‘John Barleycorn Must Die’: Traffic’s Multi-Layered Rebirth

Despite the departure of Dave Mason, Traffic were a band again, returning in 1970 with an acclaimed fourth LP.

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Traffic 'John Barleycorn Must Die' artwork - Courtesy: UMG
Traffic 'John Barleycorn Must Die' artwork - Courtesy: UMG

Winwood. Traffic. Here is some group,” raved Circus magazine, when the band reconvened for the John Barleycorn Must Die album. “There is no better,” drooled their reviewer Jonathan Eisen. “It is not Cream or Blind Faith. It is not Miles Davis. It is not The Beatles. It is not the Traffic of yore. It is merely the best, the quintessence of what rock is, what it could be.”

On July 31, 1970, the Carpenters topped the US charts with “Close To You,” while in the UK, Elvis Presley’s “The Wonder Of You” was just taking over from Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime” at No.1. At the movies, everyone was watching Easy Rider and Catch-22 and awaiting the release of Performance. And one of the hot new releases of that Friday in the UK was the fourth Traffic album.

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Barleycorn had been released a few weeks earlier in the US, and was already climbing the charts. As the propulsive opening instrumental “Glad“ kicked in with Steve Winwood’s two-pronged Hammond and piano attack, supported by Chris Wood’s saxophone and flute and Jim Capaldi’s powerful drums, the record announced the news: despite the departure of Dave Mason, Traffic were a band again.

The original group had split in 1968, Winwood moving on to the all-too-short-lived Blind Faith. He then planned a solo debut, but all of his years in bands, back to his days with the Spencer Davis Group, made him miss the collective vibe. Winwood invited Wood and Capaldi to join the sessions and, almost by mistake, Traffic were back in business.

Empty Pages (Remastered 2010)

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With well-loved songs like “Freedom Rider“ and “Empty Pages,“ John Barleycorn Must Die had many of the elements of Traffic’s sophisticated blend of jazz, rock, and blues. But on the title track, adapted by Winwood from the old English folk song (versions of which date back to the 16th century), Traffic showed how adept they could also be in a more traditional, acoustic setting.

‘Restraint and simplicity’

“Steve sings the song just right,” said Jon Carroll in Rolling Stone of the title song, “with an admirable sense of restraint and simplicity. Simple, but it works.” The album peaked at No.11 in a nine-week run on the UK chart, but in America, it spent two weeks at No.5 in August, the highest position of their entire career together. Before the end of 1970, Barleycorn had become Traffic’s first gold record in the US.

Buy or stream John Barleycorn Must Die.




  1. Eric Priebe

    August 1, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Love this album. Definitly one of my favorites!

  2. Alberto

    August 1, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    Great songs. One of the best Traffic’s record.

  3. Meera

    August 1, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    I love this album. Still have the vinyl!

  4. Elvinna Mezzone

    August 1, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    Jim was hubby`s relative and this is one of many of the best songs released .

  5. Larry

    August 1, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    loved Traffic saw them at their best with Dave Mason jamming with them also Santana

  6. Thomas

    August 2, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    I was 15 years old when this was released in the US on United Artist (UAS-6634). I walked to my local record store in Northern New Jersey, outside of NYC and purchased. It was a typical hot, humid day and as I walked back from the record store, it rained. Back then, life and music was so much better.

  7. Pete Repete

    July 31, 2015 at 11:25 am

    “Winwood’s flute is again exceptional, delicate and ornate,” said Jon Carroll in Rolling Stone of the title song.“

    Winwood’s flute ?

  8. Pete Repete

    July 31, 2015 at 11:26 am

    “Winwood’s flute is again exceptional, delicate and ornate,” said Jon Carroll in Rolling Stone of the title song. “

    Winwood’s FLUTE ?

  9. Rb

    July 31, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    I think he was referring to Chris…right

  10. Renato from Brazil

    August 1, 2015 at 6:45 pm

    It was love of first sight, five stars.

  11. George Fazakas

    November 13, 2015 at 4:25 am

    Traffic’s best album ever!

  12. Paulo Brasil

    August 1, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    Eu adoro esse disco..Marcou minha adolescência na Amazônia ao lado de cobras & Lagartos rsrsrsr

  13. Garry B Grove

    December 29, 2018 at 12:26 am

    Someone needs to edit and correct this review. The exquisite flute on this album, as all other Traffic albums that feature flute contribution, is from the late and truly great musician, the one and only Chris Wood. This album is one of the best albums ever released in my humble opinion but it doesn’t do justice to the band members, especially Chris, by getting the facts wrong. Besides, Steve Winwood plays magnificently on acoustic and electric guitar, Hammond organ and piano, not to mention his incredible vocals. Please correct this and do some justice to Chris Wood’s amazing FLUTE playing. Thank You

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