The Class of 1970: Traffic – ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’
In the period from 1967-69, English rock band Traffic established themselves as one of the greatest on the scene, and two superstars would emerge: Steve Winwood and Dave Mason. They, along with Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood, struck first with Mr. Fantasy (1967 – originally Heaven In Your Mind), followed by their eponymous gem the next year. They were in the process of disbanding when their third album, Last Exit (1969), came out. The first side featured tracks from other sessions, the other a superb two-song live set everybody should check out.
After the breakup, Winwood joined Blind Faith for their meteoric rise and subsequent disbanding. Winwood then set about to work on a solo project tentatively named Mad Shadows. He already played many of the instruments on Traffic’s recordings, but be brought Capaldi and Wood back in, and the project eventually became the fourth Traffic album, titled John Barleycorn Must Die. Reaching #5 in the U.S., it became the highest-charting album in the band’s history.
Steve Winwood: vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, organ, piano, electric piano, percussion
Jim Capaldi: drums, percussion, vocals
Chris Wood: tenor saxophone, flute, organ, percussion
John Barleycorn Must Die
Suffice to say that the first song “Glad” caught everyone by surprise as it leapt out at the listener, drums, bass, and organ with piano in the lead. When Wood eased into the tune on sax, it was obvious this was a very different Traffic pattern than the one we knew. Capaldi drives the song, and there is a lot of percussion throughout. Wood’s solo (with wah-wah) and Winwood’s relentless piano sold this. During the second half of the song, it mellows out as the piano again leads.
No respectable DJ then or now would dare to play “Glad” without “Freedom Rider” following it! Less jazzy but no less powerful, it rides on Winwood’s vocals and Wood’s flute, with tenor in the background. Piano and organ again swirl around each other.
“Empty Pages” is a Winwood track bolstered by Capaldi on drums, a lovely song featuring organ and electric piano and Winwood’s distinctive voice. The electric piano solo is on point.
It is the Winwood show again on “Stranger to Himself,” drums by Capaldi. Acoustic guitar plays, although piano is again lead. Then electric guitar begins to emerge, and he rips a nasty solo on guitar with piano dancing right along. Capaldi and Winwood sing the choruses.
When we first heard “John Barleycorn (Must Die),” it sounded like a terrible, brutal song. It took a while to understand that barleycorn referred to barley and that John Barleycorn was the personification of alcoholic beverages. They were harvesting barley to make libations! (Perhaps the burlap bag-textured cover should have beena hint!) This hews closer to the music created by Pentangle, Steeleye Span, and Fairport Convention: traditional English music. Winwood overdubs his vocals and plays acoustic guitar while Wood delights on flute.
“Every Mother’s Song” is another Winwood feature; he plays electric guitar, bass, and piano and sings. This song and “Stranger to Himself” were mostly completed before he brought Capaldi and Wood back. There is a long organ solo before the close.