“Copperline”

Question: What pop song was written in part by a university professor?

The answer is the song in this post: “Copperline,” written by James Taylor and Reynolds Price, formerly James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke University. Songfacts gives the details:

  • Copperline is an area near Chapel Hill in North Carolina where James Taylor grew up, and the song is a nostalgic look back at his childhood, complete with a mention of his dog, Hercules. Taylor visited Copperline before he wrote the song, and discovered that pre-fabricated homes had popped up in the area, destroying it’s charm. He sings about this in the lyrics, “I tried to go back, as if I could, all spec houses and plywood, tore up and tore up good.”
  • Morgan Creek, which Taylor mentions in the song, is on Morgan Creek Road, where Taylor’s childhood home was located. In 2003, the Morgan Creek Bridge was renamed the “James Taylor Bridge” in a ceremony celebrating the singer.
  • Taylor wrote this song with Reynolds Price, who was a professor of English at Duke University, and also a playwright, author and lyricist. Taylor met Price when he worked on the score for a 1982 PBS production of a play Price wrote, and the two became friends. The two wrote “Copperline” when Price was visiting Taylor’s home in Connecticut. Price died on January 20, 2011 at age 77.
  • Speaking with Rolling Stone in 2015, Taylor said: “This is another song about home, about my father, about a childhood that was very peaceful, which is a rare thing today. I felt like I was part of a landscape in those days – the trees, the streams and the rivers, the animals that lived there.”

I didn’t used to like this song so much, but it’s grown on me. This version appears to be filmed live in Taylor’s home studio, a converted barn. (There’s another version here with just guitar and piano.)

The lyrics:

Even the old folks never knew
Why they call it like they do
I was wondering since the age of two
Down on Copperline.
Copper head, copper beech
Copper kettles sitting side by each
Copper coil, cup o’Georgia peach
Down on Copperline
Half a mile down to Morgan Creek
Leaning heavy on the end of the week
Hercules and a hog-nosed snake
Down on Copperline
Down on Copperline

One summer night on the Copperline
Slip away past supper time
Wood smoke and moonshine
Down on Copperline;
One time I saw my daddy dance
Watched him moving like a man in a trance
He brought it back from the war in France
Down onto Copperline.
Branch water and tomato wine
Creosote and turpentine
Sour mash and new moon shine
Down on Copperline
We were down on Copperline.

First kiss ever I took
Tore a page from a romance book
The sky opened and the earth shook
Down on Copperline
Down on Copperline.
Took a fall from a windy height
I only knew how to hold on tight
And pray for love enough to last all night
Down on Copperline.
Day breaks and the boys wakes up
And the dog barks and the birds sings
And the sap rises and the angels sigh, yeah.

I tried to go back, as if I could
All spec house and plywood
Tore up and tore up good
Down on Copperline.
It doesn’t come as a surprise to me
It doesn’t touch my memory
Man I’m lifting up and rising free
Down on over Copperline.
Half a mile down to Morgan Creek
I’m only living for the end of the week
Hercules and a hog-nosed snake
Down on Copperline, yeah
Take me down on Copperline
Oh, down on Copperline.

Taylor is one of those stars whose voice and talent don’t seem to have appreciatively diminished over the years. He will be recognized, if he isn’t already, as one of the greatest singer/songwriters of our time. And he makes it look so easy. It also kills me that he’s only a year and a half older than I. I was already a big fan when I was just a shaver in college.

Here’s Reynolds Price, accomplished writer, friend of W. H. Auden, and lover of Stephen Spender:

 

15 Comments

  1. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen a lot of major pop acts in concert from Cat Stevens to Bob Dylan, Donovan, and Joni Mitchell, but my live encounter with James Taylor was when I was in the live audience of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Taylor performed two songs. His extraordinary warmth came out in the give and take as well as performance.

    Naturally, I love Taylor’s music, but I was surprisingly really touched by his rendition (with the Boston Symphony Orchestra) of Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight”.

    Have a look-see.

    • rickflick
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

      That certainly brings out the purity and simplicity of his voice. Thanks for the link.

  2. Phil Rounds
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    One of my favourite JT tunes! It kinda reminds me of my own childhood, although it was somewhat less idyllic than in the song.

    On Thu, Apr 27, 2017 at 3:30 PM, Why Evolution Is True wrote:

    > whyevolutionistrue posted: “Question: What pop song was written in part by > a university professor? The answer is the song in this post: “Copperline,” > written by James Taylor and Reynolds Price, formerly James B. Duke > Professor of English at Duke University. Songfacts gives the de” >

  3. Phil Rounds
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    ….and the wonderful Carlos Vega on drums!

  4. Randy schenck
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I have at least one of his albums, probably greatest hits – Carolina in My Mind, Sweet baby James, Steamroller and You’ve got a friend. All good stuff. Seems like back in the very late 60s, very early 70s this was the hot area. Carol King, Carly Simon, Tom Rush and many others.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Pretty cool. But when it comes to “nostalgic” looks at that neck of the North Carolina woods, make mine Eric Burdon and the Animals doing “Tobacco Road”:

  6. Posted April 27, 2017 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    Your opening question reminds me of Milo Aukerman and Daryl Wilson: two prolific and influential punk rock musicians who also happen to be doctors (one of the PhD type, one of the MD type).

    Aukerman is now a full-time musician, but he did a PhD in biology and worked as a biochemist both in academia and in private industry for years. His band, The Descendents, is also one of the most influential punk groups of the 1980’s-90’s. See here for more.

    Wilson is the energetic leadman of The Bollweevils, an excellent Chicago-based punk band that’s been around since the early 90’s. He’s also an emergency medicine MD at Edwards Hospital in Naperville. See here for more.

  7. Posted April 27, 2017 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Although I’m familiar with a lot of James Taylor songs, I didn’t know “Copperline”. One of the songs that I like is James Taylor and Mark Knopfler singing “Sailing to Philadelphia” about the Mason-Dixon Line.

  8. Gary Allan
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    That was beautiful.

  9. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted April 28, 2017 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Wikipedia:

    Brian Harold May, CBE (born 19 July 1947) is an English musician, singer, songwriter and astrophysicist, best known as the lead guitarist of the rock band Queen. He uses a home-built electric guitar, called the Red Special. His compositions for the band include “We Will Rock You”, “Tie Your Mother Down”, “I Want It All”, “Fat Bottomed Girls”, “Flash”, “Hammer to Fall”, “Save Me”, “Who Wants to Live Forever” and “The Show Must Go On”.

    But he didn’t get his PhD until 2007, and is not a professor.

  10. Optimus Primate
    Posted April 28, 2017 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I think history will also remember Taylor as one of the finest guitar players of all time. His stuff seems so simple, but try to learn it and you’ll quickly find your fingers in knots.


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