Sweet Baby James – Why is that song so damn good?

I heard James Taylor sing Sweet Baby James in a concert last week. He’s probably sung it ten thousand times, and the audience must have heard it that many times, but it didn’t sound old or tired or boring. So I thought I’d take a close look at the lyrics and melody to see what he did, in hopes of imitating some little part of it. I don’t know if he consciously thought about all this when he wrote the song — genius isn’t always explicit — but I think its helpful to find by analysis what genius may have found by instinct.

Well, 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
Just waiting for Summer, his pastures to change

That’s a hell of a first four lines from every possible technical angle. Start with the melody, which is in the form ABBC. Not common, but it fits perfectly with the ABBA rhyme scheme. The middle lines have an internal rhyme (cattle saddle) and end with a two syllable rhyme which is rare enough to be striking all by itself.

Then there’s the content. All pictures, all present tense, until the last line, when we learn something about this cowboy – he’s waiting for a change.  That waiting pulls the whole song along because there is an expectancy in the middle of an otherwise static picture

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

The second half of the first verse is similarly tightly knit. The melody is new, giving an unusual 32 bars of distinctive melodic ideas instead of the usual 16. This time the rhyme scheme is ABABB, with the melody following ABABC. The first and third lines are tied by an internal rhyme (rises, eyes), and the fourth line has a repeated “s” sound that emphasizes the softness of the song. Whether Taylor was conscious of it or not, the hard “k” of clear provides exactly the soft hard contrast between soft song and clear. Another unifying element is the phrase in the first two bars of the first four lines, all of which are the same.  Finally, Taylor ties it all together by having the last melodic phrase of the two halves of the verse be identical – “his pastures to changes” and “someone could hear”

There’s an interesting melodic difference between the first two halves related to the range of the melody. In the first verse the melody has lots of leaps (moving up more than one step) and has a range of a major 7th.  The 2nd half of the verse has many more repeated notes and a smaller range of notes.  This provides a little relief to the range of the first half.

Content in these lines follows the pattern of the first half of the verse – pictures followed by a line with some tension “as if maybe someone could hear.” Who could hear? or better, who is he thinking of?  And while the first half of the verse was purely external, now we’ve moved into his thoughts.

Which, by the way, shouldn’t make us overlook the genius of lines like “thinking about women and bottles of beer” that perfectly reflect what we’d expect of a young man alone on the prairie. And “dogies retire” which is an astonishing way of saying cattle go to sleep.  At the end of the first verse we’ve got a clear picture of the scene, an understanding of the young man in it, and a reason — he’s waiting and he’s singing to someone not there — to want to hear more.

In short, there’s a lot going on in these 32 bars, and it isn’t just wandering around — instead there is a clear movement of from external to internal, some dramatic tension at the end of each half of the verse, and numerous unifying melodic elements. Now the chorus:

Goodnight you moonlight ladies
Rockabye sweet baby James
Deep greens and blues are the colours I choose
Won’t you let me go down in my dreams
And rockabye sweet baby James

The meaning of the chorus is not precisely obvious.  The cowboy is doing the singing, the moonlight ladies are his audience, and he wants them to rockabye sweet baby James. Maybe “go down in my dreams” means go down to see sweet baby James, but why he’s choosing colors isn’t clear to me, except that the whole song has an overlying melancholy that is supported by “deep greens and blues.”   The end of line rhymes aren’t as hard as those in the verse – “ladies” has no rhyme, while James and dreams are not all that close. Instead Taylor ties things together with internal rhymes (goodnight / moonlight, blues / choose) the repeated “rockabye sweet baby James,” and the repeated melody in lines 2 and 3.

But that’s not all, as they say in the infomercials. “his pastures to change” “as if maybe someone could hear” and “let me go down in my dreams” all have the same melody, tying the chorus to both halves of the verse, except in the chorus the melody is the penultimate line, not the last line.

I have a theory that great songs all take a left turn at the 2nd verse. They really have to in order to keep our interest — if the song is too linear it is predictable.  So,  just when we think we know what this song is about – a cowboy singing a song – Taylor moves us from the open range to the suburban hills of the northeast. It doesn’t take long to realize now we are hearing about the singer himself, not the third party cowboy.

Now the first of December was covered with snow
And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
Though the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go

Just as in the first half of the first verse, the first three lines are pictures while the last line shows us movement. And although it isn’t explicit, there’s a link to the first verse. The cowboy was waiting for summer to change pastures – move on — while the singer has just begun a journey – perhaps the journey the cowboy was waiting to start. While we’re looking, notice the concrete details – the first of December, not the middle of winter, two specific towns, specific mountains, but poetry as well, “frosting” for snow, just as we had “retired” for going to sleep. This is poetry with a delicate touch – it doesn’t leap and out scream “I’m a poet and these are profound and interesting metaphors.” Instead they appear here and there in the midst of ordinary language.

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

The second half of the 2nd verse has repeated lyric phrases to parallel the repeated melodic elements.  We’re also learning that this is a song about songs, and in particular the power of a song to replace religious faith. We might have guessed it, but the very last line of the second verse tell us explicitly for the very first time that we’re learning about the singer and his views of the world.

There’s something else interesting going on here. The first half of the verse is the singer’s reflection about the world – he’s telling us what he sees. The second half is addressed to someone – “you” – and it is about someone else – “they.” It is unclear enough to be interesting, although the “you” seems to be “sweet baby James,” the child being rocked to sleep in the chorus.

Now step back and look at the whole song. Verse 1, a cowboy in a static scene, watching a fire, waiting and singing to himself, or to an imaginary audience of “moonlight ladies.” Verse 2, the singer who is already on the road and on the move, thinking about songs and singing to an ambiguous “you” that seems much more like us, the audience.  In fact, it seems like maybe we are the “moonlight ladies.” It’s not a story song, and if it is a character study it sure goes about its business indirectly. You could say it’s a song about singing, but only in a very oblique fashion. Same with saying it’s a road song. Nonetheless, there isn’t a moment in the song when we think we’re done and know all there is to know, including at the end, which leaves unanswered questions. At the same time, we do know something about the singer, his ambiguous feelings about the trip he is taking (he’s clearly leaving someplace beautiful for someplace unknown), and finally his faith in just one thing – a song.  It moves from exterior to interior and back again, and although it exists in just two moments – the moment at the campfire and the moment of the singer’s thoughts — it is full of possibilities for the future.  I’m not sure which of these many things make it a great song — maybe it takes all of them — but imitating any part is bound to make a song better.

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