By Tenee Santos
Los Angeles, California
Homesickness, different than its shinier cousin nostalgia, is a strange and unpleasant bodily sensation that resides somewhere between the heart and stomach. It spurs adverse physical reactions including anxiety attacks, loss of concentration, and trouble sleeping. If nostalgia is a sentimental feeling, then homesickness is a wrench in the gut, a material sickness brought on by longing for a certain place. It is your brain’s way of warning your body to return, quick, to that place, to stay there as long as you can.
While senses can spur nostalgic thoughts — the scents and flavors that linger deep in our memories — music has the power to trigger homesickness’s bodily attack. If public Spotify playlists are any measure, the affliction can be activated by a number of songs and artists in every musical genre. For some, it’s Nick Cave. For others, it’s Adele, or Jack Johnson, or an opera. For me, and likely for other North Carolinians, it’s singer-songwriter James Taylor’s simplistic tune “Carolina in My Mind,” a song I had despised throughout childhood and into adulthood.
Music has always held power over my body. The night of the 2016 election, when Donald Trump was declared the winner, I repeatedly (obsessively) listened to a YouTube video featuring a rendition of Henry Purcell’s “Cold Genius: What Power Art Thou,” a haunting solo from his opera, “King Arthur,” famous for its dramatic lyrics accompanied by vibratory strings. I listened into the night and throughout the following day, at work. While others wanted to discuss the implications of a Trump presidency, I sunk into my desk with my headphones, alternating between performances of the song — the electrifying cadence of the vocals, the screaming mean strings– including the mystical Klaus Nomi performance video. At peak volume, the deep voice began ringing in my eardrums over and over and over, the strings strangling me. For hours, I was unable to leave its grasp.
I have never seen “King Arthur” performed live. I do not have the slightest clue of how I discovered “Cold Genius” on YouTube. What I know is that the song struck me, physically knocked me down. Only by listening to it over a dozen or so times in a row at max volume did it allow me the power to walk away from it.
“Carolina in My Mind” is neither from a famous opera, nor a particularly clever song. Like the pine walls that surrounded my small-town life, hearing Taylor’s voice belt out, “Ain't it just like a friend of mine / That hit me from behind / Yes I’m goin’ to Carolina in my mind,” might as well have been a prison in my youth. It became the background song I didn’t choose for a life I didn’t choose.
I moved out of North Carolina as soon as I could, first landing in San Francisco, where I lived for a few years and worked odd jobs. I was a magazine intern for $24 a day, a bakery clerk at Whole Foods Market in Haight-Ashbury, a manager of a bacon-themed café, a personal assistant for an art consultant. During this time, I experienced small bouts of nostalgia followed by a physical reaction that usually manifested itself as a pang of hunger for Eastern Carolina barbecue.
I had never before cared for Eastern Carolina barbecue.
The words to Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” outlined my entire existence in San Francisco. The lyrics — “And I headed for the Frisco Bay / 'Cause I've got nothin' to live for / Looks like nothin's gonna come my way” — felt entirely too obvious to create any deep sense of homesickness within my body. Still, at one point in particular, while drinking a 40-ounce beer at the Pier, I did have a short cry under large sunglasses while listening to the song on repeat.
It seems that Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind” is not as popular in San Francisco or Los Angeles, where I live now. I lived in California for a number of years before ever hearing the song. I heard it one day while in the backseat of an Uber weaving through the Castro District, and it felt like a jolt to the system. It played on an easy listening radio station. Unlike the “Cold Genius” vocals that gave me permission to sit with my emotions, or the Otis Redding lyrics that led me into existential despair (I often think about the plane crash that ended his life), hearing “Carolina” in a confined space, where I couldn’t change the radio station, conjured up an altogether different biological process.
First came recognition from some unconscious borough of my mind, which triggered a humming noise from my throat. This was my mistake, letting the tune seep into my skull, into my organs and my central nervous system. Next, I smelled the clean pine of my youth, the smell that suffocated me while riding bikes in manicured neighborhoods in the Coastal Plains and spending sunny afternoons reading library books on front porches.
That sensation then led into a visual sensory: Faces flash before my eyes. My mother, my grandmother, my sister, my family, my friends. I grew sick, in that place between my heart and stomach, somewhere deep in the back of my lungs. My San Francisco roommate would later describe this deep place as my Solar Plexus chakra, the supposed core of my identity. A song I had always assumed was completely lifeless, without grit or heart, was alive inside of me. It was in there, deep, wreaking havoc on my psyche.
Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described anxiety as the dizziness of freedom. For me, freedom has always been a double-edged sword. Those who are free to do as they wish are often disconnected from reality. In my eyes, growing up with a single mother who could have very well exercised her freedom to leave (as my father did), freedom was an offense to morality. Here I was, choosing not to bear children, or marry my boyfriend, or stay in my small North Carolina town. I was right where I wished to be, in the backseat of a car in the Castro, and I was dizzy.
James Taylor began writing “Carolina in My Mind” when he was in London. He finished the song in Spain, on the island of Ibiza, where he was on a jaunt with a girl after being signed by the Beatles’ label, Apple Records. It was released as part of his self-titled first studio album in 1968. “Carolina” was written months after Taylor became addicted to heroin while living in an apartment as an 18-year-old in New York City. He also struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts as a youth. These likely influenced his more somber songs, including “Fire & Rain,” released on his second album Sweet Baby James, which includes the lyrics “I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend / But I always thought that I'd see you again”.
“Carolina” was Taylor’s first single but never a hit. For a myriad of reasons, the song is thoroughly Carolinian. The song is sung in Taylor’s natural accent, sometimes described as a combination of New England and Carolina Piedmont, which makes sense given Taylor’s Massachusetts roots and his childhood in Chapel Hill, where his family moved when he was only 3 years old. It features twangy acoustic guitar (with Paul McCartney on bass and an uncredited George Harrison on backing vocals) and lyrics about moonshine. Taylor admits he was “homesick” when he wrote it and even talks about the song’s physical reaction, “I can always count on a goose pimple or two when I sing it.”
Many songs about the South — a region that claims many of the country’s most prolific songwriters including my favorite icon, Dolly Parton — remain popular around the globe. In particular, there are many popular songs about the Carolinas. As anyone who attended high school in North Carolina and was forced to learn to shag dance in the gymnasium before prom can tell you, there are at least a dozen. “Carolina Girls,” by General Johnson & the Chairmen of the Board is still massively popular. It plays on the radio each time I take a ride to the Atlantic coast.
One homesick night, while hanging out with a group of Irishmen at a pub in San Francisco’s Richmond district, I mentioned I was from North Carolina, which prompted the men to start singing, “Headed down south to the land of the pines / And I'm thumbin' my way into North Caroline” from the song “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show. The group, in thick Irish accents, began singing in unison. One of them ran to the jukebox and for whatever reason, the song was there. They played it and the entire bar, a bar popular with San Francisco locals, sang along to the lyrics “And if I die in Raleigh, at least I will die free.”
Today, I have less anxiety. My new home Los Angeles is where my partner lives. We are nestled among friends and neighbors in our quiet Los Feliz neighborhood. Visiting North Carolina is a bittersweet experience for me (bittersweet is in the very definition of nostalgia). Everyone is older, favorite diners close, new ones open. It was another North Carolinian who popularized the expression “you can’t go home again.” Famed writer Thomas Wolfe wrote in his novel of the same title, “You can't go back to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame … back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
Ironically, his childhood home still stands in downtown Asheville.
Although I love my home in Los Angeles, there’s a chance I’ll be moving to France next year. I like to think about the songs that will trigger thoughts of the friends and neighbors, the memories of great Thai food and the beach bike rides I’ll leave behind in Los Angeles. Since the homesickness has receded, I listen to James Taylor sparingly and still find “Carolina in My Mind” to be a bit cheesy. I opt instead to listen to my now-favorite Taylor song, “Handyman,” an overtly sexy cover of a tune by the Alabama-born R&B legend Jimmy Jones. Jones died in 2012 at his home in Aberdeen, North Carolina. At least we know he died free.