James Taylor does a thing, and he does that thing very well. He has done that same thing very well for much of his entire career, and perhaps that is why he continues to fill outdoor concert venues every summer. Perhaps that is why his albums continue to sell tens of thousands of copies, more than 50 years after his debut. Perhaps that is why listeners often react to hearing particular James Taylor songs with a satisfied, slightly audible sigh and maybe even the hint of a tear.

“Sweet Baby James” is the lead track from his 1970 album of the same name. Taylor’s brother and his wife just had their first son, and they named him James. On his way down from Boston to North Carolina to meet his nephew for the first time, already having released his first album on The Beatles’ Apple Records just two years prior, Taylor began to think about the type of song his newborn nephew might like. A cowboy song? A lullaby?

“There is a young cowboy he lives on the range
His horse and his cattle are his only companions
He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons
Waiting for summer, his pastures to change”

Taylor imagined the song as he drove. Part waltz, part lullaby. He is singing about his nephew, but maybe he is also singing about himself. Imagining the romantic, adventurous life of a cowboy. Working on the range, sleeping under the stars. It sounds like he imagines this life for himself, and it sounds like he is also imagining for his nephew. Sweet baby James.

“And as the moon rises he sits by his fire
Thinking about women and glasses of beer
And closing his eyes as the doggies retire
He sings out a song which is soft but it’s clear
As if maybe someone could hear”

“Sweet Baby James” is part of a great tradition of lullabies in popular music. “Hey Jude” by The Beatles, Paul McCartney’s warm embrace of Julian Lennon during his parents’ divorce. The aptly named “Lullaby” by Billy Joel, written for his daughter Alexa. “Sweet Baby James” is gently, quietly sung with an acoustic guitar accompaniment, almost like we are sitting around the campfire, carried along by a descending bass line. A lonely steel guitar plays in the background. And we all sing along.

“Goodnight you moonlight ladies
Rock-a-bye sweet baby James
Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose
Won’t you let me go down in my dreams
And rock-a-bye sweet baby James”

Imagining himself around the campfire, with the moon above him and the cows milling about, Taylor comes back to reality. He is in his car, driving south to meet the newest member of his family. He is just out on the road with a long trip ahead.

“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 frosting
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go”

Maybe the life of a cowboy on the plains is not so different than the life so many of us know. We must all deal with our environment, whether that environment is a western prairie or a city highway. We all usually have some other place we are going, or some other place we would like to be. Our minds wander to think of the people we miss, the people we love. We all have a long journey ahead, either actual or symbolic.

The construct of “Sweet Baby James” is unique. The rhyming scheme is complicated, and after two verses, which takes place out west under the night sky, we find ourselves in Stockbridge, Boston and the Berkshires. And then the key of the song moves up a notch, and we find ourselves at the bridge.

“There’s a song that they sing when they take to the highway
A song that they sing when they take to the sea
A song that they sing of their home in the sky
Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to sleep
But singing works just fine for me”

I’m sure that being a cowboy in real life is difficult and dirty work, but (and with apologies to all real cow-people who struggle with their work because it is a job that pays their bills and that they may complain about and that they may wish for something different for themselves) it is also a romantic ideal. To be alone out on the range, sitting by the fire under a summer moon. Who, in their most idyllic imagination, would not want that? Who would not want to sleep under that gentle night sky?

Taylor is singing to his nephew, sending him a message that whatever his reality turns out to be, he should sleep well. He is telling young James that where every his life takes him, where ever his travels lead him, believe that the dream and the journey belongs to everyone of us. Let’s all sing along.

“Goodnight you moonlight ladies
Rock-a-bye sweet baby James
Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose
Won’t you let me go down in my dreams
And rock-a-bye sweet baby James.

“Sweet Baby James”
Written and Performed by James Taylor
Released February 1970

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s