John Barleycorn

Here is the legendary British rock band ‘Traffic’ performing the classic traditional song  ‘John Barleycorn’ live in concert, with Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi sharing the vocals.

John Barleycorn is one of the best known of English Folk Songs, having been recorded by a wide variety of musicians across the genres including Jethro Tull, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Martin Carthy, John Boden and many others. In his liner notes to his 1966 album ‘Byker Hill’ Martin Carthy has this to say about the song:

A.L. Lloyd in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs points out that if John Barleycorn is a folklore survival of the ancient myth of the death and resurrection of the Corn God, it is remarkable if only for its coherence, but, he says, it could be the work of some more recent writer which was somehow absorbed into the tradition. It is certainly powerful enough to be the former but also quaint enough (not to use the word in its pejorative sense) to be the latter. It might be interesting to speculate further of the three men coming from the West (sunset—the place of death?) bringing with them the promise of live (for no matter what they do they succeed only in giving John Barleycorn new life) and the Three Wise Men coming from the East (sunrise—the place of life?) to see Jesus, bringing as gifts the promise of death. It is found all over the British Isles; this version was taken down in Bampton, Oxfordshire, by Cecil Sharp.

‘Mainly Norfolk’ gives the recording history of the song in Britain here. It is at least as old as 1620 when it is mentioned in the diary of Samuel Pepys as ‘a pleasant new ballad about the murther of Sir John Barleycorn’. Mudcat Café has an interesting discussion about the meaning of the song here.

Wikipedia has a good article about the history of the band ‘Traffic’ here; as far as I know, ‘John Barleycorn’ was the only traditional song they ever recorded. Steve Winwood’s website is here.


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