The Poetics of James Taylor

Moving in silent desperation
Keeping an eye on the Holy Land
A hypothetical destination
Say, who is this walking man?

The baritone of James Taylor bewitches with a melody that long ago wormed into my brain for keeps. It sleeps, then can’t you just feel the moonshine? It awakens, silent except in my head, a deep emotion of fall in the mountains on a gravel road. That’s James Taylor, like an older brother I never met.

Now that we’ve settled into this condo, Libby lets me know that the sleek little Audio-Technico turntable she bought can also be used with the speaker system I’ve used for streaming Pandora and NPR. Out of the vinyl records we’ve saved, but haven’t played in an eternity, I pull out James Taylor’s 1974 “Walking Man.” It’s perfect, better than I remembered.

Every song on this album is a gem, the work of a craftsman at a good time in his long career, making these 10 songs that were not “hits” but perfect in their own way. Not only that. These are also poems. I declare that as one who has studied poetry, meter-scanned Virgil, and knows the bad from the decent and deep. These are fine and deep and mean a lot to me.

Take those first lines. “Silent desperation” is a riff on Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation,” of course, but maybe so is Holy Land, which Thoreau notes was the root of “saunter,” a le Sainte Terre, in his  essay on walking.

Who is this walking man? He’s the ghost spirit of American restlessness, Billy the Kid, whom Conrad Aiken associated with the solitary self-exile from the Puritan commonwealth, William Blackstone of Rhode Island, in a long poem, “The Kid.” It’s also a recurring figure in James Taylor songs, the country road wanderer abandoning home and farm, a bit of himself on heroin or in therapy between Stockbridge and Boston. Or sometimes it’s his father, imagined as a n’er-do-well who left home. “Pappy’s come to rambling on/ Stumbling around drunk/ Down on the farm.”

In fact, Dr. Isaac Montrose Taylor was the dean of the University of North Carolina Medical School. I recently went back to Carolina (not just in my mind) and walked Morgan Creek Trail, a city park along the creek where the Taylor boys used to play. The highway bridge over Morgan Creek has been named The James Taylor Bridge. The house where the boys grew up, worth well over a million now, is gated and behind a bamboo stand in a wooded neighborhood of modernist houses.

Country songs usually split open an adage or cliché for double entendre, “I’ve got friends in low places.” James Taylor does that a lot in the “Walking Man” album, but tightly and dinging with inner assonance.

Most everybody’s got seeds to sow
It ain’t always easy for a weed to grow, no
So he don’t hoe the row for no one
Oh for sure one’s always missing
And something’s never quite right
Ah, but who would want to listen to him
Kissing his existence good night.

His rhyme schemes are well-tooled, not just couplets or A-B, A-B, but sometimes A-B-C, A-B-C as in “Me and My Guitar.” “I hear horns/ I hear voices/ I hear strings/ Seems I was born/ with too many choices/ Now what am I going to do with all these extra things.” Even using the simple Shakespearean form of A-B, A-B, loosely, he upends the story of Odysseus being recognized by his dog’s sense of smell. From “Hello Old Friend,” about returning to the Taylor compound on Martha’s Vineyard:

Little dog David I must look like a fool
I should’ve remembered you’d be forgetting my smell, well
Give me a week or two to recapture my cool
I’ve got stories to tell
About how I snatched the devil’s catch
And outran the hounds of hell.

“Walking Man,” the album, has one pop song cover, “Ain’t No Song,” and one Chuck Berry cover, “The Promised Land.” These may be the least poetic, though the first one succeeds because it’s a riff on songwriting (“Not even this song’s gonna tell you the way that I feel”) and the other, to me, because it encodes the Black experience in America – the Great Migration and the Freedom Ride bus that “left us all stranded in downtown Birmingham.”

The other songs I would put into three categories, three dark lodes that James Taylor mines for verbal gold.

One is depression. A girl, I assume, is sinking into acute melancholy that only the singer can enter with her, because he’s been there. Or maybe he is the one who is sinking. Maybe the depression is not another person, but his interior “love.” The experience is like love because it binds the two, or maybe just the lonely self with itself, silent and secret. “Daddy’s Baby” begins: “Daddy’s baby what’s got you thinking/ What’s got you sinking so low/ Is there something I should know/ Something new to you.” And it ends, mysteriously: “So I called my love my home.” The same sweet sadness finds its end in “Fading Away”:

Well, it’s hard to find a label
For this feeling in my bones
That this is all a make-believe
But my cards are on the table
And their ain’t nothing up my sleeve
And here I thought I was a thinking man
But I’m a shrinking man, I’m sinking man
I’m fading, fading away

The second category is the seductive nature of rock. In “Me and My Guitar” he sings, “If he can’t go to heaven/ Maybe I don’t want to go, Lord.” Where does this beguiling music come from? Africa. “See the white man sailing his ship upon the sea/ Watch the white man shackle the black man to a tree/ To the invader go the fruits of war/ He misses home and his boots are sore/ He has not got no roots no more/ He comes for your gold/ Watch out for your soul” (“Rock ‘N’ Roll is Music Now”). This fruit of war – the rebellion of the post-war baby boom – becomes even more haunting in “Migration” with its slow Vox Humana.

Mystery muse, how I hunger for an answer
Unsung song, how I long to play the changes
Hidden rhythm haven’t I always been your dancer
Sacred secrets of the meaning to my dreaming. Migration.

The mysterious “slow vibration” of migration leads to the third theme – decline and fall. This is not just the singer “Fading Away” (“the circles in my mind/ They have been winding slowly down/ . . .I’m seizing up, I’m freezing up”). It’s the great collapse of the West, of our system of extraction and exploitation breaking down. “Let It All Fall Down” is a straight-forward prayer to admit we did this to ourselves and to be as gentle as we can be as we welcome the end.

. . at least we might show the good sense
To know when we’ve been wrong
And it’s already taken too long
So we bring it to a stop
Then we take it from the top
We let it settle on down softly
Like your gently falling snow
Or let it tumble down and topple
Like the temple long ago.

In the early 1970s, I was sure I had the good sense at 21 to know when we’ve been wrong. I wanted to see the machinery stop, let it all rest. Being strapped in an airliner seat during a landing, when it reverses its engines and roars and shakes to try to slow down from 200 to 20 mph, that’s what I thought it would feel like to get back to nature. This song contained a poem that said what I was feeling then. And as Robert Frost says of true poetry, like metal on the tongue, it never loses its freshness.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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