Arts & Culture

Carolina in My Mind

  • By Nic Brown
  • Photography by Steve Exum

More than a song and more than a state of mind, James Taylor’s classic speaks to where we’ve been, where we are, and where we always want to be.

James Taylor sings Carolina in my Mind

North Carolina’s official state song, the five-verse power-rouser “The Old North State,” was adopted as such by the General Assembly of 1927. I’m sure “The Old North State” is a fine song. I’ve perused the lyrics: They defend the state against defamers, celebrate the inner beauty of Carolina girls, and employ the word “Hurrah!” 20 times, all things I am proud to put my support behind. So I mean no disrespect when I say this, but I have never in my life heard “The Old North State.” James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind,” on the other hand, has snuck into my ears at least a thousand times. It has followed me across the country for years like some nostalgic albatross, appearing when least expected. On car radios. At weddings. In grocery stores. On television shows. The thing is everywhere. And it’s beautiful, memorable, and finely wrought; and wistful, sweet, and haunting; and even a little dark at times. Just like our state. And, if it were up to me, it would be our official state song. Because when I hear “Carolina in My Mind,” Carolina actually is in my mind.

North Carolina rightfully lays claim to Taylor as our own. At age 3, he moved here with his family from Boston, Massachusetts, settling in a Chapel Hill home up a wooded rise from Morgan Creek. His father worked at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine, serving for a time as its dean. As a teenager, Taylor moved north for a fragmented and somewhat disastrous stint in boarding school (read: mental breakdown), came home for a spell at Chapel Hill High, moved to New York City, picked up a nasty drug habit, then returned to North Carolina again in an effort to sober up. During these trying times, North Carolina remained for Taylor a geographic remedy.

For Taylor, landing a record deal of any sort at this point must have seemed earth-shattering, but when he moved to London in 1967 and did indeed sign a record deal, the event was perhaps singular in the changes it foretold: Taylor was the first American on the new label Apple Records, founded and run by a small band out of Liverpool called the Beatles. The Beatles. The most popular band in the world. And so Taylor soon found himself in London’s famed Trident studios, where his new label bosses were in the next room over recording The White Album.

Surrounded by what were surely some of his idols in the best studio in the world, did Taylor take this opportunity to write a song called “Carolina Will Never Be in My Mind Again Because I’m the Hottest Thing in the World?” No. In this first blush of success, Taylor’s mind turned away from the splendor of achievement and trained itself on home. In this almost shocking betrayal of youthful dreams come true, Taylor wrote “Carolina in My Mind” — an unadulterated batch of homesickness distilled into song.

The lyrics reflect the incongruity of it all: The song’s bridge — you know the one, with that oblique allusion to a “holy host of others” — is both a reference to John, Paul, George, and Ringo, those demigods of pop, and an acknowledgement that even they could not keep Taylor’s mind off home.

Now with a holy host of others standing ’round me
Still I’m on the dark side of the moon
And it seems like it goes on like this forever
You must forgive me
If I’m up and gone to Carolina in my mind

The whole idea is so audacious he even includes in the lyrics an apology.

•••

I habitually get the song’s name wrong. I’m often tempted to call it “Carolina on My Mind.” But Carolina isn’t just on Taylor’s mind, it’s in it. And that small word — in — changes things. Because for those of us lucky enough to claim this humid pie slice of a state as our own, North Carolina isn’t just experienced by our senses — it actually becomes our senses. Conditioned by longleaf pines, pulled pork, Cheerwine, basketball, and hurricanes, our brains become so imbued by home that once we cross state lines, the rest of the world appears to us filtered through some unshakable and smoky North Carolina lens. Other places may appear beautiful, for sure, but it’s impossible for a North Carolinian to not, at some point, long for life to come back into focus through our permanent native spyglass. I guess this is how homesickness works for anyone from anywhere, but that’s only a guess. I can only vouch for North Carolina. So is it presumptive of me to say this is what a 19-year-old North Carolina songwriter was getting at when he found himself in England, missing his father, his dog Hercules, and his pumpkin collection back in Chapel Hill? Heck no. It didn’t matter that James Taylor was hanging out with The Beatles. The bigger issue was that he wasn’t in North Carolina.

“Chapel Hill, the Piedmont, the outlying hills, were tranquil, rural, beautiful, but quiet,” he told Timothy White in the 2001 biography Long Ago and Far Away. “Thinking of the red soil, the seasons, the way things smelled down there, I feel as though my experience of coming of age there was more a matter of landscape and climate than people.”

See? You can hear Taylor edging around that idea that Carolina isn’t just on his mind. The place is in his mind. James Taylor’s neurons might as well have been made of red clay.

Say what you will about James Taylor (not that there’s much to say — he has avoided the tabloids successfully for close to three decades, a sign of true celebrity sanity if you ask me), but he’s almost impossible to dislike. Maybe you’ve heard him too many times, maybe he’s just too palatable for a certain sensibility, but most complaints formed about Taylor seem essentially based on the fact that he is such consistent musical balm. That midrange nasal drawl is somehow also rich and soothing. It’s like honey. And maybe you don’t like honey, I get it, but if you think you don’t like Taylor, or more specifically “Carolina in My Mind,” I challenge you to really listen to it.

•••

Start with the original version, the first single off Taylor’s 1968 debut. There’s no getting around it — it sounds like The Beatles, and there’s good reason why. That bass line, so sinewy and melodic, sounds just like Paul McCartney because it actually is Paul McCartney. The backing vocal — high, thin, and winsome — sounds just like George Harrison because it is George Harrison. The track is cool, even edgy (neither an adjective often attached to Taylor), though perhaps a bit overproduced. But these days, Taylor’s original version is probably heard less often than even “The Old North State.” The song basically flopped as a single, and then, because of reproduction rights, it ended up being rerecorded for his 1976 Greatest Hits.

It is this second version, not the original, that is so ubiquitous. This is the one we know and love. And why, you may ask, why is the version without Beatles more popular? That’s easy: The version with Beatles was about Beatles. The second version has an arrangement that never makes you think, “Hey, that’s Paul!” or “That’s so George!” It just recedes behind Taylor’s voice — it frames him, it supports him. This second version isn’t about the event of the recording, it’s just about the song. And the song is enough.

Every state has a song. Ray Charles gave Georgia “Georgia on my Mind” (just on, not in). John Denver penned “Colorado Rocky Mountain High.” Even South Dakota was immortalized by the Bee Gees in the stinker “South Dakota Morning.” North Carolina has its pick. General Johnson & the Chairmen of the Board gifted us the classic “Carolina Girls,” and remember that rap song a few years back urging North Carolina to take its shirt off and swing it around our head like a helicopter? The list goes on, but for whatever reason, “Carolina in My Mind” has become more than just part of our Carolina sound track. Call me a dissident, call me an outlaw if you must, but I am going to hereby declare, even if 1927’s General Assembly says otherwise, that “Carolina in My Mind” is actually this state’s song.

When was the last time you heard it? At a graduation ceremony? During a wedding reception? Find any fresh-faced a cappella group on a Carolina
campus, and you’re bound to get a rendition. Is it a love song? Surely. Is it sappy? Perhaps. But so can be love, I suppose, and just tell me who doesn’t love love.

You know the song. Go ahead and conjure the melody. Can’t you see the sunshine? I bet you didn’t even have to look. It’s a magic trick invented by James Taylor and encoded into song. And trust me, you don’t even have to tell me what you’re thinking about now because I already know: signs that might be omens say you’re going, you’re going.

Nic Brown is the author of the novels Doubles and Floodmarkers. His writing has appeared in the Harvard Review, Garden & Gun, and The New York Times, among many other publications. For 2012-2013, he will be the John and Renee Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi.

This entry was posted in Arts & Entertainment, July 2012, Music and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Carolina in My Mind

  1. John Fonda says:

    The summer of 1981 I was selling books door to door in western Iowa. When I heard that song, I knew it was time to go home.

  2. Bill Morgan says:

    GONE TO CAROLINA has to be the most relaxing song I’ve ever heard.I have driven a million miles listening to his music and that song gives me comfort no matter what else I have going on around me.All of James taylor’s music is wonderful but there are aout 10 cuts that I never ever get tired of hearing and that is one of them. To me James Taylor will allways be the best at what he does.

  3. Ali Yazman says:

    This is probably my all-time favorite song – one I cannot have enough of. Listening to the melodic bass alone is a joy. Then again, I have never been to North Carolina…but I know what homesick means, and this song features it beautifully. So much so, that purely based on this song, I once wrote a novel. The starting point – which actually is the end of the story – was this song.
    I have seen the south. One day – playing this song on the car stereo – I hope to visit the North.

  4. Jen Glass says:

    When I was pregnant with my first son, I listened to greatest hits tape in my car day in day out. I am not exaggerating one bit!! That poor tape went from the car to my “walk man” lol, all day everyday. Well when I found out it was going to be a boy I was so excited, I wanted a little twin of my husband. We both agreed without question Taylor was his name. Well, to make things even more incredible while I was having a c-section “You Gotta A Friend” was playing. The Doctor had no clue. We just couldn’t believe it, but did. I was so natural, so freakin cool. The Dr did great c-section was a breeze. Being really athletic, got right into my favorite-BIKINIS
    Had two more georgeous boys boom boom both no c-sections! To top is off all three look like just like their dad! All are super great people, and very familiar with your music. They are know 19,20 and Taylor Gregory Glass just turned 22. He was born on 721/90. Were your ears ringing that day?? Hehehe. They all are electricians and work for the same Co. They are tight.
    As far as “Gone To Carolina In My Mind” well if you don’t feel it, you don’t get it, basically. That I would find difficult. Probably to me one of my Top 10 ever of all music, not just yours. I’m 46 so that’s a fair amount of years to gain a diverse opinion. I love you James Taylor and you will never no how much joy you bring me to this day. I love all kinds of music A-Z and it is a huge part of my life. To be in my top 10 is not only a complement, it was so easy for me. Lots of love man keep doin what you do, and I will be frank Carley is unbelievable and I love her and her music. Thanks again for the music and the attitude Jen in myrtle beach SC

  5. Diane Kenney says:

    Moved south via MV…so nice to know you’all think of us:)

  6. tony king says:

    I think it should be the number one icon for NC . I have grown up listening to it , singing it, and yes learned to play it. I always think of the beaytiful state whenever I hear it. Thank you JT for giving such an inspirational song about a wonderful state.

  7. Daan Elaine says:

    Definitely should be the state song! Lovely song, lovely home.

  8. mik gutteridge says:

    Couldn’t agree more with Nic Brown. That song is the ultimate tourist marketing tool. For a guy from Yorkshire to have an American state implanted in his mind because of that moment in 1971 on the front row of a concert in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Both song and performance were entrancing and the result was a lasting impression of something akin to the perfect landscape.

  9. Steve Braswell says:

    James Taylors songs have always reflected parts of my life ever since I heard his songs for the first time years ago . Carolina in my mind has always been my favorite , and always brings me home no matter where I am . Thanks James .

  10. Mike Payne says:

    Thank You for a brilliantly written article. I’m obligated to agree with you on every point.
    What a boon it would be for NC. to adopt this beautifully crafted tune from a native son as the official state song.
    Though I’ve been a JT fan for some 40+ years now I must admit to liking the more contemporary version(s) to the original. It sounds thin and obviously over-produced. To my taste, some of the magic was lost in the mix. Still, the music remains.
    BTW…cool insight to “holy host of others” reference….i’d never put that together before.
    One final thought….you can hear the emotion in James voice in the 2008 version.

  11. Linda says:

    My 95 year old mom is from NC. We visited her home each summer which I was a child–now I am moving to NC. There is just something about it that hooks you. The cities are just the right size–build on a human scale–and there is an ambiance. If anyone had ever told me that I would someday want to move to NC, I would have told them they were nuts; I am a big city girl. I guess its like they say about the water of the Nile: once you drink it, you must return.

  12. Judy Davis says:

    While reading the delightful article about James Taylor, I saw where the version of Carolina In My MInd with Paul and George was on the soundtrack for July ,2012. I have not been able to locate it. Help! Thanks.

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