John Denver, friend of science, born today in 1943

Today would have been the 67th birthday of singer-songwriter of Henry John Deutschendorf, known better as John Denver. Born in Roswell, New Mexico, a town also better known for the rumored crash of an extraterrestrial spacecraft when Denver was a toddler, Denver himself died in a 1997 crash of an experimental aircraft in Monterrey Bay, California.

Being a kid around the hippie days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was influenced by an unusual mix of mod rockers like David Bowie and singer-songwriters like James Taylor. Transposed with the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, the intertwining of music, culture, and public enthusiasm for science and technology is difficult to appreciate today.

John Denver was first and foremost a remarkable songwriter and performer. His composition for his first wife called “Annie’s Song” is the benchmark for anyone aiming to write a love song. Have you young’uns heard it? It’s in 3/4 time and it ain’t nothing but a dude, his voice, and fingerpicking a 12-string guitar.

Annie’s Song video here (embedding was disabled).

Given a 1910 Gibson F-hole Jazz Guitar by his grandmother when he was 12, Denver survived childhood move to Alabama by becoming popular as a singer in school. His performing career was launched in 1965 as part of the Chad Mitchell Trio and he made a name for another trio – Peter, Paul, and Mary – when they covered his song, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Denver’s first million-selling hit was “Take Me Home, Country Roads” but he is perhaps best known for 1973’s “Rocky Mountain High.”

RMH was written when Denver first moved to Colorado at age 27 and pretty much evokes the feelings I had about moving there at 25. In an appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show below, Denver performs the song then tells the story about the inspiration of camping with some friends up at Williams Lake outside of Aspen one August at the peak of the Perseids meteor shower.

Of course, the fascists at the time freaked out about Denver singing, “friends around the campfire and everybody’s high,” and several radio stations refused to play the song lest they offend fragile sensibilities.

In another interview, he noted that the line, “the shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullaby,” came to him while peeing near the campsite on the moonless night of the meteor shower – surely something that brought out the vapors and fainting couches of this genteel time.

Denver was well-regarded by Johnny Carson and sat in for him as a host long before Jay Leno or David Letterman. In the clip below while sitting in in 1977, he interviews astronomer Carl Sagan and is unrestrained in his wonder for space exploration in looking a photos from the Viking mission to Mars (he would later compete for a slot as a citizen-astronaut on the Space Shuttle).

Some folks my age and slightly younger kid me about my love for John Denver (and my childhood collection of his 8-track tapes) because his music today might seem campy or melodramatic by today’s standards. But I challenge any top act today to go on live TV with just guitar and their voice and try to hold a candle to John Denver.

I chose to use this space today to recognize John Denver on his birthday in recognition of his early support for the natural and physical sciences. In addition to his endorsement of environmental causes, his support of NASA led to his receipt in 1985 of the NASA Public Service Medal.

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