Burns’s version begins:
There was three kings into the east,   
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath   
John Barleycorn should die.

An early English version runs thus:
There was three men come out o’ the west
their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
John Barleycorn must die,
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, throwed clods upon his head,
Til these three men were satisfied John Barleycorn was dead.
[Source: Wikipedia]