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30 Days of Songs: Day 6

May 28, 2011

day 06 – a song that reminds you of somewhere:; James Taylor: “Sweet Baby James” (Route 90 from Northampton to Boston)

In Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, Kate comes out of a movie she has seen with Binx that takes place in New Orleans, where they are. Kate looks around the street and says, “Yes, it is certified now.” Binx explains:

She refers to a phenomenon of moviegoing which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, a a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

[Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Vintage, 1989 (1960): 63]

I’m not sure I agree with Percy (and Binx) exactly, but there is something compelling about seeing places you know on film. And I think it’s the same kind of attraction that makes me want to hear songs that mention places I know, especially when I am listening to them in those very places. Which is probably why whenever I’d make the 90 minute drive on the Mass Pike from Northampton to Boston, which I did frequently in my last year of college and, in reverse, in the first year afterwards, I’d pop a James Taylor cassette into my dashboard.

Now the first of December was covered with snow
And so was the Turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston.
Lord, the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frostin’,
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go.

I love the landscape of western Massachusetts fiercely. When I left, I felt physical pain from my separation. And I fight back tears whenever I return, following the river up Rte. 91 from the Turnpike. I love those hills, those old mountains. I love the trees, the buildings and love every river. There is no place more beautiful to me than the Berkshires in October.

Whenever I listen to “Sweet Baby James,” I’m always a little surprised by the first verse, the cowboy verse. Because to me, it is a song about my love of western Massachusetts. No matter how many times I listen to this song, I forget that the song begins elsewhere.

I drove to Stockbridge once. It was a mistake. I hadn’t had my car very long and, with a carload of friends, I got pointed the wrong way on the turnpike. Once you pass the closest entrance for Northampton going west, there are no exits for a long while (or at least there weren’t then), so you might as well change your plans and go somewhere else, or you’ll have wasted over an hour just turning around. So that day, we went to Stockbridge. Because of James Taylor and a mistake. On the way home, we sang along with the entire album. And when we ran out of songs, we flipped the tape over (Do you remember flipping them over?) and started again.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2011 9:07 am

    I deeply and with the kind of ache you mention miss the mountains of Berkshire County. “James” has always struck me as a song so personal-sounding that I’m surprised Taylor opted to record it.

  2. May 28, 2011 1:48 pm

    Similarly, I was driving around western Mass with N, looking at colleges, with “The snow is falling down, on this New England town, and it’s been falling all day long” playing on a cd. I love New England, too. And, I remember going back to Providence once with K, and from the moment we drove in to town until the moment we drove out the radio played a number of songs — mostly Talking Heads songs, actually — from our time there. It’s not only a “somewhere” nostalgia, but a “some time” nostalgia. There are certain tapes we had — Robyn Hitchcock — that remind me of driving the kids to school, since we listened to them every day. And certain songs were always on the radio and remind me of a certain hill going up to the elementary school. Afternoon Delight reminds me of middleschool, and lying on my bed doing my homework with the radio on. And bad bad leroy brown — neither are songs that I really like.

  3. May 28, 2011 1:57 pm

    The Moviegoer was one of the first really adult, modern books that I read outside of school, besides other books by authors we were reading or things from my parents’ library — the first sort of current modern book. I liked it a lot, and I liked the idea of reading a book not assigned and part of modern conversation. I was in college, and then I ran into a classmate who asked me about it. I think he borrowed my copy and read it and confessed that he hadn’t seen what was so great about it. I didn’t know how to answer him — I did not know how to have a conversation about a book outside of school. Also, he was a fairly intimidating personality. I was struck dumb, and decided to figure out how to talk about books outside of school. And to become more confident. I think it may have been a piece of that year when we lived in that house . . .

  4. freshhell permalink
    May 28, 2011 2:47 pm

    I reread that book not too long ago and actually didn’t like it as much as I had the first time. Like you, I’m not sure I agree with many of the character’s thoughts.

    I’ve never been to Massachusetts before but I’ve been to Vermont. To visit a friend who moved up there in high school. That summer, we listened to a lot of Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe and the dbs. Whenever I hear certain songs by them, I remember that week in Vermont.

  5. May 28, 2011 3:22 pm

    I love Fountains of Wayne, Readersguide, and I can see how that would work as well, although isn’t that line from “If you Ever Go Back to Hackensack?” Not sure it’s Hackensack I want to be remembering. And that’s a lovely post on tapes. The Moviegoer is Mr. Spy’s favorite book. He rereads it every year during Lent, when it takes place. It seems right, given the idea of certification. He mentioned it to me on our very first (blind) date and I read it before we went out again. I’ve read it several times since and I find it thought provoking and engaging, but also a bit alienatingly male. The dbs! We have them on LP. I may have to listen later.

  6. May 28, 2011 9:42 pm

    No! It’s Valley Winter Song! (the Hackensack song is also good, but a different song.) This one — the snow is coming, not falling down – has a reference to “meet me at the Bay State,” which I think may be a bar in Northhampton. But in any case, it places the song in Massachusetts, don’t you think? New Jersey is really not part of New England — I’ll have to read the Moviegoer again, and I may not like it — that seems to happen more and more — but I did like it. But I can’t remember why.

  7. May 28, 2011 10:11 pm

    Oh, that’s right. They’ve both got similar grooves. I’m not sure if the Baystate is still there, but there definitely was a place called the Baystate. I have never been there. It may have opened after I left, I’m not sure. And it’s true about New Jersey, although there are pockets that are New Englandesque. The Hackensack song has some good rhymes. “I saw you talkin’ to Christopher Walken” may be one of my favorite lyric rhymes ever.

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