A December Night in Chapel Hill
The gathering took place on a bristly cold December night for Chapel Hill. The evening started with a group of carolers, including James and his girlfriend of the moment—yes, it was Joni Mitchell—lighting out from the Taylors’ and rambling through the neighborhood from house to house. Ike went along, too, his voice resonant and booming. It would have been just like my parents to join in such a sing-along. My mother had a beautiful voice, and as my father used to say about singers like himself: If you can’t sing, at least sing loud.
I can imagine the smell of that night, woodsmoke flirting with the December air, the scent of pine and fallen leaves. David was seventeen. His older brother Louis was there, too. So was his friend Isabelle Patterson, whom he had picked up on his motorcycle, much to her dad’s distress. The other Taylor siblings were away, probably up north. As the carolers circled around Morgan Creek, David lip-synched his way through “Silent Night,” in part so that he could listen to James and Joni sing. Why listen to himself when such beautiful voices were ringing out behind his ears? Plus he was Jewish and didn’t know the lyrics.
David had treasured James’s friendship from childhood. When David was seven or eight, he’d been helping a group of older boys build a tree house in the woods near Morgan Creek. When they finished, the boys shooed him away. “This is our clubhouse,” they said. He slunk home, head down. James, then thirteen, walking up the road, saw him. “What’s wrong?” he asked. David told him. “Come with me,” James said. They went to the Taylor house, picked up hammers and nails, and proceeded to build David a tree house of his own.
The carolers stopped by the UNC basketball coach Dean Smith’s midcentury modern. He wasn’t quite as exalted in 1970 as he would become, but he was still local royalty. They sang to Dean and his then-wife, Ann. In the years after that, Smith would sometimes drive players he was recruiting through the neighborhood in one of his Carolina-blue Cadillacs. “That’s James Taylor’s house,” he’d tell them. Late in Smith’s career (and well along in Taylor’s), he said that to a recruit, who responded, “Who’s James Taylor?” “He’s a local musician,” Smith said.
When everyone finished caroling, they went back to the Taylors’, gathering upstairs around the fire in the open living room. Nearby stood a Christmas tree that Ike and James had gone into the woods and cut down. Decades later, Isabelle Patterson would tell David that whenever she hears Joni Mitchell’s song “River” (“It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees”), she’s convinced that the song was inspired by that visit. That evening, David plopped down on the floor next to Joni. She struck him as shy but very kind and very beautiful. “Is this your dulcimer?” he asked.
“Yes, would you like to see it?” she said. She took the dulcimer out of the case and talked a little about it. When she did that, James pulled his guitar out and they began to play together, as they had in London at the Paris Theatre earlier that fall in a concert broadcast by the BBC. They performed “A Case of You,” “California,” and “Carey,” from Joni Mitchell’s forthcoming album, the epochal Blue, which would be released in the summer of 1971.
James and Joni also played “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Fire and Rain,” and a song-in-progress called “Long Ago and Far Away.” David had already been privileged to hear perhaps the first finished version of “Fire and Rain,” which Taylor completed in Chapel Hill after returning from London. He and James’s youngest brother, Hugh, had been hanging out at the Taylors’ when James asked if they wanted to hear a new song. They listened. “Yeah, I think that’ll be a hit,” David told him. That night, when the gathering finally came to a close and the guests got up to leave, James stood up and sang them off with his version of “Happy Trails,” originally performed by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. The guests sang along, my parents included, as they disappeared into the night and the rest of their lives.