Before Sinatra crooned about New York, before Lynyrd Skynyrd picked a tune about ’Bama, and long before Katy Perry celebrated Californians with whipped cream and confetti, Broadway’s famous lyricist Gus Kahn wrote a little ditty about Carolina. Originally released in 1922’s The Passing Show, “Carolina in the Morning,” with sweetly sentimentalized odes to the states’ dewy daybreaks and enchanting lady-folk, captured the hearts and minds of Americans. Famous vocalists re-introduced the song throughout the century, including such celebrities as Dean Martin, Judy Garland, and even Daffy Duck. As they’ve all attested, “nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning.” It’s a sentiment that has touched the hearts of dozens of songwriters and millions of Americans, all captured in a massive library of tunes about the states of Caroline.
From country to pop, folk to rap, artists have been caroling about Carolina for decades, using every medium and genre at their fingertips to express their love for the Tar-heel and Palmetto States. There’s something uniquely captivating about Carolina, both North and South, something that reaches out to the hearts and souls of artists and begs to be reimagined in the form of song.
One of the most famous of these songs is James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind.” Taylor, trapped in the metropolis of London while recording his first album with the Beatles label, wrote the song while dreamily harkening back to his home-place. Though initial reception of the song was lukewarm, Taylor’s work has since become the unofficial anthem of his native North Carolina and her signature university, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Any native Carolinian, especially one who’s ventured away from the verdant fields and red clay of home, understands the visions of Taylor and can recite those opening lyrics with unabashed feeling: “In my mind I’m going to Carolina. Can’t you see the sunshine, can’t you just feel the moonshine?”
Another Carolinian carol popularized by college pep rallies, with lyrics emblazoned across t-shirts and tooshes, is General Johnson & Chairman of the Board’s bubble-gum poppy “Carolina Girls.” Like Taylors’ “Carolina in My Mind,” “Carolina Girls” was never a chart-topper, but the addictive lyrics and whistleable tune whittled its way into the Carolinian conscious. With such laudatory lyrics as “Carolina Girls, sweet Southern pearls/You’re sure enough tough girl, I can’t get enough of sweet Carolina girls,” as well as a proclamation of Carolina girls’ position at the top of the female hierarchy, it’s really no wonder that those Southern ladies adopted the song as their own proud anthem.
Like James Taylor, many native Carolinians don’t truly appreciate their Southern home until they’ve left it. Such is the case of notoriously touchy songwriter Ryan Adams. Though the misanthrope long refused to perform within the structured boundaries of his home state, North Carolina, his touching tribute to the region is as tear-jerking a ballad as any other. Absent of glitz or pizzazz, “Oh My Sweet Carolina” is a heart-wrenching and heartfelt homage to North Carolina and the agony of homesickness.
Though Adams, and many Carolinians, may have lacked a utopian, Hollywood-esque upbringing, their bones and souls are still washed in the muddy river waters of home. Though they may leave in search of some “better life,” Carolina is the place that calls them home: “Well I went down to Houston and I stopped in San Antone/I passed up the station for the bus/Was trying to find me something but I wasn’t sure just what/I ended up with pockets full of dust./Oh my sweet Carolina/What compels me to go?/Oh my sweet disposition/May you one day carry me home.”
Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” is another epistle on the long journey home to Carolina. Deriving its chorus from a Bob Dylan sketch, “Rock Me, Mama,” the band’s Ketch Secor created a melody, like Taylor and Adams, about returning to the great state of North Carolina. Though Secor’s lyrics partially attribute his return to the draw of a lover seated in Raleigh, the passion he feels for Carolina is no less poignant. The storyteller not only misses his sweet Southern belle, he’s bored with the monotony of Northern living and craves his Southern origins: “Headed down south to the land of the pines/I’m thumbin’ my way into North Caroline . . . Runnin’ from the cold up in New England/I was born to be a fiddler in an old-time string band.” Visions of home and, simultaneously, love, promise restoration and reclamation of fate.
Recent years have found these odes to Carolina resting heartily in the welcoming folds of country music. Newcomers Parmalee, like Old Crow Medicine Show, liken their love to the arduous embrace of Carolina: “She makes me feel like home’s not so far away/She feels like Carolina.” Country-rock favorite Eric Church’s serenade “Carolina” is a love-song to the state herself, filled with romantic images of her rivers and mountains, his kinsfolk, and the alluring memories of his youth. Like so many before him, Church reiterates the pull of his home: “Like a phone call from my baby/Saying honey I miss ya like crazy/Like the sound of a Siren’s song/Oh, Carolina, keep calling me home.”
If there’s one thing all of these tunes have in common, it’s a pride of place, an unadulterated passion for the place these singers all call home. And if there’s one song that captures that joyful appreciation for provenance best, it must be rap artist Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up.” In a genre that devotes itself to the idolatry of big cities and high-rises, Petey Pablo defied the stereotype by hyping the fortitude of his hometown, Greenville, North Carolina. Each chorus proclaims, “North Carolina! This one’s for you/Come on and raise up.”
A detailed monologue of the state’s various regions fills Pablo’s breaths for several lines, and he makes sure to remind us, once again, that he’s “Puttin’ it down” for “North Carolina, South Carolina/And all my little bitty ova looked hick towns.” Defying precedent, Pablo pridefully reps his Carolina blue and refuses to submit to the notion of the superiority of such rap capitals as New York or LA. Though the tune may be far from the gentle plucking of Taylor’s guitar, the attitude is the same. No matter where you end up, Carolina still holds your heart.
And then there is the song of Carolina herself. The deafening hum of cicadas in summer, the soft gurgle of her countless creeks and streams, the gentle roll of thunder in an August storm, the rickety-rack of tractors stumbling down country roads in harvest time, the pressing silence of an annual snowfall. It’s that song, the song of centuries, that draws all of us back home to Caroline.
Listen to a Young James Taylor Perform “Carolina in My Mind” Here