25/11/2011

Carolina In My Mind



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.


47 comments:

  1. I'm so glad you finally wrote a whole column about nostalgia, it really has been a theme that has cropped up a few times and I've been wanting you to say more about it and offer your own theory - thank you Geoff!

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  2. So happy you posted! It was Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and like everyone I know was both traveling to be with family on Wednesday and Thursday and then hosting family at my house over the weekend, so I apologize for the late reading and response to the column! This is a great song and description of Chapel Hill!

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  3. I loved this column, it is one of my favourites you've ever written. I think I disagree with your definition of nostalgia though - I think it is a much less positive (or neutral) thing than you describe. It is a very conservative impulse, the celebration of a vanishing or vanished past. It is a self-deluding return to innocence. I like the theorist Leo Spitzer's definition of it, where he contrasts “critical memory” and “nostalgic memory.” Nostalgic memory reflects a desire to connect to a “better past” and to “recreate elements of that past in the present,” he observes. It selects only the positive from the past. Critical memory allows for “dreams of change” and a “better future,” while incorporating memories of the past’s negative aspects. Nostalgia is the realm of political conservatives, wanting to return to a vanished past before racial equality, votes for women, legal abortion and gay marriage rights, nostalgic for a happier simpler time that wasn't so happy for many people. One of its opposites is surely progressive memory, the ability to build on the past but without the desire to return there. So having said all that, I wonder if it's possible to identify particular songs that manage to be nostalgia without being conservative, thereby offering a different theory to this one by Spitzer, for example. Possibly you do this in your column this week, but perhaps the songs that aren't conservative are actually engaging in a different kind of memory - not nostalgic and more critical/progressive/open.....

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  4. I really like your differentiation between the UK and US versions of nostalgia - returning to open spaces vs big cities. I think this is exactly right, but might also answer Laura's point above - because the American yearning for open spaces is surely a vision of the south or the midwest in the US (conservative regions), while the British yearning for big cities is a memory of exciting, noisy, vibrant, working places (perhaps even the working class) that were Labour strongholds. Thereby letting us define nostalgia for open spaces as U.S. conservative nostalgia, and nostalgia for cities like Liverpool as British progressive nostalgia....

    This is like being back at university, I love it! When are our grades due to be handed back? This is the best but longest course I've ever taken, a year and a half now:)

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  5. Great photo Geoff! This sums up the South beautifully, for me at least - rockers on a white porch, pink magnolias, tall beech trees, old fashioned lamppost!

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  6. Thanks Geoff!!! Aside from that man Jimmy who hosts the British music show, these guys are definitely the hardest people to understand. Here is what I think the lyrics say, below, but there is A LOT that I don't get. Like 'Gertcha,' 'cowson,' England being knocked out of a 'cup' (anything to do with a cup of tea?), and Lester Piggott, being just the beginning, arghhhhhhhh!

    Now there's a word that I don't understand I hear it every day from my old man It may be Cockney rhyming slang It ain't in no school book He says it every time that he gets mad A regular caution is my old dad Rub the old man up the wrong way, bet your life you'll hear him say Gertcha, cowson, gertcha Gertcha! When the kids are swinging on the gate Gertcha! When the paperboy's half an hour late Gertcha! When the pigeons are pecking at his seed Gertcha! When the farmer starts digging up his weeds, Gertcha! Gertcha, cowson, gertcha Bar stool preaching That's the old man's game! Now the old man was a Desert Rat Khaki shorts and a khaki hat How me mother could have fancied that I just don't know But when the enemy came in sight They gave up without a fight They rubbed him up the wrong way This is what they heard him say Gertcha, cowson, gertcha Gertcha! When me rock and roll records wake him up Gertcha! When the Poles knock England out of the cup Gertcha! When the kids are banging on his door Gertcha! When the barman won't serve him any more Gertcha, cowson, gertcha Bar stool preaching He's always been the same! Gertcha, cowson, gertcha Gertcha! When the dog's left a message on the step Gertcha! Lester Piggott, when he lost it by a neck Gertcha! When me brother kicks the toes out of his shoes Gertcha! When the houseflies are flying round his food Gertcha, cowson, gertcha Bar stool preaching He's always been the same! Gertcha! Gertcha!

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  7. Cheers for the mention, am liking your blog. Trying to think of a T-Rex song about a place you might write about, only thought of 'New York City' and I bet you already wrote about NYC on here!

    All is good with me, doing a lot of music workshops (Rockshops) all over the place, in schools, colleges, prisons, rehab centres for disabled young adults, village halls, in Finland, etc.

    Cheers! Herbie.

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  8. Thanks for writing in. You have actually cropped up in 2 previous columns - in Waterloo Station (in a reference to Sounds Nice) and as part of Blue Mink in Life in A Northern Town column!

    Those are interesting comments, Laura and Tiffanye. I think it is possible to be nostalgic without being reactionary. Part of the neo-liberal agenda since the early 1980's has been to rubbish the recent past, or that period when the majority were making gains at the expense of the tiny minority. So New Labour labelled any defence of 'old' Labour as nostalgic. Certainly nostalgia is often false and rewrites history -but some things perhaps were better and have been lost by a more reactionary present. The whole notion of nostalgia isn't what it used to be...

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  9. I think they sing a different or extra final verse here too, Martha!

    Gertcha!
    When me mother says he can't go down the pub
    Gertcha!
    Sister's boyfriend put his sister up the club
    Gertcha!
    When the tomcats, when they're kicking up a din
    Gertcha!
    Tottenham Hotspur couldn't get one in
    Gertcha!
    When me mother locks him out of the flat
    Gertcha!
    When it's raining and he can't find his hat
    Gertcha!
    In the mornings when his motorcar won't go
    Gertcha!
    Next-door neighbour, when he won't give him a tow
    Gertcha!
    Gertcha!
    Gertcha!
    Gertcha!

    To answer your queries, the being knocked out of the cup is about football and Lester Piggott was a jockey (rode horses in races!)

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  10. As a pedantic addendum to the comment above about Herbie Flowers cropping up before, Chas of Chas 'n Dave has appeared before. In the Coles Corner column, if the imagined younger son at the end had managed to get out and see Mike Berry and the Outlaws rocking it up at the Corn Exchange, he would have seen Chas Hodges on bass!

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  11. Cheers Geoff, I will read the Waterloo Station and Life in A Northern Town ones, seeing as I am a Regular on here, brilliant!

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  12. Oh no! Tottenham Hotspur! And I hate to imagine what this means! - 'Sister's boyfriend put his sister up the club'!!!

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  13. Tottenham Hotspur is a football team
    Actually there shouldnt be a 'his' before sister - sister's boyfriend put sister up the club ( ie made her pregnant). A different sort of club to Tottenham Hotspur..

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  14. Hello there,

    You would have enjoyed our James Taylor exhibit: Carolina in My Mind: The James Taylor Story was more than two years in the making. Created with Mr. Taylor's blessing, it included memorabilia from James Taylor's life in Chapel Hill and beyond. It was a permanent exhibit in our museum, the Chapel Hill Museum. Unfortunately the museum closed last year, in July 2010, due to lack of funds from the city council, after being in operation for many years. I was the last director and the only full-time staff member when it closed. I and the volunteers always shared the belief that you don't know where you are going unless you know where you have been. To this end, we were grateful to shed a light on Chapel Hill's future while remembering its past and we hope the Museum's efforts to celebrate the character and characters of Chapel Hill will not be forgotten.

    Our website is still up, and in case it is of interest anyway, so you can see what used to be on display, here are the details of the James Taylor exhibit: www.chapelhillmuseum.org/Exhibits/Ongoing/JamesTaylorExhibit/

    Thank you,
    Traci

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  15. Here are the great lyrics:

    In my mind I'm goin' to Carolina
    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
    Yes I'm goin' to Carolina in my mind

    Karen she's a silver sun
    You best walk her way and watch it shinin'
    Watch her watch the mornin' come
    A silver tear appearing now I'm cryin'
    Ain't I goin' to Carolina in my mind

    There ain't no doubt in no one's mind
    That love's the finest thing around
    Whisper something soft and kind
    And hey babe the sky's on fire, I'm dyin'
    Ain't I goin' to Carolina in my mind

    In my mind I'm goin' to Carolina
    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
    Yes I'm goin' to Carolina in my mind

    Dark and silent late last night
    I think I might have heard the highway calling
    Geese in flight and dogs that bite
    Signs that might be omens say I'm going, going
    I'm goin' to Carolina in my mind

    With a holy host of others standing 'round me
    Still I'm on the dark side of the moon
    And it seems like it goes on like this forever
    You must forgive me
    If I'm up and goin' to Carolina in my mind

    In my mind I'm goin' to Carolina
    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
    Yes I'm goin' to Carolina in my mind

    Goin' to Carolina in my mind
    And I'm goin' to Carolina in my mind
    Goin' to Carolina in my mind

    (Goin')
    (I'm goin')
    (Say nice things about me 'cause I'm goin' southbound)
    (Carry on with out me 'cause I'm goin')

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  16. James Taylor is playing at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York on January 20, in case Geoff or anyone else will be in the city.....

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  17. This song was one of my dad's favorites. He passed in November of 2008 and when we buried him the sun was setting and the sky looked on fire. I can't sing this song without remembering him and knowing that, no matter where I am or how softly I sing, he knows I'm singing to him. I miss you Dad. I know you're happy in your Carolina wherever that may be.

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  18. One of the most beautiful songs ever written. I had the pleasure of seeing James Taylor last year with Carol King. Problem was, I found it difficult to sing along without tearing up. Silly for a 43 year old guy, and I can't really explain it. Guess it just reaches inside.

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  19. I like how everything is connected in the Geoff world you give us - Herbie Flowers crops up, so does Chas ("In the Coles Corner column, if the imagined younger son at the end had managed to get out and see Mike Berry and the Outlaws rocking it up at the Corn Exchange, he would have seen Chas Hodges on bass!"). Your blog is a whole interconnected world of people, places and songs, all beautifully crossreferenced, I love it!

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  20. Yes, the removal of 'his' does make it a lot less sinister (just teenage pregnancy then, not actual incest:)

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  21. I do see your point, Geoff, about a reactionary present erasing a better past. I need to think about this more.

    Also, this made me smile: "the whole notion of nostalgia isn't what it used to be" - the idea of being nostalgic for nostalgia:)

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  22. Here is Carolina by Jason Harrod, that Geoff mentioned: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDlqWWsuWNg - the best version I could find.........

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  23. I don't know who those people are who would claim that North Carolina isn't the South! Although probably if you asked even educated Americans what states form "the South," you’re likely to get 100 different answers.

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  24. I agree, Eva. The U.S. Census Bureau includes Delaware, D.C., Maryland and West Virginia in its definition, all of which are further North than Carolina!

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  25. The "Southern" parts of the South seem to be shrinking, at least to those who define "Southern" as white right-wingers who say "y'all." Virginia isn't Southern because of all those D.C. suburbs full of transplants who don't hunt, don't eat grits and associate Manassas with a mall rather than a Civil War battle. Yet those people voted for the gun-toting, Bible-quoting, self-defined "Scotch-Irish Southern" Democrat James Webb, now Virginia's senior senator.

    North Carolina isn't Southern because it's attracting Midwestern retirees, Latinos and tech types. Plus, there's the Research Triangle, the constellation of great universities, labs and libraries so despised by Sen. Jesse Helms. Real Southerners don't cotton to book learning.

    As for Florida, it's full of Yankees, Spanish speakers and refugees from the snow-shoveling states. Never mind that Latinos from the former plantation cultures of Cuba and Puerto Rico have much in common with the traditional "Southern" persona (obsession with the past, over-defined gender roles, flamboyant hospitality, a cuisine based on pork and corn). Never mind that in social attitudes, race relations, spending on education, etc., Florida's peer states are not New York or California, but Alabama and Louisiana. Never mind that Florida was the third state to secede from the union in 1861.

    At this rate, the South could soon consist only of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and South Carolina — minus Huntsville (too many rocket scientists), Memphis (too many transplants), Columbia (too many professors). Or maybe we need to redefine "Southern."

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  26. Wow, this is very eyeopening about British culture, if this is what they feel nostalgic about:) - Space-hoppers, Spangles, the Blitz, small children up chimneys - a fascinating combo of fun and pain!

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  27. There was an interesting debate about British nostalgia (with reference to various TV shows) a few months ago in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/25/debate-popular-culture-thrall-nostalgia

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  28. I like Geoff's nostalgia list - and was about to start adding to it (Punch and Judy stalls was my first item), but then remembered the long list we all did of 'British' things, in the column about Breakfast in Spitalfields, and thought it might overlap with that too much:)

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  29. I found this quite an interesting attempt to market nostalgia, from a hotel company! - http://www.bestwestern.co.uk/blog/out-and-about/a-blast-from-the-past

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  30. It's a shame about the museum closing, Traci. I did see the place when we were waiting for a bus..

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  31. Oops, I guess I am coming late to the conversation - the aftermath of the Thanksgiving break kept me busy this week!

    I was fascinated by this discussion of nostalgia. And you mentioned films such as Happy Days and Grease, "where nostalgia was encouraged not just for a fictional past but someone else’s fictional past," and I've found myself observing how this particular era of the 1950s/early 1960s continues to be something that we're nostalgia about, with shows like Pan Am and Mad Men currently on TV. I wonder if there is a comparable era/decade in British history that people get as nostalgia about as Americans get about the pre Vietnam war / pre Kennedy assassination United States.....

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  32. Geoff, do readers in India or Singapore really like the Billy Bunter books? I don't know why but I find this hard to believe!!!

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  33. Here's Ryan Adams and Emmylou Harris with Oh My Sweet Carolina, which actually is like a geographical tour of the South at least in the opening..... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMZYRvDvgT4

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  34. I think the best version of Hickory Wind is by Gillian Welch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGbBQj-epzk

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  35. No, you can't beat the Byrds' version!!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o64m6K-ufoM

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  36. I agree about the particular American yearning to return to wide open spaces - but in combination with that, there is the yearning for small-town life (maybe small towns in the middle of nowhere, therefore still about wide open spaces). I guess this is maybe because it is where people grew up, before making the move to a big city in young adulthood - especially for musicians, pursuing careers........

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  37. Just because it's a great way to start the weekend, and Geoff mentioned it, here's Midnight Train to Georgia:) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pHhItkhc7o

    Does anyone know if there is actually a train that leaves at midnight bound for Georgia? I had a look at the Amtrak schedules, and as far as I can tell, you have to get the 12.22am number 19 train from Greensboro NC (which goes to three cities in Georgia). Or the 11.56pm number 97 train from Rocky Mount NC (which goes to Savannah, Georgia). So you are still 4 minutes shy of an actual midnight train!!

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  38. Here is Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aOGnVKWbwc, which I heard being played at an Occupy camp a couple of weeks ago (in Seattle!).

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  39. Thank you for this great column Geoff! I am actually going to Chapel Hill in a few weeks for the first time, and will go to the places you mention (Caffe Driade and Mama Dips). And I'll be sure to have "Carolina In My Mind" on the Ipod as I walk around there!

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  40. In the song, he is supposed to be getting the midnight train to Georgia from L.A, which makes it less likely!
    The nostalgia being put out at the moment, Josie, is for an aristocratic early 20th century-Downton Abbey, Kings Speech etc-which suits the current government by millionaires..

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  41. This is a great column. I agree that Carolina songs are inevitably filled with a wistful desire to return. It is part of the Carolina culture, nostalgia. I've lived in the South half my life, and in none othe places where I lived the other half - not even in England, land of defiant anachronism - did I encounter anything approaching the retro-fixation of Carolina. Its literature and music is rooted in such a profound, pervasive nostalgia that it's hard to imagine what could have been written without it. The South mythologizes itself, persistantly wishing to see the Old South (before the Civil War) as a kind of Eden. It is an identity that hands upon the belief in a retro never-never land, a utopia. Of course, only if you are white. Once a woman was fawning over a Civil War historian at a conference, and turned to gush at a black writer, 'Oh don't you just wish you'd been alive back in those days?' 'No,' answered the black writer simply. Even in Chapel Hill, just 40 years ago, a black man couldn't get a degree (or a sandwich) there. Jim Crow is far from ancient history. In nursing homes somewhere in the South, a few of the dreadful old crocodiles who carried the nooses or list the torches must still be breathing. And Chapel Hill is very much the South. And the South is very much about nostalgia.

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  42. I don't know if North Carolina is the 'real South,' because I don't know if such a thing exists anymore. A few years ago, as a student at Wofford College in South Carolina, I did a journey with 11 other students and two professors through the Southeast, meeting with small-town writers and witnessing how the South is changing. It was an 11 day road trip, based on a premise created by Virginia novelist Lee Smith: In any small Southern town today, you are just as likely to spot a sushi restaurant as you are a place that serves cornbread, the emblem of traditional Southern culture. We were looking for Southern authenticity. We talked to some people who think the South will eventually revert back to its former ways, and then we talked to others who think that because of everyone moving to the South because of real estate development and such, it will become like anywhere else in the United States. It was part of a great course at the college called “Cornbread and Sushi on the Road,” which asked the basic question: What defines the South these days? We debated the idea that the traditional South has a gentility and politeness full of "bless your hearts," that the South’s food and its storytelling are genuinely its own. We decided that with developments and malls bringing a more cosmopolitan, sushi bar vibe to more Southern towns, Southern writers and muscians are vital to retaining a distinct culture. There’s no other region that has these writers and musicians that write about the culture so people can still remember the uniqueness of the area. I guess your column made me remember this experience, and made me ask myself again what I want the South to look like in 20 years.

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  43. Dear one,

    What a beautiful column. from the land of a million dreams, it can get hard, so many broken ones. big cities ~ New York, L.A., where it's all been seen and done, I fall through the cracks of the hard edge. i live in Nashville now, and it is different in that music runs through its veins. who would have thought this would ever be my home? I recorded one album early in my career, Sunset and Other Beginnings, almost moved here and wrote "Friends and Company" ~ "all I need is some inner peace" but it wasn't time. my New York sensibilities were too intact... or maybe I knew I'd be too happy here and again it wasn't time. I longed for it but there were things to do, lessons to be learned. I chose the little bit harder way, the road that takes a little longer, but the sites, oh what a sight! we kept moving and now we're all here, full circle, Queens to Nashville but we took the long way. what a road it's been.

    My dear ones, do what I say, not what I do, and don't be afraid to know what's good.

    Love,
    Melanie

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  44. Hey, how lovely to hear you here, Melanie..

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  45. That's interesting - so pre World War 1 nostalgia on British TV. There must be a connection here, between the British TV nostalgia for pre war (pre end of innocence) and the American TV nostalgia for the same (pre Vietnam war, the same kind of pre end of innocence thing). Although I hear you about it also being connected to the recession, as a kind of fantasy for the wealth that is disconnected from the stock market, etc (inherited wealth / land).

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  46. I suppose to make an over-simplistic link, politics has reverted to a kind of 19th century rule by a moneyed elite and a strand in popular culture is showing programmes that reinforce that.

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