Behind The Song: “Carolina In My Mind” by James Taylor

James Taylor conjured up the ultimate ode to his home state of North Carolina while off the coast of Spain and then recorded it in London. Somehow that’s all fitting, because “Carolina In My Mind” is a testament to the powers of visualization, how you can imagine the comforts of home even when you’re nowhere near them.

As he told the story on Late Night With Seth Myers last year, Taylor was in the midst of recording his debut album on The Beatles’ Apple label when he took a break for a quick jaunt to the Spanish island of Formentera, where he met the Karen mentioned in the song. From there, they went to Ibiza but were stranded when they missed the last ferry back and had no money for lodging. They sat at an outdoor café all night as Taylor’s thoughts sailed across the Atlantic. “I started getting homesick and I thought of this song and my home so far away and wrote ‘Carolina In My Mind’ as the sun was coming up,” he recalled.

“Carolina In My Mind” is also somewhat of an anomaly in that a rerecorded version of it has actually become the one that is most well-known. The original take on the James Taylor album in 1968, which featured Paul McCartney on bass and an uncredited George Harrison on backing vocal, included strings that snuck in behind a regimented rhythm, giving the song a baroque pop feel that was pretty popular at the time.

Eight years later, by which time Taylor had become a megastar, he and producer Peter Asher possessed a far better understanding of his signature sound than when the song was first recorded. Thus, they did a new version for a Greatest Hits album, slowing down the tempo and utilizing the talents of “The Section,” the informal name given to the cream of the crop of ‘70s West Coast session musicians. The result was a looser, more intuitive recording that better captured the sense of place that the lyrics evoke so beautifully.

Taylor does an amazing job in the song of depicting both his feelings about being stranded in a foreign place and his desire to make it back home that’s tugging on him so persistently. He is in the moment when he sings, Watch her watch the morning come/A silver tear appearing now I’m crying, ain’t I? Dark and silent late last night, he sings, despairing, only to resolutely imagine a homecoming in the next breath: I think I might have heard the highway call/Geese in flight and dogs that bite/The sings that might be omens say I’m going. The internal rhymes of those lines seem to be propelling him forward.

A sly nod to his Beatle buddies makes its way into the bridge, but even they can’t lift his spirits: And it’s with a holy host of others standing around me/Still I’m on the dark side of the moon.” But the chorus keeps coming back with its wishful thinking, even as he acknowledges how hard this bout of melancholy has hit him: Ain’t it just like a friend of mine to hit me from behind?/Yes, I’m gone to Carolina in my mind.

Whatever version you prefer, it’s hard to deny the beauty and brilliance of “Carolina In My Mind.” James Taylor’s composition encapsulates both the heartbreak of homesickness and the resplendence of reunion in one perfectly wistful package.

Photo Credit: Norman Seeff

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