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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8 Responses to John Denver, friend of science, born today in 1943

  1. Henry Smiley says:

    As a longtime John Denver fan, I appreciate your reminding readers of a side of Denver that is often overlooked. Very appropriate words for an extraordinary man.

  2. elise says:

    He was a wonderful man, and great musician and very human. It is great that he is remembered. As you said,most musicians would not do so well with just their voice and a guitar. He also reminded us that all of us are essentially the same and we need to take care of the earth and each other.

  3. "Shecky R." says:

    another wonderful tribute to science is his (lesser-known) song “Flying For Me” honoring the Space Shuttle Challenger:
    (among several YouTube renderings)

    ….greatly missed

  4. David Kroll says:

    @Henry Smiley – The pleasure is mine entirely. The holidays reminded me of getting my first 8-track stereo and picking tapes from Elvis Presley, Elton John, John Denver, David Bowie, and KISS as the first ones for my collection and watching one of John Denver’s Colorado Christmas specials. Since a lot of holiday birthdays get lost in the shuffle, I wanted to be sure to recognize John Denver this year.

    Watching the Tonight Show interviews also reminded me how central he was to the culture of the 1970s. I had not seen his interview of Carl Sagan until I started looking for clips on New Year’s Eve and I couldn’t help but be taken aback by his clear enthusiasm and wonder for the Viking pictures on Mars. (I’ll work with the PLoS tech staff to try and get the ones embedded here that I can).

    @elise – Indeed, my admiration for singer-songwriters grows every day and Denver is still at the top of my aspirations – I played in a folk-rock-pop band – in Denver! – for about ten years and the switch to trying to play just guitar and sing is a huge step. That Denver did much of this with a 12-string guitar and alternate tunings shows us how vivid his palette was. The words and melodies are timeless. However, I’ve been disappointed by how few younger bands have taken up Denver’s tunes. I have seen Florida’s Sister Hazel play, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” and Jewel recorded, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” but riffs like the opening of “Rocky Mountain High” just scream for a remake by one of the Americana players like Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy.

    @Shecky R – I had also overlooked that one even though the Challenger accident also figured in my own history, while a graduate student in Florida.

    I’m glad that you each came by to express your own remembrances. He may not have been a perfect person but he clearly lived fully and with broad intention.

  5. Zuska says:

    I want to thank you so much for this post. I was a huge John Denver from an early age, in love with Denver and his music , and I developed an interest in and passion for environmental causes in large part because of him. I was inspired by him and his music throughout my teen years and quoted some of his songs in my high school valedictory speech. He did indeed promote science and scientists throughout his life, and attempt to share with his fans the wonderment and joy that he felt for the natural world around him, to inspire them to action to protect it. Thanks for honoring him as a musician and as a friend of science.

  6. David Kroll says:

    @Z, I had no idea – but am not surprised – that you were such a big John Denver fan. I would absolutely love to know which quotes you used in your valedictory speech!

    I had another John Denver memory from just this summer that gives me hope: I picked up the 8-year-old PharmKid from nature camp and she started singing in the backseat, “Almost heaven, West Virginia….” It was taught to her that day by a camp counselor who is only 21 or 22. There is hope.

    Thanks so much – I knew that there are quite a few folks out there who feel the same as I do about John Denver.

  7. Pingback: Mike Taylor and Rocky Mountain High: From the High Country to the Lowcountry | Take As Directed

  8. Gaythia says:

    I thought that the following would interest you:

    Olivia Newton-John is set to host a benefit concert celebrating the late John Denver as he becomes the first inductee of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame on April 21.

    Newton-John, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lee Ann Womack and John Oates are among those scheduled to perform at the concert, which will be held in the Denver suburb of Broomfield.