Sweet Baby James (song)
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"Sweet Baby James" is a song written and recorded by James Taylor which serves as the opening and title track from his 1970 breakthrough album Sweet Baby James. Although never released as a single, it is one of his best-known and most popular tunes, considered a classic and arguably his signature song.
The song was written by Taylor for the son of his older brother Alex, who was also named James (and indeed was named after him). Deliberately a cross between a cowboy song and a lullaby, it was first thought up by Taylor as he was driving through Carolina to meet his infant nephew for the first time.
- Now the First of December was covered with snow
- And so was the Turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
- Lord, the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frostin'
- With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go
The song is composed as a waltz, in 3/4 time. The chorus echoes the lullaby sentiment, with a reference to "Rock-a-bye Baby".
Live performance history
"Sweet Baby James" has been played at virtually every Taylor concert since its release. It is often saved for near or at the end of shows, where it serves as the emotional climax with Taylor performing it as the last encore coming back on stage without his band, or perhaps with just a keyboard player accompanying his guitar.
Invariably, the second verse mentions of the Massachusetts Turnpike, Stockbridge, The Berkshires, and Boston bring cheers from people in the audience who lived in Massachusetts, once lived there, once went to college there, etc. And if the concert is in Tanglewood or Great Woods, the commotion is enough to pause the song. Taylor was born in Boston, and although he moved to North Carolina when very young, spent summers in Massachusetts and went to boarding school there. This association has made Taylor a regional favorite in New England, including sell-outs at Tanglewood and a record-setting concert stand at Great Woods. Taylor, who underwent treatment at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge in his younger years and later became a resident of the Berkshires, has spoken of the song's geographical reference points: "I really did drive the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston. I have a real connection to this place."
He performed the song as part of his set on episode 1 of Saturday Night Live's second season, which aired September 18, 1976.
A concert performance from 1992 was included on his 1993 album Live.
Jay Leno requested Taylor's live performance of the song on his final The Tonight Show (first stint) on May 29, 2009. He said he had listened to it on the car radio as he left Boston for Los Angeles in the early 1970s and that the "ten miles behind, ten thousand more to go" line resonated deeply with him.
Taylor performed the song when campaigning for Deval Patrick's re-election during the Massachusetts gubernatorial election, 2010, and the "Stockbridge to Boston" line drew a huge reaction in that context as well.
Tom Rush, who made a practice of recording material from the best new singer songwriters of the era, put it on his October 1970 album Wrong End of the Rainbow. The Seldom Scene added harmony on their bluegrass version, released on their debut album Act 1 in 1972. Highway 101 closed their 1989 album Paint the Town with it. Daniel Greaves of The Watchmen often performs it a cappella during concerts.
Many listeners have thought the song was about, or additionally about, Taylor himself — a "self lullaby" being a reasonable interpretation given the name and "singing works just fine for me" lyric — and so Taylor is often referred to in the press by the nickname "Sweet Baby James". On ABC's Good Morning America on September 15, 2008, Taylor acknowledged "there was that element" about the song.
This appellation has been used in other contexts as well. Celebrity chef James Martin has a BBC 2 show about desserts called Sweet Baby James, a 2005 episode of the Pokémon: Battle Frontier animated series is called "Sweet Baby James," and one of the producers of syndicated radio's The Sean Hannity Show is consistently referred to on-air as "Sweet Baby" James.
- Morse, Steve (August 23, 1992). "Sweet savvy James After 20 years, Taylor is still a New England favorite". The Boston Globe. p. 81.
- Taylor, James. "James Taylor talks about Sweet Baby James 2007". JamesTaylor.com. Retrieved April 10, 2012.
- Edgers, Geoff (August 19, 2009). "Sweet benefactor James". The Boston Globe.
- Berger, Joseph (August 24, 1999). "When the Face in the Crowd Is Grandmotherly". The New York Times.
- Smith, Andy (August 27, 1992). "Sweet Baby James finds constituency". The Providence Journal. p. E3.
- White, Timothy (2002). Long Ago and Far Away: James Taylor, His Life and Music. London: Omnibus Press. pp. 51, 68, 102, 103. ISBN 0-7119-9193-6.
- Poniewozik, James (May 30, 2009). "Leno to America: Goodbye! I'm Not Going Anywhere!". Time.
- Finucane, Martin (October 16, 2010). "Patrick finds he's got a friend in singer James Taylor". The Boston Globe.
- "Under the 'Covers' With James Taylor". Good Morning America (ABC). September 15, 2008.