friday feast: how sweet he is

“I believe 100% in the power and importance of music . . . I don’t know much about God. But if everything does originate with God, then certainly songs do as well.” ~ James Taylor

photo: Danny Clinch


So, it’s all about comfort here at alphabet soup this month, and whenever I want to lick my wounds, find my center, or just kick back and reflect, James Taylor, who turned 61 yesterday, is my man.

Not too long ago, a fan forum on Facebook asked us to name our top five James Taylor songs. Immediately, these came to mind:

Carolina in My Mind
Sweet Baby James
Close Your Eyes
Long Ago and Far Away
You’ve Got a Friend

All but the last are Taylor’s own compositions. Each is gorgeously lyrical, calming and reassuring. His unmistakable, warm baritone voice has been described as the equivalent of a photogenic face. Some things just come to this world whole and perfect.

But, like some things of immeasurable beauty, JT’s music was born of a painful, turbulent past — depression, mental institutions, heroin addiction, and later, the untimely death of his older brother, Alex, from alcoholism. I imagine music was Taylor’s saving grace. For many of us who have been fans for decades, his songs are more than soothing exercises in introspection. They have the power to heal. As one reviewer noted, “Taylor didn’t break your heart; he understood that it was already broken, as was his own, and he offered comfort.”


I still remember when Taylor’s breakthrough album, Sweet Baby James, first came out in 1970. What a balm it was after the turbulent 60’s — non-political, understated, ushering in a new decade of singer/songwriters, to include Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Cat Stevens. The title tune, which is Taylor’s signature song and has been performed at every live concert since its release, still works for me on every level, and is probably my #1 comfort song. The purity of acoustic guitar and voice is absolute and forever.

You probably know “Sweet Baby James” was written in honor of Taylor’s nephew. He was on the way to see him for the first time when the idea for a cowboy lullaby, in the tradition of old-time country singers like Roy Rogers, came to him.

Taylor admits the lyrics have the most complicated rhyme scheme in any song of his entire career. Two stanzas scan as abba, one with ababb, and then there’s that one glorious, climactic stanza without end rhyme, that echoes the 3/4 waltz tempo with repetition of the word, “song,” in three lines, bolstered by an alliterative “s”:

There’s a song that they sing when they take to the highway,
A song that they sing when they take to the sea,
A song that they sing of their home in the sky —
Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to sleep,
But singing works just fine for me . . .

I also love the “Boston”/”frosting” assonance, and the whole lingering image of snow on the Berkshires, something I still dream about seeing someday:

Now the first of December was covered with snow,
And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston,
Lord, the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting,
With ten miles behind me
And ten thousand more to go . . .

Sort of like “miles to go before I sleep”? All I know is, I’m always there with him on the open prairie in front of the campfire under a starlit sky. The cowboy may be alone with his thoughts, but his song travels to the sea, the sky, and finally to the land of dreams. And those moonlight ladies are so dang fine.

By now, you must want to hear JT sing it for you.

Here’s the original version, and a more recent one, live with Taylor and the Dixie Chicks — they bring the song home with beautiful harmonies, and Natalie’s voice just aches with human longing.

Full lyrics can be found here.

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup (complete with little dogies), is at The Miss Rumphius Effect. Tip your cowboy hat to Tricia while you’re ridin’ the range.

If you tell me your favorite James Taylor song, you can have this piece of cowboy cake in honor of his birthday:

photo by cupcakeenvy

Tasty Tids: 

Prior to Sweet Baby James, Taylor recorded a self-titled album for Apple Records. When Paul McCartney first heard the demo, he said, “I just heard his voice and his guitar and I thought he was great . . . and he came and played live, and so it was just like, “Wow, he’s great.”

McCartney and Harrison guested on “Carolina in My Mind.”

Taylor has been asked which of his songs means the most to him, and he admits it’s “Carolina in My Mind.”

When I wrote it, I knew I had something. It was very early on and it did a job on me. It did some work for me. Internal work for me. Well, there’s no better feeling when one comes through and it falls into place like that. And somehow solves a puzzle for you. In a way that comes from inside of you, but it’s outside.


40 thoughts on “friday feast: how sweet he is

  1. Love this post for a Friday! We were fortunate enough to see James Taylor in Burlington VT a couple years ago and were thrilled to discover that he is both talented AND funny.


  2. Oh, JT is one of my very favorites too. And my favfavfavorite will always be Carolina in my Mind too. Can’t help it. I’m from (South) Carolina and I now live over 6,000 miles away.

    Love that quote about him not breaking our hearts but knowing our hearts were already broken. Now, ain’t that the truth.


  3. Oh, I love this post, Jama. And I adore JT. Picking one favorite is like picking a favorite book: impossible! I’ll go deep and tell you that I adore The Frozen Man from the New Moon Shine album; something about that song story stayed with me from the moment I heard it. Of his standards, Secret O’ Life makes me happiest.


  4. Fire and Rain is my favourite of his own compositions. But I also love You’ve Got a Friend, which was written by Carole King.

    *happpy sigh*
    Jama, you’re my long-lost twin sister! Dylan, Paul, AND James Taylor??!


  5. Lucky you! I haven’t seen him in concert for awhile now. I’ll never forget the very first time I did see him, though — in Hawaii. He surprised everyone by bringing out Carly Simon at the end (they were newly married at the time). Kind of cool; Carly was wearing a muumuu!


  6. Great choices! Yes, The Frozen Man has a fascinating story behind it, and it’s fitting that you would find it especially appealing. I need to listen to Secret O’Life again. It’s been awhile :). Happy Friday!!


  7. Hey there, twin! It’s the whole singer/songwriter thing. Plus, we have great taste :D!

    “Fire and Rain” was his great breakthrough single, and thus overplayed (IMHO)on Top 40 radio. It’s probably the most “telling” of his early tunes, though. I marvel that his persona and music — so calm and put together, could belie such turbulence.


  8. I’ve enjoyed his music for years, but never explored his personal story. I’m not surprised to hear it has some ache.

    I like “Walking Man.” There, now for that marvelous looking cake…



  9. My favorite? Just one?


    I really like Carolina in My Mind and Fire & Rain and You’ve Got a Friend and That’s Why I’m Here, but the one that comes to mind unbidden now and again that I adore is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, so I think I’ll pick that.


  10. When I entered my freshman dorm at UNC-Chapel Hill, not knowing a soul and my parents already driving back to Tennessee, JT was singing “Carolina in My Mind.” Talk about comfort! It’s on my running music mix, too.

    “Shower the People” makes me believe in goodness.

    I loved hearing Bonnie Raitt cover his “Rainy Day Man” at the MusicCares Person of the Year tribute to JT.


  11. James Taylor’s voice isn’t outstanding, yet there is something in it that draws me in. And those soulful eyes and unassuming way he sings. Ah.


  12. Jama! One favorite???
    You’re kidding me! I’m seen James Taylor a few times in concert and he just brings me to my knees. I’m in a Shower the People mood today.
    But don’t hold me to just one favorite.
    Seriously. Don’t.


  13. Not outstanding? No? *withholds cowboy cake* 🙂 I’m afraid to ask now what you think of Dylan’s voice . . .

    Glad you like his music anyway. “Drawing you in” is precisely what he’s so good at doing. JT’s brother, Livingston,once said that James is and always was one who was incapable of coming over to you. Just wasn’t emotionally equipped to cross that line of broken glass — but he would do just about anything to make you come over to his side on his own terms. I’d say he’s been pretty successful at doing just that all these years.


  14. Sorry, didn’t mean to sound uppity. What I was trying to say is that when he sings, I am not so much drawn to his voice but to his authentic person, with a mind and a heart; there are no airs or pretensions, and THAT is what makes him great.

    Am I forgiven?


  15. Is that really a cake? It’s gorgeous!

    Picking one song from JT is hard. “How Sweet it Is,” “Don’t Let me Be Lonely Tonight,”and “Shower the People” come to mind. And actually those songs take me back to lazy summer days, driving to the beach with our babysitter. She loved James Taylor so he is ingrained in my childhood :^)


  16. Sweet Baby James is on the highest rotation on my iPod. I think I’ve worn the groves out on that one. He is my number one man. That voice is honey.

    When I worked in the toddler room in a daycare 20 years ago we used to put the kiddos to sleep with the SBJ album on an old record player. We learned to lift the needle just before the “chicken choking’’ cocaine” line in the Steamroller Blues song. LOL we couldn’t help listening to it anyway.


  17. Taylor and T’s

    Hi, Jama –

    I saw James Taylor and Carole King perform together when nobody even knew who she was and when JT looked like he looks on that album cover -just a kid – as was I – it was 1970, I think…practically pre-history. King and Taylor were having a lot of fun, and so was the crowd. And yes, it was such a relief, in the middle of all the protests about the war, to go and hear songs of love and celebration. I’ve never seen anyone pound the piano as hard as Carole King, and then there was JT, as he usually is, mellow as could be, with that honey voice….I’m feeling nostalgic! Great times, and JT’s talent has only increased through the years.

    Okay – over at The Drift Record you asked for a random letter – the one you get is T.


  18. Now you’re making me feel old, since you were exposed to him as a child. But what a smart babysitter you had :)! I went through a “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” phase, playing it over and over. And as far as I know, that’s really a cake!


  19. What a great story. I love the blues, but Steamroller was never one of my faves for some reason. I guess it startled me out of my Taylor-induced trance. You’ve chosen well for your number one man!!


  20. Re: Taylor and T’s

    *jumping up with excitement* Perfect! “T” for Taylor!!

    You’re a lucky duck to have seen them perform together. I’ve never seen Carole King in person, but she’s a pounder alright :). All these talented singer/songwriter types just gravitated towards each other. Definitely an exciting time in pop music history. Glad I was of an age to appreciate it!


  21. There are some singers whose music transports one to an earlier time. James Taylor does that for me, as does Art Garfunkel, and I love their cover of Crying in the Rain. Some of my other favourites of James include Long Ago and Far Away, You’ve Got a Friend, Wandering, and, from his Christmas Album, Chestnuts Roasting, Who Comes This Night, and Auld Lang Syne.

    Thanks for this wonderful “Happy Birthday James Taylor” post. I learned so many things, Jama.


  22. Just got back from watching Billy Collins recite poetry over at Elaine’s. Did you ever notice that Billy and James sort of look alike?

    Favorite JT tune? There’s no way to pick! I’m heading over to iTunes now to see if they have some James+Dixie Chicks for sale. That combo is rare!

    Thanks for this blast from the past. JT is a national treasure.

    When are you planning to feature Dan Fogelberg? He’s quite a poet too…


  23. I never noticed the resemblance between JT and Billy. I’ll have to look again.

    Once saw Fogelberg perform live. I love some of his lyrics. Thanks for the idea :).


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