This week’s Free Ride* muses on the lyrics of James Taylor, who turns 63 today. Hard to believe! There are three James Taylor songs that speak of freedom in very different ways; they are on a spectrum of sorts. On the extreme ends of the spectrum are Sleep Come Free Me and Shed a Little Light – representing on the one end the horrific side of life and on the other end the heroic. Sleep Come Free Me, a song my college roommate loved to play, narrates the despair of a convicted murderer on Alabama’s death row. The lyrics speak of one who can only hope for the freedom that sleep might bring him.
Well, I’ve been lying in this dungeon since I was eighteen
Ten lonely years of my life taken
I’ve been living in the pages of a magazine
It breaks my heart to awaken
Set me free, Sleep come free me, Set me free
. . .The only way out is through sleeping
While the young James Taylor who wrote this song had not been on death row, there is a depth of genuine angst in his voice that tells me he probably was writing out of his own experience. He did spend time in a dungeon of sorts, having been committed to a mental institution where he received treatment for depression and heroin addiction.
An older, sober James Taylor wrote Shed a Little Light, to be certain a “lighter” song that narrates the idealistic hopes of Martin Luther King. As if in conversation with the other song, he sings, There is a passage through the darkness and the mist, and though the body sleeps the heart will never rest. This later song reflects the somewhat ironic understanding that authentic freedom is binding, tying us together in the quest for a better world:
Recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women living on the earth
Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together
In our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children
Can grow free and strong
Between the hopeless despair and the defiant hopes of these two songs lies a third JT jewel – Country Road. This song speaks to the young Taylor’s experience growing up in the sparsely populated Carboro-Chapel Hill area of the 1950s. In an interview before his induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he said, I tell my kids that we were pre-TV and there was a lot of empty time there, slow weekends when you just walked into the woods and found whatever you could to kill time. There was this long, uninterrupted time to let your imagination grow. I believe that was an important part of whatever creative life I’ve had.
James Taylor is one of those rare people who has real life experiences at the extremes of the spectrum – battling the demons of heroin addiction as well as working for the common good in the company of Presidents. I imagine that most people, like me, don’t have quite as much access to those extremes, but live our lives in the middle. I guess that’s why I resonate so much with the freedom expressed in Country Road. It’s accessible. Every day I take my dog, Charlene Darlin’, on a mile or so walk down an old logging road through the woods near my house. This country road walk is a spiritual practice, and sometimes I have the standard James Taylor D chord hammer-on running through my head as I live out the lyrics.
Sail on home to Jesus won’t you good girls and boys
I’m all in pieces, you can have your own choice
But I can hear a heavenly band full of angels
And they’re coming to set me free
I don’t know nothing ’bout the why or when
But I can tell that it’s bound to be
Because I could feel it, child, yeah
On a country road
Walking through the woods with Charlene Darlin’ is my daily way of sailing home to Jesus. I have the birds for an angel band, whistling me to freedom. I guess my feet know where they want me to go.
*Free Ride is a Saturday blog from Stan Dotson that takes a different artist or song each week and muses on lyrics of freedom. You can click on the live links in the post to hear the music referenced in the blog. If you have a favorite “freedom” song (it could be any song that has the word free or freedom in it), feel free to suggest it in the comment box below. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.