When Steve Winwood entered the studio in 1970 after the breakup of his supergroup Blind Faith, he intended to record a solo album. However, with the recruitment of two of his former Traffic bandmates, that solo album turned into Traffic’s fourth album, one of their most celebrated – John Barleycorn Must Die. It’s a classic album that relies on all of Traffic’s blues, jazz and rock influences. But amid all of these exciting progressive sounds, lies the album’s remarkable (and a little unusual) title track – an 18th century ballad for the 20th century…”John Barleycorn (Must Die)”.
Traffic was formed in Birmingham England in 1967 by Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood and Dave Mason. Despite their young age (Winwood was only 19) they all had an impressive amount of music experience. Winwood had been the lead singer for the Spencer Davis Group since he was 14. That group had released four Top Ten UK Singles and three Top Ten Albums. They had even had two Top Ten US singles. Capaldi, likewise, had formed his first band at age 14. Soon after he was recording alongside Dave Mason in a Birmingham group called the Hellions, who had been signed by Pye records. Mason then left the Hellions to work as a roadie for Winwood’s Spencer Davis Group. Chris Wood had been playing in Locomotive and Sounds of Blue. While Winwood, Capaldi and Mason had overlapping experiences working with their early groups, the origins of Traffic can really be traced to their shared experience jamming on stage, at a club in Aston, Birmingham called The Elbow Room. It was here that all four original members of traffic began to play music together and the idea for Traffic was formed.
To kick off their development as a band, the four musicians escaped to a cottage in Aston Tirrold, Berkshire, where they rehearsed, wrote songs together and threw parties (now legendary for their high profile guests, including Pete Townshend, Eric Burdon, and Eric Clapton). Winwood recalled, “The main idea was that we wanted to be able to get together and play at all times of day or night, without having complaints from neighbours.”
In these early days tensions were already arising between Mason and Winwood, who had different artistic visions for the music they wanted to create. The band’s first releases were unattached singles: “Paper Sun” (written by Winwood and Capaldi) was released in May of 1967, only a month after the band had formed. It hit number five in the UK. “Hole in My Shoe” (written by Mason) followed in August and peaked at number two on the UK singles charts. However, despite its commercial success, the other members of the band were not pleased with its style. Winwood explained: “Dave very quickly started writing these quite poppy songs…But of course we didn’t know how to deal with that, as we didn’t want to be a part of the pop world – Traffic for me was all about mixing jazz, folk, ethnic music, rock, R&B. We wanted to forge our own music, by trying to combine those different elements.”
Because of these tensions, Mason left the group before the year was up – even before the release of their debut album, Mr. Fantasy in December. He would join the group again briefly in 1968, combining his recent song compositions with those of the band to create their second, self-titled album which was released in October of 1968. The rest of the band dissolved soon-after (in early 1969) when Winwood joined with his friend Eric Clapton to form the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith, alongside Ginger Baker and Ric Grech. After the dissolution of Blind Faith, Winwood headed back into the studio, intending to record a solo album. However, this project became the site of a Traffic reunion (minus Mason) and resulted in the band’s fourth release, John Barleycorn Must Die.
While Traffic has embraced a wide range of musical influences in its history – especially jazz and blues, his particular album is notable for the folk-rock center of its title track. “John Barleycorn” is a haunting track which, on the surface, seems to be a song about a brutal murder. It’s opening lines begin:
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
But Traffic’s track actually relies on the folksong of John Barleycorn as a personification of the crop barley (used to make bread, beer, whisky).
John Barleycorn Must Die was recorded in the Spring of 1970 at both Island Studios and Olympic Studios in London. Since the sessions were originally intended to create Winwood’s solo album, he began the process by trying to perform everything himself: “I began trying to make music all on my own with tape machines and overdubbing and stuff. It was a very good way of writing, but it was a weird way of making music. The whole thing that makes music special is people. I was getting to the point that I needed the input of other people. It seemed inhuman to make records just by overdubbing.”
This inspired him to bring in his old Traffic bandmates Capaldi and Wood. But with the trio back together, the album moved in a new creative direction which embraced all of their talents. Winwood recalled: “I felt we really had something that was our own…I played most of the instruments? Well, you say that, but the flute and sax were crucial. Chris played the smallest part, but contributed the most to Traffic. He used to bring us music to listen to, Japanese classical, obscure American jazz. When we did these jams, he was the one in control of the recording equipment. And of course Jim played drums on everything and wrote the lyrics. There’s something we created which was quite special.”
The choice to perform John Barleycorn on the album has been attributed to Chris Wood, who had heard the song on a 1965 recording by The Watersons – on their debut album Frost and Fire. The Waterson’s recording was completely a cappella, giving it a haunting, ancient feel. Traffic creates their own interpretation by using acoustic instrumentation…guitars, flute and of course Winwood’s perfectly expressed vocals. Wood’s delicate flute line captures the mystical resonances of the track and transports the listeners into a completely new sonic space. The vocal harmonies enter as the lyrics move to the time of harvesting….Its a powerful choice emphasizing the dramatization of this action.
The album was produced predominantly by Winwood and Island records co-founder Chris Blackwell. Guy Stevens also received production credit on the album. It was mixed and engineered by Brian Humphries and Andy Johns – brother of legendary engineer and producer Glyn Johns. Andy Johns boasts his own impressive catalog including engineering and mixing several huge albums with artists like Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, and the Rolling Stones. He had worked on the Blind Faith album with Winwood shortly before John Barleycorn.
The album was released on July 1, 1970. It hit number 11 on the UK albums chart and number 5 in US — making John Barleycorn Must Die the band’s best charting album in the US. It has been certified Gold by RIAA. “John Barleycorn” was never released as a single but it certainly caught attention as one of the album’s most captivating tracks. In his 1970 review of the album for Rolling Stone Jon Carroll wrote: “The best cut on the album is probably the title tune, a traditional English ballad arranged by Winwood for acoustic guitar and flute. [Wood’s] flute is again exceptional, delicate and ornate, and Steve sings the song just right, with an admirable sense of restraint and simplicity. Simple, but it works.” Over 50 years later, the song remains one of Traffic’s most adored classics. Taking a ballad that dates back at least to the 18th century, Winwood, Capaldi and Wood created an iconic track – not only for their time – but one which would carry the legendary tune into the future.
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video below to learn more about Traffic’s ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’!