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?
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.
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.