1969 was a tremulous year for Traffic. After a successful tour in the US following their second album, Steve Winwood left the band for the short-lived super group Blind Faith. In the meantime Island Records released the album Last Exit, a mishmash of leftover studio cuts and live performances Traffic recorded in 1968. Blind Faith recorded one excellent album but broke up shortly after, leaving Winwood free to start working on a solo record suggested by Island’s manager Chris Blackwell.
The plan was for Winwood to play all the instruments using tape overdubbing techniques in the studio. Winwood is a fine multi instrumentalist who could certainly perform such a feat, but he found the process difficult: “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.”
Steve Winwood started calling on his friends from Traffic to help him in the studio. First to join was Jim Capaldi who helped writing some of the songs and contributed drums and percussion tracks. Next was reed man Chris Wood who brought his jazz and folk influences, and the three worked for a few months on the album. It became clear that the solo album, with the planned name of Mad Shadows, is really a Traffic record.
Chris Wood was influenced by the folk revival that swept the British Isles in the late 60s. One song he suggested to the group was John Barleycorn, which he heard on the 1965 Watersons record Frost and Fire. The Watersons’ version, like most of their material from that period, was an unaccompanied vocal group performance.
Winwood applied himself to the song and played a wonderful guitar part on it. Capaldi added tasteful and sparse percussion parts and more importantly a brilliant vocal harmony starting on the fifth verse. Wood’s flute accompaniment is the icing on the cake on this great take on the song, which has been performed by many British folk artists over the years including Martin Carthy and John Renbourn. The Mainly Norfolk site has a good page chronicling many of the song’s covers. It is interesting that amidst the great activity that took place at the time in the British folk rock scene by bands like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Fotheringay and many others, one of the most memorable songs remains this performance of John Barleycorn by Traffic, not considered a folk rock band.
The album was engineered by Andy Johns, younger brother of Glynn Johns. Between them the two brothers recorded classic rock’s royalty. Before working with Traffic, Andy Johns recorded Jethro Tull (Stand Up, Living in the Past), Spooky Tooth and Blind Faith. After Traffic his career soared with Led Zeppelin (II, III, the legendary IV, Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti) and the Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street). Quite a resume, and this is just within a span of 4 years.Johns had a deep respect for Steve Winwood. In an interview he mentioned an experience he had when working on the Blind Faith album: “I came back from a lunch break one day and the soundproof door was cracked a little bit, and I could hear him playing the Hammond. He’s playing both manuals and the bass pedals and he’s singing. I look at him and he’s looking at the ceiling. Not only is he playing the top manual, the lower manual, the bass pedals, and singing, but he’s also thinking about what his old lady’s going to make him for dinner. So he’s doing four or five things at once and the music was just stunning. I hate to use the word genius, because it’s bandied about so much, but that guy, in the end of his little finger, has more than a whole tribe of musicality— he really does. It’s just unfair.”
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
In short, John Barleycorn is a drinking song. Maybe the best of them all.
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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