“In my mind, I’m gone to Carolina.” For decades, these words and a poignant acoustic riff have been making folks misty-eyed, especially those with Carolina connections of their own. This month, James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind” turns fifty. A love letter to the songwriter’s Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home, the quietly affecting tune still evokes a longing any displaced Southerner knows well.
Born in Boston, Taylor lived in Chapel Hill from the age of three, when his father became dean of the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine. The singer remembers his early surroundings almost as vignettes: “Chapel Hill, the Piedmont, the outlying hills, were tranquil, rural, beautiful, but quiet,” he told biographer Timothy White for 2001’s Long Ago and Far Away. “Thinking of the red soil, the seasons, the way things smelled down there, I feel as though my experience of coming of age was more a matter of landscape and climate than people.”
Taylor was an ocean away from the Piedmont when he wrote “Carolina.” It was 1968, and the twenty-year-old artist was recording his first album in London. He recounted the story to entertainment reporter Leeza Gibbons in 1992: “I took a break from recording and went to an island off the coast of Spain. I met a girl there named Karin, and she and I took a boat to Ibiza. We missed the last boat back and didn’t have money for a room, so we stayed in the street that night.” As Karin (whose name might ring a bell—she appears in the song’s second verse) slept, Taylor laid awake, his mind wandering to Chapel Hill. “I was thinking about my home in North Carolina and what it meant, and the song just sort of came down out of the air.”
After the trip, Taylor returned to London’s Trident Studios, where the Beatles were also recording The White Album (Taylor’s eponymous first album was released under their label, Apple Records). Even there, on the cusp of unimaginable success, his homesickness lingered. As he told Rolling Stone in 2015, “I realized how lucky I was to be listening to the Beatles playbacks and watching their process in the studio, but at the same time that I was surrounded by this holy host of my absolute idols, I missed my home.” “Carolina” was recorded with a little help from his friends—Paul McCartney is credited on bass, and George Harrison can reportedly be heard in the chorus of back-up vocals. The song appeared on Taylor’s 1968 debut and was re-released as a single the following March.
In 2006, Taylor made a rare visit home to receive UNC’s Lifetime Achievement Award, where he performed “Carolina” with the North Carolina Symphony. “James Taylor is a favorite son of Chapel Hill,” says Dr. James Moeser, the Chancellor Emeritus who presented Taylor with the honor. “The song is second to the alma mater around here in terms of our affection for it. It captures the love people have for this place.” Taylor echoed these thoughts in his acceptance. “It’s strange but somehow compelling to come home and sing it,” he said. “It draws a line through my own personal history and connects me again to a place that I go to in my dreams, a landscape that will forever be a part of me.”
After fifty years, perhaps this is why the song feels so personal to those who hear it. Carolinian or not, it reminds us of where we started, and something all Southerners share: the ever-persistent tug on our hearts toward home.