A recurrent theme in songs highlighted in many of the past columns has been that of nostalgia - defined as ‘a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one's life, to one's home or homeland’ - though it is often used so loosely to mean remembering virtually anything in the past. Space-hoppers, Spangles, the Blitz, small children up chimneys: all grist for the nostalgia mill. Nostalgia is not always straight forward, as some of the songs in previous columns have already indicated. An early column, Massachusetts, was nostalgia about a place the Bee Gees had never been to. The brilliance of Coles Corner by Richard Hawley was not only to make a new song seem vaguely familiar from a distant past but also to make the listener feel nostalgic for a time and place they were unlikely ever to have experienced. This can be seen more crudely in the past popularity in the UK of programmes and films such as Happy Days and Grease, where nostalgia was encouraged not just for a fictional past but someone else’s fictional past. Similar, I guess, to those readers in India or Singapore who like the Billy Bunter books.
At first glance, it seems odd that nostalgia should figure in pop songs so much. In its early days it was about the new, the young and the present and future - not the past – and even in the late sixties the Kinks seemed out of sync with the prevailing mood with songs about sitting in a deckchair on Blackpool beach. Not very Swinging London or Scotch of St James. I am not sure when this changed or what the first backward looking pop hit – in the sense of real personal nostalgia rather than just being about an event in the past, (like the Battle of New Orleans), or deliberately creating a past musical style, (like the Temperance Seven), or being an off-the peg nostalgia song, (like Green Green Grass of Home) - was: Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane perhaps.
It is clear, though, that some of the most poignant pop songs have been inspired by the pull of nostalgia as defined in the opening sentence above. Arguably John Lennon’s most evocative song was In My Life and several songs already covered in this blog have expressed nostalgia in different ways in their lyrics and music – N17 by the Saw Doctors, for example, or Waterloo Station by Jane Birkin. The song here, Carolina In My Mind, is another such example and is about a place that has seemed to generate a catalogue of its own of songs of a wistful desire to return. There is Ryan Adams and Emmylou Harris with Oh My Sweet Carolina. Or Carolina by Jason Harrod – “Take me where them rolling hills can gather up and cure my ills. Let me smell that long-leaf pine.” And Gram Parsons' Hickory Wind, recorded by the Byrds, Joan Baez and Keith Richard amongst others.
There seems to me here a difference between the UK and USA in the way that nostalgia for places of the past are treated in songs. The yearning in American songs is generally to go back to the wide open spaces - the rolling hills of Carolina, the Black Hills of Dakota, Alabama where the skies are blue - or at least to small town life: ‘to a simpler place and time’ as one of those songs seeking escape from the big city, Midnight Train to Georgia, put it. British songs, unless they are folk or comedy, are not going to talk about going back to Kent or Dorset. Nor is escape to small town life generally seen as attractive: songs are more likely to be about going in the other direction – small town to big city. Nostalgia for places past is more likely to be about the opposite of the wide open spaces: a place like Liverpool (Leaving of Liverpool, Liverpool Lullaby), or Salford (Matchstalk Men, Matchstalk Cats and Dogs) or London’s East End ( virtually anything by Chas n’ Dave. The song below by them is especially for Martha to encourage further deciphering of the English vernacular). Perhaps the folk memory of pre-industrial times is too remote now, the culture of that world wiped away too much.
Carolina In My Mind, however, is definitely one of those songs soaked in homesickness for ‘the tranquil, rural, beautiful’, as its composer, James Taylor, put it, writing an anthem to Chapel Hill where he grew up..A version of his - originally recorded on the Beatles’ Apple label in 1968 with Paul McCartney on bass – is given below. Some have seen it as a wider yearning for the whole idea of the South, a notion based on nostalgia - real or imagined - as much as geographical location.(and, oddly enough, maybe the equivalent of England’s The North). The other version by Melanie ( Safka )is from 1970 , with British session musicians like Herbie Flowers and Alan Parker supplying the backing. To my mind, this has a different idea of Carolina. Whereas James Taylor is remembering where he grew up, Melanie, from Queens, sees Carolina less as a real location and more as a metaphor, in the spirit of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock: ‘we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden’ – a vision of nature and escape to the country.
On my recent trip to New York, I spent 2 days in Chapel Hill, where my daughter spent a year. I felt no nostalgia or homesickness because I had never been there before, nor to anywhere that could be called the South. No doubt some people would argue that North Carolina is not strictly the South, just as there are arguments in the UK of where the ‘North’ starts. (I am reminded of seeing an interview with a farmer in Cumbria during the foot-and –mouth outbreak in 2001- ‘They have it soft down south - places like Blackburn”). However I am aware that I probably went there looking for signs that it was the South - hence the photo above of rocking chairs on a veranda, and drinking hot apple cider in the Caffe Driade to the sounds of crickets in the woods, or trying Brunswick stew, fried green tomatoes and pecan pie at Mama Dips in Chapel Hill. It certainly seemed a long way from New York and, even in 2 days, I could understand why someone in New York or London (where James Taylor wrote part of the song) might in an idle moment have Carolina in their mind.