September 3, 2012

James Taylor's N.C. roots shaped 'unabashed liberal'

Since 1970, when the North Carolina-raised singer-songwriter became a star at 21, Taylor has lent his name and efforts to a variety of political causes.

James Taylor has never been one to hide his politics.

Since 1970, when the North Carolina-raised singer-songwriter became a star at 21, Taylor has lent his name and efforts to a variety of political causes, most notably the environmental movement and lately President Barack Obama’s re-election.

A self-proclaimed “unabashed liberal,” Taylor’s views have grown from more than 40 years of roaming the globe to perform his confessional songs.

Yet they began to take shape during his boyhood in Chapel Hill – where, long before the Affordable Care Act, his doctor father, Ike, launched a lifelong crusade for quality health care for everyone, and his New Englander mother, Trudy, was part of a movement to integrate local schools and facilities.

Over time he would be influenced by the state’s progressive politics of the 1950s and ’60s, which led to a renowned public university system and a research-based park. And watching future U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms on television, he learned to disdain divisive politics.

“All of us grew up with the idea that Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh – with UNC Duke and N.C. State – were part of a commitment to the kind of progressive politics that were laying the future for the state,” said Taylor, who’ll perform at Monday’s CarolinaFest uptown, and Thursday at Bank of America Stadium before Obama accepts his nomination for a second term.

“My parents’ commitment to education and public health – to the civil rights movement – was something I was aware of at a very early age ... That kind of altruistic gene is something I’m very proud of. It rubbed off.”

Taylor was 3 when his parents moved their family from Boston – where Ike was chief resident at Massachusetts General Hospital – to Ike’s native North Carolina. There he joined a flood of young doctors and researchers on the faculty of the UNC Chapel Hill medical school as it was expanding from a two- to a four-year program.

Learning progressive politics

By then, the N.C. region known as The Triangle (Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill) was evolving into an important intellectual center.

At an early age, James and his four siblings learned about the power of progressive politics as a new breed of post-World War II leaders such as Bill Friday (former UNC System president) and the late Terry Sanford (an N.C. governor, U.S. senator and Duke University president) began to nudge the state in a new direction – away from an Old South economy dependent on tobacco, textiles and furniture.

The idea was to diversify the N.C. economy by harnessing the intellectual and research power of the three Triangle universities into a research park. It would not only stem a brain drain, but set up North Carolina as a leader in new knowledge- and research-based industries.

More than 50 years later, what became known as the Research Triangle Park is a model for similar research parks around the world.

“The success of the Research Triangle Park and its high-tech businesses was a real vindication of those who saw access to public education and research as being important to the state,” said Taylor, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who sings about his N.C. roots in “Carolina in My Mind” (the state’s unofficial anthem) and “Copperline.”

As the state advanced in the 1950s and ’60s, James saw his father in the middle of the evolution.

In 1964, Ike was named dean of the UNC medical school. At the time, there was an acute doctor shortage, particularly in rural North Carolina. Ike immediately set out to expand the medical school and its services.

A natural politician – tall, rugged and charming – he began raising money for medical school space and to recruit quality doctors.

He also pushed, with deans at Duke and Bowman Gray at Wake Forest, for medical schools to expand services into rural parts by forming Area Health Education Centers. They began using medical students to dispense care to those who had little access to it.

“Dad promoted socialized medicine back then as a moral calling,” said the youngest child, Hugh Taylor, an innkeeper on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. “That had an impact on James. It did on all of us.”

The politics of ‘fear and division’

Yet soon the Taylor children would get an early lesson on the politics of division.

The advances weren’t embraced by everyone, including a young Raleigh TV journalist and executive named Jesse Helms.

When Helms, who would become a staunchly conservative U.S. senator, began delivering his early 1960s nightly commentaries on Raleigh-based WRAL-TV, the Taylor family was usually in front of a black-and-white Zenith TV to watch – and groan.

Helms often referred to their Chapel Hill as “Communist Hill” and UNC as “The University of Negroes and Communists.” He suggested the state build a wall around the UNC campus to prevent “liberal views” from infecting the rest of the state. Medicaid, passed with Medicare in 1965, was a leap “into the swampy field of socialized medicine.”

“Those early Jesse Helms commentaries made me aware of the political divisions and how counterproductive they can be,” Taylor said. “My father would get incredulous at the politics of fear and division, as opposed to the idea of public service and working together.

“Little has changed.”

He thought of his father, who died in 1996, when Obama signed into law the Affordable Care Act in March 2010.

“It would have meant so much to him – he’d find it a realization of his dreams and hopes,” Taylor said. “If he could be alive now, my father would be working overtime to see that Barack Obama gets his second term.”

‘A singer’ and ‘a citizen’

Now the son has traveled to Charlotte to work for the president’s re-election. He counts himself among those who wish Obama would push back harder against his critics: “He may not be that good at blowing his own horn.”

Taylor touts Obama’s efforts to expand access to health care through the Affordable Care Act, which Republican nominee Mitt Romney has vowed to repeal. Taylor also likes Obama’s support for equal pay for women and his commitment to higher education and children in need “in the face of such obstructionism.”

“This president represents the best instincts of America and Americans,” said Taylor, who performed a series of concerts for Obama across the state in 2008. “His administration took immediate action to minimize the damage they found.”

In addition to Monday’s hour-long CarolinaFest performance, Taylor is set to sing four songs at Bank of American Stadium on Thursday before Vice President Joe Biden, and then Obama, take the stage.

“I plan to claim my Tar Heel roots,” he said. “I’m not a political scientist or an expert.

“I’m a singer and basically I write personal stuff. I’m a citizen.”

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