BY JAMES MACKENZIE
We’re often told that our state is sharply divided, yet there are many things we North Carolinians seem to agree about. And high on the list are romantic reminders of home: barbecue, sweet tea and James Taylor.
Meanwhile, we do love our music, and we can prove it. But “The Old North State” has been North Carolina’s official song since 1927. Isn’t it time we designated a more modern tune? Not throw away our existing state song, mind you, but add to the mix by giving it a rock ’n’ roll buddy.
James Taylor’s “Carolina in my Mind” has been called North Carolina’s “unofficial song,” with good reason. It casts a spell: You can’t hear its lyrics without being magically transported here, no matter where you are.
Dozens of famous musicians have covered the song, which continues to be lovingly sung at homecomings, football games and sundry other events in venues from the mountains to the coast. (Sometimes it’s even misappropriated by South Carolina, which makes it even more important that we finally bring it home, where it belongs.)
Our state seal bears the motto “Esse quam videri,” a Latin phrase meaning “to be, rather than to seem.” I interpret that as an imperative to be genuine — and nothing’s more authentic than this James Taylor tune.
So it’s time we came together and made “Carolina in my Mind” our state’s official rock song.
Why this song?
These days, you’re more likely to hear Taylor’s music played in the cereal aisle than on classic rock radio. But Taylor’s still a rocker through and through. In 2000, he was inducted into the both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
James Taylor is Western North Carolina’s answer to the Sasquatch. There are many legends about his having visited Asheville in the early 1970s to convalesce, staying in one of our more famous mental hospitals, but no real proof or photographs have emerged. Just stories and lore.
The original version of “Carolina in my Mind” was recorded in 1968 for the Beatles’ Apple Records. Paul McCartney and George Harrison even joined in during the studio sessions. The version you’re probably more familiar with — the stripped down, no drums, acoustic rendition we all recognize — wasn’t created until 1976.
The beauty of this song lies in its simplicity. It compares a sunset to a burning sky, while the narrator is immersed in the homesick feelings Carolinians get whenever we’re away.
The lyrics tell us that Taylor was in a dark place. Even though he was signing a big record deal in London, he missed his boyhood home in North Carolina. And when you hear that unforgettable guitar opening, you know exactly what he was writing about:
Can’t you see the sunshine?
Can’t you just feel the moonshine?
Ain’t it just like a friend of mine
To hit me from behind?
That’s because we’ve all been there; we’ve seen the way the fog sets low over the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is our home, and this is our song.
Why James Taylor?
In the early 1970s, sandwiched between mind-expanding psychedelic rock and the nose-bleeding punk bands, there was this unassuming musical movement of singer-songwriters. They were quiet, introspective, writing their own tunes and playing their own instruments. In 1971, James Taylor’s stoic face was placed on the cover of Time magazine. He was the leader of a new musical revolution.
Kids were turning to nonelectrified instruments: banjos and acoustic guitars. Music stores were puzzled. What had happened to rock ’n’ roll?
After the eruption of the 1960s sound and politics, Taylor represented a return to basics. Tall yet rugged, cerebral, he carried a new philosophy: the back-to-the-Earth sound.
Granted, “Carolina in my Mind” is not as explosive as a flaming Fender set ablaze by Jimi Hendrix. It’s just truth and emotion:
A silver tear appearing now
I’m cryin’, ain’t I?
Gone to Carolina in my mind
Take action today
In 1985, Ohio became the first state to adopt an official rock song: The McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy.” Some band members, including a young Rick Derringer, hailed from Ohio, and the group found popularity around Dayton. Later, their song became a crowd favorite when the Ohio State marching band played it during football games. That enthusiasm helped propel the tune all the way to the state’s General Assembly.
Another example is “Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen, the eternal party rock anthem that’s now Oregon’s official rock song. Don’t be surprised that The Kingsmen are from Oregon.
So where is North Carolina’s official rock song? It’s staring us right in the face! This beloved tune was written and performed by a talent that was sharpened and informed by a childhood spent in North Carolina.
Who could say no to this? That old friend hitting us from behind? Isn’t it time we brought our old friend home?
Find your representatives in the N.C. House and Senate and tell them we need to make “Carolina in my Mind” our official state rock song.
Jim MacKenzie wants to know what book you’re reading, your favorite album, and to tell you he doesn’t own a cat.