Well before I was born -- even before my mother came into the picture -- my father saw an article in LIFE magazine that made an impact on him. It was about a photographer who made sure he had a photo taken of him with his daughter, in the same place, every year on her birthday. My father liked this idea so much, he vowed that if/when he had a child, he would take on this tradition. And so we have. This blog explores our history, as I write his memoir and a history of the family farm near Allentown, now in a developer's hands.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

1973: John Denver & Rocky Mountain High

By Corinne H. Smith

1973:  I turned sixteen years old, and my birthday fell on Thanksgiving.  I was in eleventh grade at Hempfield High School.  Daddy was 44, and he worked as a research chemist at Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster, Penna.  Mom worked as a nurse at a local clinic.  We lived on Dale Avenue in West Hempfield Township.  The #1 popular song on my sixteenth birthday was “Keep On Truckin” by Eddie Kendricks.  Mom snapped this photograph.


     If I were the kind of person who kept a daily diary, I might be able to pinpoint the exact moment when I first became aware of John Denver and his music.  As it is, in retrospect, I can only say that by the time of my 16th birthday in 1973, I was becoming fully immersed.  And the man and his songs were already changing the path of my life.

     By now I knew “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”  It had been a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary back in 1969.  In Girl Scouts, we sang this song around the campfire.  (While we thought wistfully about future possibilities with boys, in their noticeable absence, I suppose. Sigh.)  And of course I liked “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which came out during the summer of 1971.  But it was the song “Rocky Mountain High” and its title album that turned me into a devotee.  Not only of John Denver, but also of the kind of inspiration found in Nature, of the importance of environmental awareness, of the ability to form a strong sense of place, and of the power of music.  It’s only now that I understand how captivated I was back then … and only now do I realize how much I still admire the words and the music and the man.

     The album was released in September 1972.  By January 1973, the title song, “Rocky Mountain High,” appeared regularly on the radio.  It spent three months in the Top 40 and reached as high as #9 on the chart.  I thought it should have been #1. 

     The song caught my attention in the first two measures of the introduction.  The melodic opening guitar riff reached out to me.  It reached into me.  For the next five minutes, I was somewhere else.  The combination of the music and the lyrics affected me physically and emotionally more than any other song previously had.  John was singing about a place -- the Rocky Mountains of Colorado -- that seemed exotic to me:  something perfect, something unattainable, something preserved and spectacular, and one that I’d probably never see for myself.  Even though I sat in an eastern suburb, I could relate to the image he painted.  I liked spending time in Nature, too.  When I was younger, I entertained myself by exploring the trees and bushes in our big backyard.  I used to climb one of our sugar maple trees and sit up in it for hours.  I became a Brownie, and then a Girl Scout. Our troops hiked and camped in wild areas around our little eastern hills.  

     I could feel myself drawn not only toward Nature in general, but also to environmental awareness.  The first Earth Day had happened in 1970, and its intentions seemed right to me.  I was just beginning to understand the ramifications of having “more people, more scars upon the land.”  Even my recent rebellion against organized religion could find a confirmation in "Rocky Mountain High."  When John said that he could "talk to God and listen to the casual reply,” he proved to me that it was acceptable to find spirituality in Nature and not in a church pew.  Amen, Brother!  And wouldn’t it indeed be a terrific feeling to come “home” to a place you’d never been before?  Didn’t we all want to find that special place on the planet that we could claim as our own, where we felt the most comfortable?  These were among the messages that John’s song sent to me.  And they hit me just as I was beginning to develop my own philosophy of life, and just as I was beginning to determine where my own place might be.  It was the right song to hear at the right time.   (Click here, to hear it.) 

The Rocky Mountain High album.  The introvert in me longed to stand in the middle of a roaring river like this one.

     I bought the Rocky Mountain High album.  I played it on the stereo in the media console that stands behind my father and me in our birthday pictures (see above).  I sat in the living room and listened to it.  Each song had something to say to me.  It was the perfect musical experience.  The record began with the title song, which naturally entranced me.  Then John’s cover of Lennon and McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son” continued to feed the love of Nature.  John Prine’s “Paradise” was an environmental warning from the coal mining regions of Kentucky:  another place I had never seen and thought I never would.  But it didn’t seem too far away.  “For Baby (For Bobbie).” “Darcy Farrow,” and “Prisoners” were all variations on the theme of love.  “Prisoners” had the added benefit of being a powerful anti-war protest.  This was 1973, and the United States had pulled out of Vietnam, but the fighting was not yet over. “Prisoners” was one of the songs of the day that influenced me to write something similar that summer, a song called “Erica.”  It was the first song I wrote on and for the guitar.

     The second side of the Rocky Mountain High album -- yes, I got up from the couch, and I turned the record over -- began with another love song, “Goodbye Again.”  It was very much like “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” though the plea sounded a bit more mournful this time, more final.  It would prove to be just as campfire-worthy, though.

     The rest of the album was a five-part “Season Suite,” consisting of melodies for “Summer,” “Fall,” “Winter,” “Late Winter, Early Spring (When Everybody Goes to Mexico),” and “Spring.”  When I first glanced over the lyrics printed on the album cover, I figured that each song would be a playful summary of the season, a celebration of Nature.  And basically, they all were.  But I was surprised to be just as affected by two of these little tunes as I was by “Rocky Mountain High.”  If not more.

     “Summer” came first.  (You can hear it here.)  The verses were okay, they were fine.  It was the chorus that hit me.

And oh I love the life within me
I feel a part of everything I see
And oh I love the life around me
A part of everything is here in me

This personal connection with Nature resounded so much with me again that it was almost overwhelming, staggering.  I agreed with these words.  I believed in them wholeheartedly.  In that moment, I was a part of everything.  And it was not too strong a statement to say that I knew instantly that I wanted to use this philosophy as a foundation for my life.  Wasn’t this the way we were all supposed to think and feel?  We were all related.  We were all one.  Of course!  My eyes had been opened.  Wow.
     “Fall” and “Winter” were good tunes, too.  “Late Winter, Early Spring” was an exquisite and soothing instrumental.  Then it was time for the last song on the album, “Spring.”  Musically it followed the same melody and chorus as “Summer,” but some of the lyrics had changed.  Even the chorus was different, when it first came around again.  (You can hear the song here.)  Now it was:

Do you care what’s happening around you?
Do your senses know the changes when they come?
Can you see yourself reflected in the seasons?
Can you understand the need to carry on?

Suddenly the close connection with Nature had been amplified with the responsibility of environmental awareness.  I was even more overwhelmed.  It seemed as though my own nervous system could not contain all of the sensations that these words, these thoughts, stirred up in me.  I was a part of everything.  I did care.  I did understand.  Why didn’t everybody else get it?

     By the end of “Spring,” the chorus returned to the familiar one from “Summer.”  The Rocky Mountain High album spun to a close with its last lingering line, repeated three times for emphasis: “A part of everything is here in me.  A part of everything is here in me.  A part of every thing is here in me.”  Oh.  My.  God. 

     Whenever I played Rocky Mountain High on our living room stereo, I could not anticipate how much John Denver and his music would impact me over the course of my lifetime.  I only knew that at those very moments, he said everything I was thinking and feeling.  I’d never felt more in tune (a pun, but a true one) with a voice, a melody, and a lyric.  I didn’t realize that John Denver was quietly becoming a mentor to me.  I could not predict where this tenuous thread would lead.

     Throughout the rest of the 1970s and the 1980s, I was a devoted fan.  Eventually, I bought every John Denver album released in the United States during his lifetime.  Most were on vinyl; some were on cassette; very few came in CD format.  (And I still have them all.)  I learned how to play the guitar and how to specifically play a number of his songs.  I kept a scrapbook of John Denver articles torn carefully from newspapers and magazines.  I got wire-rimmed glasses.  I asked salon stylists to cut my hair to look like John’s, but it never worked quite right for me.  His strands were straight, and mine had too many natural waves.

     (Someday you learn that you don’t have to imitate your heroes in each and every way.  You can pick and choose what works for you, and dismiss the other stuff.)

     To meet an assignment in Inez Baker’s “Locally Produced Materials” class during our second semester at Clarion in 1976, my college roommate Marge Berbach (now Shaffer) and I created a slide show production showing the beauty and the fun side of snowfall.  We used “Late Winter, Early Spring” and “Winter” from “Season Suite” as our background music to project snowy scenes to our audience.  Somehow I’d talked Marge into this concept.  It combined two of my personal loves, snow and the Rocky Mountain High album.  (Thanks for going along with this scheme, Marge.)

I joined several John Denver fan clubs.  I subscribed to their newsletters and corresponded with other members through long handwritten letters sent in the mail.  Some of these people are still my friends, after all of these years.

     I saw John Denver ten times in concert, from 1980-1996.  My scrapbook grew into a box filled additionally with photographs and posters and concert programs and ticket stubs.  As a librarian, I had access to any number of reference sources.  So I found even more articles from obscure periodicals on microfilm and through interlibrary loan.  The box contents grew to overflowing. 

My box of John Denver articles and memorabilia, which until this week, had been taped shut for the last 10 years.

In reclaiming myself after divorce in 1991, I decided it was time to rededicate myself to Nature, to environmental causes, and really, to John Denver.  I joined his environmental organization, The Windstar Foundation.  I drove out to Aspen to attend three of its conferences.  They were amazing.  The people I met were amazing; and some became life-long friends.  Colorado and the Rockies were amazing.  On one trip, I even drove through John’s ancestral territory in Oklahoma, after I’d researched the Deutschendorf family tree and learned where the family farm had once been.  I set up and maintained a Windstar discussion list through e-mail.  I helped to organize the Windstar library, sometimes handling books that had come directly from John’s house.  The Windstar newsletter published my first environmental article in 1994.  Finally, I had the chance to thank John in person and to shake hands with him twice, and to get a good photograph taken of the two of us together.  A fan could hardly hope for more.

     Thus inspired, I began to volunteer at local nature centers.  I organized my co-workers to adopt a two-mile portion of roadway to keep litter-free.  I studied for a master’s degree in outdoor teacher education.  I began to write a lot, and sometimes on nature and environmental themes.  My comfort at making solo cross-country drives put me at ease enough to move to the Midwest for a time, when the opportunity arose.  It also gave me the confidence to write a book that required a lot of travel and long-distance driving.  My book was also tangentially about nature.

     What happened on Columbus Day weekend in 1997 is still too devastating for me to talk about or write about.  It is still difficult for me to listen to John’s music at times, or to think of him very much at all.  It’s all too painful, all too personal.  Some day in the future, I’ll have to address that time and those feelings.  And someday, I’ll have to make a pilgrimage to Monterey Bay.  Someday.

     In 1998 and a bit afterward, however, I still attended a few Windstar-related workshops in Ohio and in Colorado.  I met John’s brother Ron.  I helped to plant trees in a park in Aspen in John’s memory.  The dedication ceremony for it was overwhelmingly emotional.  The audience and the participants consisted of a combination of John’s friends and relatives, his fellow musicians and his fans.  I remember hearing Annie Denver speak that day.  I remember seeing John’s mother, Erma Deutschendorf, sobbing.  But my face was wet the whole time, too.  It wouldn’t be the first or the last time I would shed tears for John.

     After a long period away from it, I once again listened to the Rocky Mountain High album in order to write this piece.  And it felt great.  And I smiled.  The songs still captivate me.  I also ripped open my John Denver box to revisit its contents.  Maybe I’m heading on a path for the wound to begin to heal.

     While I know most of the songs that John Denver recorded, and I like and admire and perform a fair amount of them, my favorites remain the ones that meant so much to me from the Rocky Mountain High album. Today, 40 years later -- OMG, John, 40 YEARS! -- these songs are still empowering to me.  Whenever I need a boost in spirit, or a prod to keep on going, or even some consolation and motivation to drive across a really high bridge, all I need to do is to hear this music or to sing it to myself.  “Rocky Mountain High” or “Summer” will do, but “Spring” is the best choice of all.  Then I’m good to go.  I’m recharged.  I can take on the world.  “A part of everything is here in me.”  YES!  Let’s have at it!

     I know that my life would have taken quite a different turn without John Denver, without Rocky Mountain High, without the Windstar Foundation, without once-regular long-distance drives to Aspen, and without a commitment to Nature and the environment.  I owe a great deal to someone who came into our lives on one jet plane … and then left us all too soon on another one.  Thanks again, John.  I may be beginning to “understand the need to carry on.”

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