Traffic: John Barleycorn Must Die


(Mark Sampson) #1

There was a YouTube video doing the rounds not long ago of Stevie Winwood, perhaps in his home studio, singing 'John Barleycorn' accompanied by his acoustic guitar. The voice still sounds good, even though he must be closing in on 70. The traditional English folk song, with its simple, melodious tale of harvesting and distilling the barley corn into some potent alcoholic drink of yore, still as compelling as ever.


It seems that Steve Winwood has been with me almost all of my vie en albums. I loved the Spencer Davis band as a kid, and in particular the prodigiously mature impassioned vocals of their keyboard player, the real star of the quartet from Birmingham. And then I loved Traffic when they burst upon the scene a couple of years later. Long before Sergeant Pepper, which I would discover retrospectively, they gave me my first taste of psychedelia.


'I looked to the sky where an elephant's eye/Was looking at me, from a bubble-gum tree...' We thought 'Hole in my Shoe' was an ingenuously naive pop song for childish adults and adult children, but clearly there was more going on that met the eye – especially when that breathy youthful female voice-over talked of climbing on the back of a giant albatross that flew through a gap in the clouds to a land where happiness reigned all the year round... My brother and sisters and I just loved it. I'm not sure what our parents made of it.


I've lived with John Barleycorn for 45 years now and it remains a favourite. By the time of this their fourth album, having shed Dave Mason, their other principal songwriter, not once but twice, Traffic was just a three-piece band: Winwood on vocals, guitars and multiple keyboards; his song-writing partner, Jim Capaldi, on drums; and poor old Chris Wood, who died too young, on flute and saxes.


Winwood had left to form the ill-fated Blind Faith and John Barleycorn started life, I later discovered, as his first solo venture. He was quite capable of playing all the instruments himself, but he missed the stimulus of musicians around him. Wood and Capaldi came back into the fold and thus Traffic was re-born.


By that time, I was a devout reader of Melody Maker. Every week I would devour it from cover to cover. I suspect there was a fair amount of journalistic hoo-ha concerning the second coming of the band, which no doubt prompted me to go out and buy it. Its disarmingly simple gate-fold cover, with its central woodcut image of a sheaf of bound and harvested barley and its faux arboreal lettering, is as sturdy as any album I've ever owned. Still as fresh as the day I first removed it from its Gramophone Shop bag.


It's a record of two halves, which isn't that surprising given the nature of the product. But I mean that metaphorically rather than literally. The two tracks on the second side, 'Stranger to Himself' and 'Every Mother's Son', that sandwich the beautiful title track – with Winwood's acoustic guitar accompanied by Chris Wood's delicate flute –were both apparently recorded as songs for the solo album that never was. The former, with its acoustic guitar tuned to sound like a sitar, reminds me of Traffic Mk1, while the latter suggests a return to the looser bluesier Spencer Davis Band. Neither is outstanding.


It was Side 1, though, which really ticked the R&B boxes. The first two tracks, which always sound like they were conceived together, pre-figure an extended form of Traffic that would result in the live albums, Welcome To The Canteen and On The Road, which feature long loose-limbed percussion-fuelled jams. The reviews of the latter were not overly enthusiastic, but I wish I'd elected to hang onto it for my dotage.


The opener, 'Glad', is an instrumental powered by Winwood's ever marvellous ever-swirling organ-playing that features Chris Wood's honking tenor sax and a piano motif almost in the vein of Professor Longhair's immortal 'Big Chief'. The band kicks up the kind of riff that you feel you must have heard somewhere but can't identify, and when it winds down inexorably to a kind of cat-and-mouse exchange between organ and wah-wah electric saxophone, 'Glad' segues effortlessly into 'Freedom Rider'.


It's this second track that is quintessential Traffic: that combination of Winwood's stirring vocals and Wood's other-worldly flute, as on '40,000 Headmen', seems like the band's signature.


Side 1 ends with 'Empty Pages', a fine-enough number that again suggests the days of Spencer Davis, but which always seems an anti-climax following the 'Glad/Freedom Rider' musical diptych. When I was lucky enough to pick up in a sale a DVD of the Winwood band in concert at around the time of the excellent About Time album of 2003, it's significant that all three tracks from Side 1 of John Barleycorn are featured. Winwood still sings and plays magnificently, and his version of Timmy Thomas' 'Why Can't We Live Together' is a particular delight.


It was around this time, I think, that I caught the documentary profile of our Steve on BBC4. Who'd have thought that the Traffic country cottage would be transformed one day into a squire's country estate? Mr. Winwood, still blessed or cursed with that faint but discernible Brummie accent, was pictured marking out his territory in green Wellingtons and Barbour jacket. Quite the squire, indeed. Heavens, the man even supports his local hunt.


I approve of his sincere love of the countryside, but prefer to picture him astride the stage at Madison Square Garden, trading licks on his Fender with Eric Clapton: the two of them one ex-half of Blind Faith, but still fully deserving the epithet, Super-group.


(Mark Sampson) #2

Thanks for all the fascinating addenda, Brian, Pauline, Ian, Chris. I'm with you, Pauline: a knighthood for SW wouldn't go amiss for services rendered to the nation. An interesting little nuggett about the state of the Capaldi nose, Brian. He always looked like he could look after himself - as opposed to, say, Chris Wood, who had that kind of doomed look from an early age. I shall certainly check out the alternative version of 'Mr. Fantasy' with Jerry Garcia - of all people. And I must ask, Ian: are you still running?


(Brian Milne) #3

I know Spencer, he was as much a session man as his own well known work and has worked extensively with El Chicano in recent years. Anyway, he worked with guitarist Alun Davies, no relation (Spencer is actually Davies but dropped the 'e' to escape the Swansea pronunciation that ironically the Yanks reintroduce) who is Yusuf Islam's long term side man, one of my old SW19 crowd through whom I met him at the dart board in our boozer when I was down at weekends. We have somehow kept in touch, especially when we had the five years in his beloved Swansea immediately before moving here.

I also knew Jim Capaldi and his wife Aninha through their work with Jubilee Action for street children in Brazil, for many years my main area of work. She and I served on a committee together. I saw Jim giving boxing lessons to some of the kids in a favela, apparently he had been quite good at it in his school days, hence the bashed look nose.

Steve Winwood, and don't forget Muff, was the ambitious one among those people and tried to get the 'crown' but never quite had it. Whatever that 'it' is. Comparing his voice when young to later folk stuff after it had deepened with age is real chalk and cheese, I like it as it is in later career. I never quite liked it at all back then, there were too many far better singers, but the material was good and the bands something else, but none of them survived the gathering of big egos (says Spencer, who knows them all very well).

After all of that. I have not a single record by any of them apart from Blind Faith which is in a fairly pristine state implying it was never played a lot.

Capaldi is quite a common name in Italy, Jim was a real West Country man with the burr whereas Peter is from Glasgow. There may be a link but you'd need to do a bit of time travelling back to Italy to find that out.


(anon52461035) #4

I was at the free concert at Hyde Park when Blind Faith played there, a memorable day, as was the Rolling Stones concert where I first came across King Crimson. Saw Spencer Davis Group many times both in the 60's and also much later in the 00's at the Anvil in Basingstoke with the Troggs. Always was a fan of John Mayall and his splinter groups, name later pinched by Peter Green for his comeback, such as Fleetwood Mac and Cream etc. Jim Capaldi (any relation to Peter Capaldi/Dr WHO?) wrote and sang one of my all time favorite tracks "It's All Up to You" along with his cover of "Love Hurts".

"Keep On Running" became my theme song when I decided I did not wish to commit to marriage at an early age and legged it shortly before the wedding. Happy days the 60's. LOL


(Pauline McAdam) #5

Steve Winwood is 67. Keep on Running, by the Spencer Davis Group, hit number 1 on 18th January 1966, when Steve was "just a little boy of seventeen" to quote their second number 1 hit Somebody Help Me. He's just coming up for fifty years as a rock star, and well overdue for a knighthood IMHO for services to the music industry. All the members of the SDG are still alive and working, not many people know that!


(Chris Kite) #6

If you fancy an alternative version of Dear Mr Fantasy there’s one on YouTube with guest guitarist Jerry Garcia!..couldn’t quite believe it myself.
Traffic sort of passed me by(no pun intended) but I like the Winwood/Clapton MSG gig. Doesn’t really get any better for me when EC plays Double Trouble.


(Mark Sampson) #7

Thanks, Neil. I only really know that one from the live version of the title track on the 'On The Road' album. Clearly, to be explored. Keith, I would conjecture that you're a serious SW fan! For some reason, it took me many, many years before I got round to listening to Blind Faith. Stevie's songs stand out from among the curate's egg, in my 'umble. I imagine that you've seen the seriously brilliant dueting with Eric Clapton live at Madison Square Gdns. Some of that sure makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up...


(Neil Grant) #8

My personal favourite would be the haunting Low Spark of High Heeled Boys…


(Robert Carruthers) #9

Yes..... but....It was Burns who made it mega famous......Anglo whit? Thought that was a window company?


(Keith FITCH) #10

Oh Mark... I have just been chatting to an old friend for the first time in 45 years. His main recollection of me was introducing him to the Mr Fantasy album. (for the uninitiated, the first Traffic album)

First album ever brought? Autumn 66 - Spencer Davis Group

First stereo album - Traffic

First album that I brought twice (to replace a scratched and subsequently stolen copy) - Blind Faith

First CD - Back In The High Life - Winwood

The opening guitar riff on Blind Faith's Had To Cry Today still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

By the way - I think you will find that his was 67 a week or two ago


(Mark Sampson) #11

The Animals with Steve Cropper, Mike! Wow, that's quite some guest appearance. I haven't seen Blues Bros 2000, thinking it might be an excuse for more multiple car wrecks, but with a list of stars like that I shall certainly do so next time around.

I've got 'Arc of the Diver', Peter, and love it - and agree with you about 'Night Train'. Interesting that 'Welcome to the Canteen' is your favourite Traffic. I shall have to look out for it in the Limoges shop.


(Ray Harris) #12

From Wiki -

Kathleen Herbert draws a link between the mythical figure Beowa (a figure stemming from Anglo-Saxon paganism that appears in early Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies whose name means "barley") and the figure of John Barleycorn. Herbert says that Beowa and Barleycorn are one and the same, noting that the folksong details the suffering, death, and resurrection of Barleycorn, yet also celebrates the "reviving effects of drinking his blood."[2]

In their notes to the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (London, 1959), editors A L Lloyd and Ralph Vaughan Williams ponder whether the ballad is "an unusually coherent folklore survival" or "the creation of an antiquarian revivalist, which has passed into popular currency and become 'folklorised'". It is in any case, they note, "an old song", with printed versions dating as far back as the sixteenth century.

Versions and variants[edit]

Countless versions of this song exist. A Scottish poem with a similar theme, "Quhy Sowld Nocht Allane Honorit Be", is included in the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568 and English broadside versions from the 17th century are common. Robert Burns published his own version in 1782, and modern versions abound. Burns's version makes the tale somewhat mysterious and, although not the original, it became the model for most subsequent versions of the ballad.


(Mike Harbon) #13

John Barleycorn predates Burns who wrote his own version in 1782. The origins of the song may go as far back as Anglo Saxon times.


(Robert Carruthers) #14

Hang on, need to get this right, John Barleycorn is a Robert Burns poem nothing to do with Stevie Windwood etc...every else stole the theme......it was written along long time ago.....


(Ray Harris) #15

Thanks for the review -certainly takes you back!

In future we have to look at ageing in a different way -you are as young as you feel.Maturity, like cheese and wine may be a good thing to be revered :)


(Peter Bird) #16

Blimey Mark, some memories there. My preferred Traffic album is Welcome to the Canteen and SW album is probably Arc of the Diver and I still have the vynyls.

I've been trying for years to find a real compilation of Steve Winwood music but have yet to find the ideal product. Word of warning, the album MUST contain Night Train and Valerie which are brill.


(Sy Hughes) #17

I was introduced to this album in the late 70s by the same friend who introduced me to David Bowie. I have had a vinyl copy ever since.
The last time I visited the Albert Hall was to see The Spencer Davis Group alongside The Troggs in a memorable night of fun!


(Mike Harbon) #18

I have this album also, on vinyl of course. I actually think Every Mother's Son is a stand out track for me, but that is music for you, we all hear things differently.

I also loved the Spencer Davis group who of course influenced the Blues Brothers film and quite by coincidence Blues Brother 2000 was on the TV last night and Steve Winwood made a cameo appearance with a host of other amazing luminaries from the blues world including Steve Cropper, Don "duck" Dunn, BB King, Eric Clapton, Isaac Hayes, Dr John, Aretha, Billy Preston, Eddie Floyd, Bo Diddley - the list was endless and the film is more or less an homage to this great art form. A few years ago I went to see The Animals at Bromsgrove Artrix theatre and none other than Steve Cropper was guesting on guitar - what a joy!