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Paleo Sunday Rock: John Barleycorn Must Die

Actually, folk performed by a rock band would be a better description. I’m talking about Steve Winwood & Traffic performing John Barleycorn (Must Die) from the album by the same name.

I found a delightful live performance from 1973 on YouTube.

And so what’s the paleo connection? Well, it turns out that "John Barleycorn" is a personification of the cereal grain barley in this 16th century or older English folk song.

But here’s the deal: the meaning can be taken both ways. Many versions abound and in the later ones it appears to be a celebration of the barley crop; i.e., it has to die in order to provide the bread, beer, and whiskey made from it.

But not so fast. According to that Wikipedia link above, earlier versions had an opposite meaning, that "John Barleycorn" must die for all the havoc it causes.

Earlier versions resemble Burns’s only in personifying the barley, and sometimes in having the barley be foully treated or murdered by various artisans. Burns’ version, however, omits their motives. In an early seventeenth century version, the mysterious kings of Burns’s version were in fact ordinary men laid low by drink, who sought their revenge on John Barleycorn for that offense:

Sir John Barley-Corn fought in a Bowl,
who won the Victory,
Which made them all to chafe and swear,
that Barley-Corn must dye.

Another early version features John Barleycorn’s revenge on the miller:

Mault gave the Miller such a blow,
That from [h]is horse he fell full low,
He taught him his master Mault for to know
you neuer saw the like sir.

I think I’ll stick with the original meaning.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

4 Comments

  1. Ed on June 20, 2010 at 13:10

    Richard,
    You bring back fond memories of my high school days. Back then, record stores had “cut-out” sections, where they would sell over-printed and over-stocked vinyl records. “John Barleycorn Must Die” was one of the early “cut-outs”, and one of the best. I still own my vinyl copy.

    • Richard Nikoley on June 20, 2010 at 13:15

      I hadn’t heard it in years, Ed. Other night I was cooking and had my iTunes streaming to the Main Stereo Setup, on random play. This came on and initially, I thought it was an old Genesis tune with Peter Gabriel on vocals.

      Until I listened closer.

      When I looked into the background of the song, done deal for this Sunday.



  2. Bay Area Sparky on June 20, 2010 at 15:29

    Good stuff. Even though it may date to the period in which popular music was considered of the baroque genre, this stuff hearkens back much farther, at least to the Renaissance genre of music (think of the medieval minstrel style) and maybe much farther.

    Love the old flute and the whole mood. The treatment is very faithful, I think.

  3. Nuff on June 21, 2010 at 03:28

    ..and these 3 men made a solemn vow
    John Barleycorn must die

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