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.


Paris Nights/New York Mornings

The juxtaposition of places has been a common literary device – A Tale of Two Cities, Down and Out in Paris and London, From Larkrise to Candleford. Sometimes it is for comparison, sometimes for contrast, sometimes to emphasise a distance . The same technique is seen in songs –seen already in a previous column  with  Kalamazoo to Timbuktu , from one unlikely sounding place to another. Actually it is perhaps more commonly seen by contrasting two different parts of the same town,  usually to inject a bit of social drama into a relationship  Hence,  Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl (‘looking for a downtown guy’)or Randy Edelman’s  Uptown Uptempo Woman, ('downtown, downbeat guy'). Or the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls (‘and East End boys’). It usually seems to be this way round in pop mythology – downtown guy/posh woman. That notion even turns up in musical dreams, as in Mungo Jerry’s Baby Jump –“I dreamt that you were Lady Chatterley and I was the gamekeeper”

However, on occasion the listener can gain a whole new perspective on a place when it is taken out of its usual context and juxtaposed with somewhere else. A good  example here is New York’s Greenwich Village. The district is steeped in artistic and musical history of a specific time period, to the extent that you can feel you are walking round a living museum . I am not sure that there is an equivalent area in London – the best comparison might be Liverpool, where you can still do tours round the Cavern and other high-spots from the early 60’s and hear anecdotes about what Tony Jackson said to Chris Curtis outside the Iron Door club in 1963. Likewise, you could take, as I did recently, a Rock Junket tour round Greenwich Village and find out where Rambling Jack Elliott stayed  (Room 312 in the Washington Square Hotel) or where John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful rehearsed and played (The Nite Owl Club, now  Bleecker Bob's record shop). Far be it  from me to sound like a  train-spotter -  but the photo below shows the same manhole cover that Fred Neil is standing by on the cover of his 1965 album, Bleecker  and MacDougal.

Many of the songs about Greenwich Village come from the same era as its musical heyday. Apart from Fred Neil’s album just mentioned – one of the first electric folk rock offerings – there is, of course, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bleecker Street off the Wednesday Morning 3am album, though written earlier by Paul Simon: in the Sound of Silence mood, it remains evocative of a particular time and place. The same street turned up years later and wrapped in mythology in the Waterboys’  Bleecker Street-   “Life is sexy, life is sweet, in Manhattan's ninety-six degree heat, Just pounding tar to my favourite beat, My down home one and only Bleecker Street “.  Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood did a rather belated (1969) sneer at the Village  scene in their Greenwich Village Folk Song Salesman song.

It is easy, then, to look at Greenwich Village solely in its own context and history and to walk round it as if you were in two time dimensions at once. The photo above is the same view near the corner of Jones Street and  West 4th Street  as on the cover of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan album,  except Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo aren’t  walking along. The song here, however – Paris Nights and New York Mornings by Corinne Bailey Rae from 2010 -  takes Greenwich Village out of its customary place and time and deposits it in contemporary Paris. This works on two levels. Lyrically, the song,  about 2 lovers meeting in two cities, switches between Bleecker Street and Paris to emphasise the similarities of the bohemian history, the  cafes and boutiques  and the same feel in walking the streets. At the end of the song video posted below, she gets into a New York cab on a Paris boulevard.

However, Corinne Bailey Rae’s own vocal style helps too. She is capable of creating the same kind of sunny, laid back, retro feel you can get from Sarah Cracknell and St Etienne, the sound of an open -  top sports car driving past a corn field on a summer afternoon. (She is showcased better, I feel, in a smaller setting rather than a large venue and the second link given below gives an alternate version of a style she excels at.) Musically, it is a sound – from a British singer from Leeds - that somehow provides a neat link between the two places.

Sometimes, you can get a feel of a place by looking at the past, for a place’s history can define it. Sometimes, however, you can see what is close at hand by turning in a different direction. When I first went to Greenwich Village it immediately struck me that it seemed more like Europe than New York in some ways - maybe Bloomsbury  in London but certainly Paris. So as you walk round there you can look backwards and see and hear the ghosts of the past – Phil Ochs playing at the Bitter End or Jimi Hendrix at the Electric Lady Studios.  Or you can look sideways and get a glimpse of Paris past or present. In fact, you don’t have to look very far – the start of the Rock Junket tour I went on commenced at Washington Square Arch, itself modelled after the Arc de Triomphe. The past is a foreign country in more ways than one, perhaps.


Wall Street Shuffle

One of the themes of this blog has been the associations that people bring with them in their notions of a particular place.  Some places, of course, have such a strong and automatic association already that it is almost impossible to get past that initial mental link. This is something more specific than thinking of Paris and springtime or London and fog: it’s where there is not much of the place in question left if the associated image was to be removed. Any song about the Los Angeles district called Hollywood, for example, is almost certainly going to be about bright lights, the quest for stardom, and possibly the world and people being left behind. New York’s Broadway is much longer than the theatre stretch but the rest of it is unlikely to linger long in the mind. Up until the 1980’s songs about London’s Soho were more  likely to reflect its seedy image of strip clubs, clip joints selling fake champagne at extortionate prices and prostitution rather than the Italian restaurants and churches there -  Al Stewart’s Old Compton Street or the Kinks’ Lola: “I met her in a club down in old Soho where they drink champagne that tastes just like cherry cola”

One such place is New York’s Wall Street, the name of a street that has also become something generic to signify the USA financial sector – Corporate America - in much the same way that the City has come to mean the UK’s financial sector as well as a geographical square mile of London. The image of Wall Street as something more than just a street in Manhattan goes back a long way in popular culture and was cemented by the 1987 film Wall Street and the ‘greed is good’ mantra. A  figure of speech to contrast with the equally symbolic ‘Main Street’.

The relationship of pop music and what Wall Street or the City signify has always been a rather ambiguous one. From the music industry’s point of view there has never been a problem in marketing rebellion - ‘The Revolution is on CBS’  was a shameless marketing campaign in the late 60’s, for example -  and the careers of artists such as the Stones and Alice Cooper have shown the compatibility of an image of anti-authority coupled with an astute accumulation of wealth. In the early days of pop, any notion of finance capitalism  hardly figured at all in songs, other than the occasional appearance of a Man in a Bowler Hat  from the City as a pompous figure of fun, as in Bernard Cribbins’ Hole in the Ground. (There is also an odd short British film from 1964 called The Peaches, in which the central character –an early Swinging London  free spirit who lived on peaches, played by Juliet Harmer of Adam Adamant fame  - is chased into the Thames by a phalanx of City gents in bowler hats). In fact, one of the first pop songs to explore the relationship of pop and capitalism was not a critique at all but the George Harrison-penned Taxman on the  Beatles' Revolver album, a whinge about paying too much tax under a Labour Government.

You can, however, see a shift over the years, also seen in records about Wall Street. Herb Alpert’s  innocuous Wall Street Rag from 1966   became McCarthy’s Tomorrow The Stock Exchange Will Be The Human Race from 1990  - “Arise the wealthy of the earth, arise you worthy men, our sun will rise when we have got the masses on the run” -  or Procol Harum’s Wall Street Blues from 2003  - “They said the market could never go down, they took your savings and then left town”.

The song here, however, Wall Street Shuffle by 10cc,is a prophetic one from decades ago,  a UK hit in 1974. 10cc came with a musical pedigree. Eric Stewart had been main man of Manchester’s The Mindbenders, achieving success first with Wayne Fontana in the early  years of the British beat boom and then on their own with hits such as Groovy Kind of Love. Graham Gouldman had written hits for the Yardbirds, Hollies and Herman’s Hermits. They were also one of those 70’s groups, like Roxy Music or Sparks, whose lyrics sometimes led listeners to think  ‘Too clever for their own good’.  A typical example was their 1975 hit, Life Is A Minestrone (“served up with parmesan cheese. Death is a cold lasagne, suspended in deep freeze”).

There is perhaps too much detachment in Wall Street Shuffle to make it a rallying cry for today but some of its lines still resonate down the years: “Let your money hustle.
Bet you'd sell your mother, you can buy another”. The last column was on St Pauls' Cathedral, current  site for Occupy London -  the New York counterpart is in Zuccotti Park in the Wall Street district. A few years ago, visiting Wall Street might have meant looking up at the glass and steel of the office skyscrapers whilst a picture of Michael Douglas playing Gordon Gekko floated involuntarily into your mind. Earlier this week, on a short visit to New York,  I stood in Zuccotti Park and looked across the sea of polythene tents there, the banners and anarchist flags ,at the drummers keeping up a background sound of rhythm, the mix of ages from children to grandmothers knitting.  Somehow the people dwarfed the buildings this time.