“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
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:
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.
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
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.