It happened again the other morning — my errands were delayed because I was sitting in the car listening to a song on the radio: “John Barleycorn” by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Traffic[/lastfm], an underappreciated track from an album that should rank higher in the all-time pantheon than it does.
In 1968, Traffic split up. In 1969, [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Steve Winwood[/lastfm] joined [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Blind Faith[/lastfm], a band that had the shelf-life of a gallon of milk. So in 1970, Winwood had to decide what would be next. It turned out to be a contractual obligation album to be called Mad Shadows, but when he set about rounding up musicians who shared his vision, the first people he turned to were ex-Traffic mates [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Jim Capaldi[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Chris Wood[/lastfm]. They reasoned that if it looked like Traffic and sounded like Traffic, they might as well call it Traffic, and so the band was relaunched as a trio.
The eventual album got a new name — John Barleycorn Must Die — and was released in July 1970. It contains some of Traffic’s most famous songs, including “Empty Pages” and “Glad.” But it’s “John Barleycorn” that’s the most striking. Brought to the band’s attention by Wood, it’s an English folk song done in a style reminiscent of [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Fairport Convention[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Steeleye Span[/lastfm], and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Jethro Tull[/lastfm] (all of whom have recorded it). While it’s far removed from what we think of as stoner rock, it’s no great stretch to imagine a bunch of people sitting in the dark, passing a joint, and just listening.
“John Barleycorn” itself dates to the 16th century, and has been performed both as a song about the dangers of alcohol and in celebration of it. The latter is the tack Traffic takes — three men plant a crop, harvest it, have it ground, and eventually make liquor out of it, because such a thing is necessary to keep the world turning: “The huntsman he can’t hunt the fox nor so loudly blow his horn / And the tinker he can’t mend kettle or pots without a little barleycorn.”
(And the blogger he can’t do research or type up what he has found / And the editor can’t do what it is he does without a little barleycorn, either.)
John Barleycorn Must Die got a deluxe reissue earlier this year, which includes tracks from a proposed live Traffic album that was never released, recorded at the Fillmore East in November 1970.