44. James Taylor - Sweet Baby James

Timing is everything if you believe the popular notion.  My wife was sitting next to me in bed and asked if I could take a break from my "list" and do a song that was near and dear to her.  "Could you do an entry on "Sweet Baby James" by James Taylor?"  What she didn't realize at the time is that James Taylor was already on my list and was next in line for me to do.  So her timing couldn't have been better.  I would have done it for her regardless of where James Taylor was on my list, but her bringing up when she did gave me the chills a little bit.

James Taylor is one of those people whose music transcends musical styles and tastes.  People from all walks of life are James Taylor fans.  President Obama is one.  Your mom is one.  My wife is one.  And you probably are, too.  His voice is like molasses, giving every line that he sings a richness and sweetness that makes you want more.  And with "Sweet Baby James" we are given all we've ever wanted in a song.  With every line that he sings, he weaves a richer and richer storyline that we wish were written for us.  There are songs (like "Colorful" by The Verve Pipe) that I wish I had written, but I wish James had written "Sweet Baby James" for me.  Although the album Sweet Baby James was released in February of 1970, it was recorded in December of 1969 in Los Angeles.  Just a month earlier, I was born within ten miles of the studio where he recorded it.  So although the song was written for his nephew (who was named after him), part of me wishes that it had been written for me.

It has that affect on you.  He sings it as a combination of campfire cowboy song and lullaby, and we wish he was singing it for us, but I guess, to a certain degree, he is.  The song started as an idea that came to him to write a lullaby for his nephew.  He was driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike headed to see him for the first time, with the fresh snow all around on the ground.  The symbolism of the unblemished snow and the life of a brand new baby came easy to James on the drive up.  Seeing a new family member for the first time has a profound affect on you.  It's a momentous occasion and you want to remember it forever and make it special.  So this was James' way of doing that.  He had the idea of a lullaby but wanted to expand on it a bit.  Little boys always like cowboys, so he added the cowboy imagery to the first two verses, but it's still a lullaby through and through.  And although it was indeed a song written for his namesake, there are autobiographical aspects to the song, since he and his nephew share the same name.  So he's singing himself to sleep as well.  And he sings it with just him and his guitar, without any extra production or pretense.  That simplicity was daring, but it pays off in so many ways.

"Sweet Baby James" is the song that my wife sings to my sons when they're having trouble going to sleep.  It's their lullaby.  She sits in the rocker with one of them in her arms, softly singing in his ear, "There is a young cowboy, he lives on the range..." as they almost instantly calm down at the sound of her voice.  There are many times that I stand just outside the door in the dark and listen to my wife sing one of my sons to sleep.  It fills me with a tremendous feeling of love, for both of them.  It's a tender moment that I almost feel bad that I'm intruding on, but I just can't help it.  I'm sure it embarrasses her to find out that I do that, but the tenderness of that experience that she has with my boys makes my heart smile.

The lyrics in "Sweet Baby James" are so full of vivid images that it's easy to be enveloped with them.  You close your eyes (it is a lullaby, after all) and the images of cowboys on the range and rocking babies pleasantly fill your brain.  The chorus has influences from the classic lullaby, "Rock a Bye Baby" and has a melody that becomes pleasantly familiar just as fast.

Goodnight you moonlight ladies
Rockabye sweet baby James
Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose
Won't you let me go down in my dreams
And rockabye sweet baby James

James took a lot of time to get the lyrics just right.  He knew it would be a song that he would sing often (to his nephew) and wanted to make sure that every word was as perfect as it could be.  He probably didn't realize the lasting affect the song would have on so many others as well.  Most songs have moments of poetry, but all of "Sweet Baby James" holds its own as words alone.  When you add the simple yet moving melody on top of it, there's an embarrassment of riches.  James talked about the songwriting process in an interview he did with Charles Osgood of CBS, "It's a process of discovery. It's being quiet enough and undisturbed enough for a period of time so that the songs can begin to sort of peek out, and you begin to have emotional experiences in a musical way."  I love the imagery of a song peeking out, just hoping to be caught.  And when you're driving alone in a car, you've got that undisturbed time on your hands to catch things like that.

Later in the song, he goes on to sing about that first journey to see his nephew and uses the metaphor of the road to parallel the life his nephew is about to lead.

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

That last line resonates with so many people.  Jay Leno asked James to sing on his final Tonight Show appearance in 2009 because that song really meant something to him when he left New Jersey to try and make it as a comedian in Los Angeles.  So many of us have thousand of miles more to go and wonder what is going to happen in our life's journey.  "Sweet Baby James" has that youthful idealistic optimism of what the future might hold that inspires us to make good use of the miles ahead of us.

My oldest son, Ty, turned four today.  We had a great day where the four of us went to the Wings Over the Rockies museum in Denver to look at their display of airplanes and spaceships (he loves airplanes and rockets).  He touched airplanes that have traveled faster than sound and heard his own voice echo in their air intakes.  He ran around with a glee that I'm worried I've forgotten and dreamed dreams I'll never know.  But he'll share them as he gets older, and he'll make me wiser.  He'll be able to bring his children to a place like this and share in their glee, and then take them home for birthday pizza.

That's exactly what we did. We came home and he helped me make pizza for dinner.  He spread the sauce all over the crust with a pastry brush and then dropped mounds of cheese haphazardly all over the pizza, making it look like an Olympic mogul course.  It was a great pizza.  After dinner, he really enjoyed us singing "Happy Birthday" to him as he and my wife blew out the four candles on the chocolate cream pie that served as his birthday cake.  There was no shortage of smiles today, and it's a day that  I want to remember forever.  So I guess that this blog entry is my "Sweet Baby James."  It's one that I hope I can share with Ty years from now when he's older and I can refresh his memory about how awesome his fourth birthday was.

I don't have ten thousand miles ahead of me, but he does.  And as his Mom sings this song to him, I wonder what images are flying through his brain as he drifts off to sleep.  I just hope that I'm there for as many of those miles as I can be, encouraging and supporting him along the way.  I know it's his journey but I'll be there to help when he needs it.  And when my journey reaches the point when I only have ten miles left to go, I know he'll be there for me, supporting and encouraging me at the end of my life's journey.  But for right now, we have a long way ahead of us, son.  Let's go.

Hope that's kind of what you were looking for, sweetie.

(Fun Fact #61:  Although "Sweet Baby James" has become in many ways James Taylor's signature song, it was never released as a single and became popular only because of his live performances of the song.  He continues to play it at almost every concert he gives, and it usually closes the show.  So it's a live version of the song that I chose to put here for you.)

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