Friday, October 19, 2007

John Denver Part I

Last week marked the anniversary of the death of John Denver—an important singer-songwriter (at least in terms of the popular consciousness).

Liking John Denver always seemed like a guilty pleasure. His music is so innocent and sincere. For someone who was as popular as he was, Denver now seems an obscurity—except for anyone around my age. Reflecting upon John Denver stirs thoughts about how ephemeral fame is and motivates me to rescue his legacy.

There IS a significant legacy. Let’s begin in 1970. That is the year that Earth Day was established in this country. At the time, we were embroiled in the Vietnam War, so the conservation message had serious competition for space in the public mind.

John Denver was unknown—he’d only recently finished his tenure with a folk group called the Chad Mitchell Trio and set out to establish a solo career. RCA, a label specializing in folk/country pop crossovers, had Denver on its roster, largely because of his promise as a songwriter—Peter, Paul, and Mary had scored a tremendous hit with his “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” a couple of years earlier.

His initial release—1969’s “Rhymes and Reasons”*—is such a product of its time. The photography features Denver as he’d be shown on all his albums—outdoors, and loving it. (The guy was all teeth when he smiled, which was often.) On the back is a poem that Denver wrote about how “the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers” followed by the label’s declaration that

“JOHN DENVER—born—lives—cares—believes!”

Doesn’t the salability of this sentiment seem so quaint today? The public had an appetite for it, though—in the early part of the last decade, singers like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs had struck a chord with what was dubbed “protest music.” The “Movement” —which, broadly speaking, represented peace and social justice—was fatigued by the continuing prosecution of the war, the assassinations of King and the Kennedys, and the ascension of Richard Nixon. This appetite was soon to be awakened by Henry John Deutschendorf Jr.

That’s right—John Denver named himself and, looking back, one finds the audacity truly remarkable. In a few years, Denver was destined to make Colorado and Montana paradise in the public mind. This was a singer with a vision, and a desire to be famous.

Listen to John Denver today. I’ll continue to pay homage and make my case in subsequent posts.

* The album title doesn't actually spell out "and" but Blogger won't seem to allow an ampersand.

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