American Icons: John Denver

Written by October 2nd, 2013 at 4:00 pm

John Denver
Often when a serious songwriter becomes a cultural icon, as John Denver did, the public forgets or dismisses their impact as a songwriter. Towards the end of his life which ended with a tragic plane crash on October 12, 1997, Denver was a TV and movie star, and was savaged by critics throughout the years of his greatest success for being light weight. But the fact remains that he was a singularly serious songwriter who wrote albums of beautiful songs long before he became a star. There are the giant hits he wrote or co-wrote, such as “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” first made famous by Peter, Paul & Mary, as well as “Rocky Mountain High,” “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and “Annie’s Song.” There were also scores of strong songs like “This Old Guitar” that were not hits, but were wonderful. He was one of nature’s finest songwriters, celebrating the organic beauty of his favorite place on earth: Colorado.

He chose the name Denver for the beauty it contains; his real name was less melodious: Henry John Deutschendorf. Born on the last day of 1943 in Roswell, New Mexico, he grew up all over the map, from Arizona to Alabama, the son of Lt. Col. Henry Deutschendorf, Sr., who showed much more love for flying (he set three speed records in the B-58 bomber) than for his son, to whom he rarely expressed affection. John felt the outsider no matter where they landed.

At 11, his grandmother gave him a guitar, and he learned how to sing and play. During college studies in Lubbock, Texas, he joined the first of many singing groups, the Alpine Trio, which led him to join the Chad Mitchell Trio. But he’d started writing songs and wanted a solo career. He recorded sixteen songs at his own expense, and had them pressed into 250 vinyl albums for friends and family. It included one of his first songs, “Babe I Hate To Go, ” later retitled “Leaving On A Jet Plane.” The producer Milt Okun brought it to Peter, Paul & Mary, who recorded it with Okun as producer. It went to Number One on the charts and changed Denver’s life. RCA signed him, and with Okun as producer he created his 1969 debut Rhymes & Reasons. In 1971 came his breakthrough Poems, Prayers, And Promises, with his own first hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

The remarkable “Rocky Mountain High” came out in 1972. It offered an alternative to the inner drug journeys so celebrated in recent pop songs: the transcendent beauty of nature. His Thoreau-like exaltation of the natural world easily linked it to the divine:“I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky/Talk to God and listen to the casual reply/Rocky mountain high…”

Because of the word ‘high,’ the song was banned by several radio stations who insisted it promoted drug abuse. Denver’s defense of the song, offered in his 1985 testimony before congress, speaks volumes about the genuine source of his music: “This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains,” he said, “and also had never experienced the elation, celebration of life, or the joy in living that one feels when he observes something as wondrous as the Perseid meteor shower on a moonless, cloudless night.”

Yet the critics continued to disparage him throughout his career, calling the lyrics cliché and the music bland. This disconnect between mass adulation and critical contempt caused him to rarely give interviews, and when he did, to get defensive about what he knew was a meaningful legacy. “All right, I’m not Bob Dylan,” he said to Rolling Stone. “I don’t write songs like that. But I think 25 years from now people will be singing my songs even if they don’t remember who wrote them. Can you remember that Duke Ellington wrote ‘Mood Indigo’?”

Like any great songwriter, Denver balanced inspiration with craft. He said “Annie’s Song” came to him in mere minutes on a ski-lift, after “a very difficult run.” But Okun recalled that Denver had to reinvent its melody since he pointed out it was identical to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, Second Movement. “[John] walked over to the piano,” said Okun, “sat for an hour and came back, and the only thing remaining from Tchaikovsky was the first five notes. It was fantastic.”

More than anything, he told Playboy in 1977, his work was life-affirming: “I’m aware that I have this underlying purpose of wanting people to know, in the midst of this incredibly insane world, with all of the terrors and problems, that life is worth living,” he said. “I love life! I love everything about it. And there comes a point, when I’m incredibly angry or sad, that I experience that emotion so strongly it gets to be a celebration. It’s life, you see? … I get to a certain low point and what I really experience is, God, I’m alive! How wonderful to feel this way! How wonderful it is to care so much that your heart is breaking! I’m aware that throughout all of this pain, what permeates me is this sense of love and of life. And that’s what I want to give and share with people. Anybody I see or talk to, I’d really like him to feel better afterward.”

  • Dan L Rust

    I was a teen fan of JD in the 1970′s. Still a fan today.

  • Maggie Watson

    I have been a fan since the early 70′s and still play John’s music most days.
    His songs got me through some incredibly hard times in my life. I was lucky enough to see him about half a dozen times when he was touring the UK.I miss him a lot. I think that John has written some of the most beautiful melodies and meaningful lyrics, which always tell a story and move the listener. May you sleep sweetly John. You live on in the hearts of all of those who loved you.

  • curlyenta

    Still a fan…. have every album he ever released and play his songs often! His talent is sorely missed in this day and age of below-mediocre crap.

  • Erin Friedman

    Denver’s music gave me great comfort during my angst-ridding teen years. I bought every album and played them constantly. I’m a songwriter because of his music, and, yes, all these years later, my husband and I sing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and many other Denver tunes because they’re lovely and speak a quiet truth.

  • Laurie Kern
  • Barb Knott

    Loved John Denver and went to every concert I could when he was in the DC area. Loved how he interacted with his audiences and actually gave a concert (2 1/2 hrs.).



  • Christy Hotchkiss

    I have Loved John from the very start of his music to the public careeer. had a very great song singing writting music teacher who introduced me, thankfully to him and have been loving him wholeheartedly ever since!!! Miss him tremendously and so does the environment and creatures!

  • Rebecca A. McCollum

    I loved Bob Denver and was privileged to attend several of his concerts and they were so entertaining AND inspriring. He was so genuine and extremely talented. It didn’t matter whether he was singing one of the chart toppers or something you had never hear before…it was all so eloquent and moved your inner feelings and emotions…he was a true natural and he has been so dearly missed by all of us who could feel his spirit and appreciate his messages.

  • Kate Dennis

    ” Though the singer is silent, there still is the truth of the song.”
    How true…How very, very true.

  • Mary Jo Julian

    That is so true; he would give the band a break and stay on stage doing solos and telling stories. I loved when he played “The Bells of Rhymney’- all of that music coming from one guitar! I miss him!

  • Lynda Hobson

    I cried all day the day he died. My children all grew up with his songs. Whenever we’d go in the car, it was John’s music we played and sang to at the top of our lungs. I still – and will always – love his music and his total zest for life. Even this very evening on the way home I played several of his songs. One of my favorites of his will always be ‘This Old Guitar.’ He was a true musical genius, and just a great human being. Such a loss. I trust that he is entertaining the angels on the other side of the veil.

  • Nanny T

    I have also been a die-hard fan of John’s since the 70′s (I’m 60 now) and will always play and love his music and all he stood for. My daughters still remember finding me crying the day he died, such a loss. I was lucky enough to see him in concert twice in the UK and treasure those memories. His music will be played at my funeral – a fan until the day I die!! My grandchildren now call “Annie’s Song” Nanny’s song!

  • MProfiler

    Yea a fan then and still to day and as curlyenta says – His talent is sorely missed in this day and age.

  • Chris Mellor

    There is nothing to compare with playing John’s songs whilst driving through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Always a fan.

  • wolfwriter

    We are reminded that John died doing what he loved to do –flying. And I am sure that at the moment when John’s fiery
    star rained across the sky, that great hunter, the golden eagle dipped down to
    spread his wings and fly him home.
    To order a copy
    of the book inspired by the music of John Denver, Running for Home, use
    this link:

  • Mike Tipton

    I have always thought it was amazing, that John Denver could sell-out any size venue anywhere in the world, and yet be roundly criticized by the american media. Words & Music are a form of immortality, and John’s are as powerful as any ever created.

  • Gloria Strasburg

    His spirit and love were greater than any critic could ever understand. Those who cannot understand, can only condemn. John Denver’s music and soul will love on forever. We are the ones who have been blessed

  • Chris

    In my heart, my mind and soul, I will always think of John as the greatest singer/songwriter that has ever graced this earth….. His critics aren’t even worth thinking about….. Like so many others, I too cried on the day he died and for weeks afterward. My sweet daughter made me a beautiful collage of Johns pictures to make me feel better. Johns music will always get me through tough times, but also add more joy to the happy times…. John was born to be a musical genius, a musical poet, and a performer….. He sang from his heart and with expression of his soul…. I loved watching him as much as listening to him….

  • Luanne Hunt

    I recently came across a rare and amazing song that John wrote a few years before his death. Although I believe it may have been his best and most significant work ever, he never recorded it. John wrote about this song in his Autobiography and it is clear he hoped the world would one day be touched by its profound and timely message.

    I have now recorded the tune and you can find my version on youtube if you type in The Wandering Soul by Luanne Hunt.

    Thank you so much for the opportunity to post here on this forum and share my news.

  • Leroy Brown

    I love you John Denver.

  • Karolin Benford

    It is sad and so ironic that John Denver’s later material is virtually unknown. It shows such growth of talent, insight and spirituality. His love song, “For You” [recorded on his "Higher Ground" album] has the passion and artistry of his masterpiece “Annie’s Song.” And two of John Denver’s unreleased songs —”The Wandering Soul” and “Healing Time [On Earth]” — are two of the best he’d ever written (and my two current favorites). These three can all be accessed on YouTube, and I encourage everyone to enjoy them. It’s truly a shame that the recording companies continue to reissue and re-reissue John’s 70s’ hits and “An Evening with John Denver” and ignore this rich material that is known only to the hardcore John Denver fans.

  • david carlson

    unless its Take Me Home, Country Road while driving through West Virginia – which was the first time I heard it, on am radio, my dad driving to see his parents

  • Bill McGinnis

    The word cliche’ ,as used by critics or even fellow song writers, has its self become “Cliche”. John Denver was and still is one of the best singer songwriters the world has ever heard. The fact that his work celebrated the better angels of our world rather than exploring the dark underbelly has caused many to dismiss Denver’s work as fluff. A rather strange reaction in light of what the music idustry is offering today. If any of you ever have the chance to see Michael Martin Murphy in concert do so by all means. MMM offers one of the most wonderful tributes to his friend John Denver that you will ever witness.

  • Bill McGinnis

    Sorry Rebecca but I must point out that Bob Denver was a comedic actor (Gilligan’s Island, Dobie Gillis) and a very fine one but he was a terrible singer and an even worse song writer.

  • David Weinberg

    I think what set John apart was his crystal clear tenor voice. When I was 12 I watched his documentary on Bighorn sheep on channel 5 in NYC. I was so inspired by how he used music to try and help the planet, I started guitar lessons the next week. I miss him dearly, much the same as I miss his fellow Colorado (Illinois/Maine) tenor, Dan Fogelberg. Both were taken from their time way too soon.

  • Art Chikofsky

    Absolutely the BEST concert performer! Unparalleled stage presence. God how I miss him!!!

  • Gloria Bucco

    I have loved John and his music since 1971. I was fortunate to have seen him in concert at least six times and blessed to meet him during a bike race in Boulder, Colorado in 1978. I’m a grandmother now and I’m sharing his music with my two grandchildren. So far, they really love Eagles and Horses and Country Roads. I miss him and his music every day.

  • Lois Tedrow

    s favorite performer, he does “This Od Guitar”

  • Ron Meek

    Yes, the “critics” dismissed John but then they promote most of the terrible stuff that passes for music currently. John Denver was an extremely talented singer and songwriter and the fact that his music is timeless, is classic, just proves the critics wrong, as usual.

  • Robert Heintzelman jr

    I still listen to John’s music everyday. I taught myself how to play guitar & spent hours listening to his albums to get his picking combinations just like he did them. Met & talked to John 3 times & still remember the conversations. He was so friendly& down to earth. It was amazing. Will always miss him.

Tags: , ,

Related Articles