James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” was a hit when it was released in 1970 and remains a favorite fingerpicking tune for guitarists. The song was issued on his second album, Sweet Baby James, and as a single.
“Fire and Rain” touches on a series of occurrences during a promising but painful time in Taylor’s life. The events he refers to in the song took place between 1968, when he was under contract to the Beatles’ Apple Records to make his debut album, and the time just before the making of Sweet Baby James, which was recorded in December 1969.
The opening verse is about his childhood friend Suzanne Schnerr, who committed suicide while Taylor was in London recording his debut. Taylor didn’t learn of the news for six months, because his friends feared it would distract him at such an important time in his life.
The second verse refers to Taylor’s struggle with addiction and depression, first in his teen years and again while recording his debut. The third verse deals with his attempts to get his career off the ground. The line “sweet dreams and flying machines” contains a reference to the Flying Machine, the band that Taylor performed with in New York in 1966 prior to going solo and moving to London in 1967.
In the video below James himself generously demonstrates how to play “Fire and Rain.” The excellent two-camera set-up shows his fretting hand as well as a view from below the strings that gives a clear view of his fingerpicking. It concludes with a handy half-speed recap.