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Jackson: Taylor's life became subject of his songs

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Douglas Jackson, an associate professor of music at Elizabeth City State University, discusses the music of singer-songwriter James Taylor during a History for Lunch program at Museum of the Albemarle, Wednesday.

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Saturday, May 4, 2019

James Taylor’s famously introspective lyrics have been partly a way of coping with the severe depression that has plagued the singer-songwriter for most of his life, a local musician and music historian told an audience at Museum of the Albemarle on Wednesday.

Douglas Jackson, a professor of music at Elizabeth City State University, presented a History for Lunch talk on the legendary folk-rock artist who grew up in North Carolina. Jackson said he chose Taylor as a topic both because he’s a fan of his music and because of the North Carolina connection.

“Taylor became a troubadour whose life was the subject of his songs,” Jackson said.

Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” album was a “seminal” recording in that it influenced later recordings in profound ways, Jackson said. The singer’s music is marked by “pure usages” of the musical elements of rhythm, melody and harmony, he said.

Influences on Taylor’s music included Appalachian folk music and early soul music, according to Jackson.

But much of Taylor’s appeal can be traced to his lyric genius, Jackson said. Taylor was a baby boomer who wrote songs that marked major life passages for his fellow baby boomers, he said.

Underlying the lyrics of many of Taylor’s well-known plaintive ballads, which Jackson compared to the biblical Psalms of lament, was an effort to convey and cope with the pain of his severe depression.

Jackson quoted a passage written by Taylor himself in which the singer says he “fell apart” in the aftermath of the breakup of his family of origin.

Taylor was born in 1948 in Boston but moved to Chapel Hill in 1951. Jackson noted that “I Love Lucy” debuted on television in 1951 and the first direct-dial coast-to-coast telephone call was placed in November of that year.

Dr. Isaac Montrose Taylor, who was James Taylor’s father, was a physician and professor of medicine who became dean of the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1964. Jackson noted that 1964 was also a pivotal year in federal civil rights legislation and said that Taylor was influenced by his interaction with major events of his youth and young adulthood such as civil rights and the Vietnam War.

Taylor was basically a self-taught musician who Jackson described as “a musical genius.”

Jackson said Taylor was like many other renowned musicians who have suffered from depression and other forms of mental illness, including rock musicians Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, and classical composers Hector Berlioz and Modest Mussorgsky.

After playing a recording of Taylor’s “Walking Man,” Jackson said the lyrics that speak of “moving in silent desperation” in search of a “hypothetical destination” reflect Taylor’s experience — described in some of his writings and comments in interviews — of often feeling lost to the point of becoming wracked with fear.

Jackson also cited “Fire and Rain” from the “Sweet Baby James” album as an example of Taylor’s deeply personal lyrics.

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