Traffic – John Barleycorn Must Die

This is about the song, not the album…Love the story and the way the words just flow in this song by Traffic. There have been many versions of this song. Jethro Tull has covered it but this is the version I’ve always known.

While researching this song there is not a lack of information. Everyone has an opinion on this one. The song was off Traffic’s album of the same name. The album peaked at #5 in the Billboard 200 in 1970 but the song did not chart.

When you first listen to the song you may think that you landed in the midst of a Middle Ages inquisition session. The lyrics describe all kinds of brutal methods inflicted by three men upon a poor fellow named John Barleycorn. However, a closer look reveals that the distressing lyrics are actually a metaphor to the process applied to barley in order to produce beer and whiskey. While it has its roots in old folklore tales about the Corn God and religious symbolism, it is really a satire on legally prohibiting the production of alcoholic beverages while still needing the drink to get on with everyday life, as revealed in the last verse:

The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox,
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettle nor pot,
Without a little Barleycorn

but there are many interpretations.” 

This is an old British folk song that railed against the ludicrousness of prohibition. The joke was that all those “brave” teetotalers who claimed to be doing the work of the Lord were actually hypocrites and were ruining that work, because, as the lyric sums up, in the end, no one can do the rudimentary work necessary to build and grow the land “without a little barleycorn.”

John Barleycorn : A personification of alcoholic liquor.


John Barleycorn Must Die

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 plowed, 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’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
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 way, 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

They’ve wheeled him around and around a field ’til they came onto a pond
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

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





Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

18 thoughts on “Traffic – John Barleycorn Must Die”

    1. Thanks for mentioning it. It broadened my scope…anytime you have another let me know. It’s been a while since I listened to it.
      It’s a popular song…with varying opinions about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Traffic is one group I’m not very familiar with. I see Steve Winwood and Dave Mason were in it. Hard to keep track of which musicians in which bands and how they are always shifting around.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I saw a concert somewhere (tv? online?) with Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton that was so awesome. Not sure if they were ever in a band together, maybe they just did the concert.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes they were in a band… called Blind Faith and Winwood quit Traffice to join and then went back… Blind Faith only lasted one album but it contained… “Cant Find My Way Back Home”… great great song .

        Liked by 1 person

      4. That is a great album. I’m glad you brought him up…I was thinking on what song to do …. Let it Rain…I’ll do that one by Clapton.

        Liked by 1 person

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