1968

You Can All Join In

Recorded by Traffic

Written by Dave Mason

Produced by Jimmy Miller

Let’s start with a review of the lyrics.

Here’s a little song you can all join in with:
It’s very simple and I hope it’s new.
Make your own words up if you want to:
Any old words that you think will do.

Yellow, blue, what’ll I do?
Maybe I’ll just sit here thinking.
Black, white, stop the fight.
Does one of these colours ever bother you?

Here’s a little dance you can all join in with:
It’s very simple and I hope it’s new.
Make your own steps up if you want to:
Any old steps that you think will do.

Left, right, don’t get uptight.
Keep in line and you’ll be alright.
Clap hands, move around.
Make sure no one puts you down.

Here’s a little world you can all join in with:
It’s very simple and I hope it’s new.
Make your own life up if you want to:
Any old life that you think will do.

Love you, it’s nothing new.
There’s someone much worse off than you are.
Help me set them free.
Just be what you want to be.

Perhaps the first thing to confess about these lyrics is that they don’t stand alone very well as poetry. That is, there is nothing particularly deep, subtle or powerful about the way the words work on the listener. This admission is not a damning one, however, since the whole point of rock is that the words don’t have to stand on their own. But having gotten this admission out of the way, let’s see what the words do offer us.

There’s a pleasant combination of repetition and progression going from one verse to another, as the singer proceeds to talk first about the song, then a dance, then finally the entire world. The overall theme of the song is one of liberation, telling the listener to “make your own life up if you want to: any old life that you think will do.” At the same time, though, there is a theme of responsible community: issues of race relations, conformity and love for your fellow man are all raised, if not exactly dealt with. More convincingly, the singer tells us that “you can all join in” — with the song, the dance, and ultimately the world. All in all, pleasant sentiments.

It is the music, however, that lends authority to the words. First, the structure of the song seems borrowed from a square dance, or a reel, or some other sort of communal folk dance. This immediately adds resonance and authenticity to the lyrics, reminding us of simple communities of the past in which some of the lyrics were very literally true: people did take turns calling out different lyrics and dance steps for each verse of the song.

Then there are the track’s infectious rhythms, woven from vocals, hand claps, acoustic and electric guitars, and Chris Wood’s saxophone. (Audio clip - 84K.) Even today, after hearing the song repeatedly over the course of thirty-plus years, it is hard for me to listen to the song without breaking into a grin and tapping my feet. So, in a very real way, the listener does join in, responding affirmatively to the singer’s invitation.

Finally there is the loose collaboration of the song’s music. Background vocals and hand claps appear at times. There is space between verse and chorus, after each chorus, and at the end of the song for improvisation. These spaces are filled by Mason on electric guitar, Wood on sax, and Mason on vocals. Dave Mason actually demonstrates his verbal suggestions, making up additional lyrics to the song while guitar and sax vamp in the background. Again, there is nothing particularly exciting about the words themselves — some of them are simply nonsense words or noises — but Mason creates the completely genuine impression that he is making them up as he goes along. He even pulls the producer into the fray, observing towards the end of the song, “There’s Jimmy Miller swinging to and fro.” (Audio clip - 200K.) The overall effect is one of people expressing their own individuality, yet working together in harmony: exactly the theme of the lyrics. And there is nothing gratuitous or self-indulgent about the recording — the whole affair clocks in at only three minutes and thirty-four seconds.

I have to admit that I find this recording utterly convincing. The music exhibits the sense of cooperative democracy that was at the heart of rock music in the sixties. Each contributor’s work bears the unmistakable stamp of its creator — Mason’s folky lyrics and vocals and infectious acoustic guitar, and jazzy electric guitar stylings, Wood’s honking saxophone, Miller’s production values — yet all these contributions work together in a harmony all the more beautiful because it was clearly not planned, not arranged in advance, but simply sprang naturally out of the affinity the contributors had for each other. This was a genuinely new way of working, living and being together and — for all of its fragility — it still makes me want to ask, thirty years on, why more of our lives can’t be lived like this.

Next: Jefferson Airplane