John Denver and the Impossible Dream
The 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and so on have been a time when acoustic folk music flowed forward. Numerous singers and songwriters were out there and a few made the top 40. Many of them settled for small audiences and minor record labels like Rounder.
A few groups and singers found their way to the top 40 like Gordon Lightfoot, Paul Simon, and even Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary. (Stookey’s Wedding Song is a staple at many weddings.) John Denver came out of that era.
John Denver’s strong tenor voice made his music speak to the soul in ways. He could put words and music together to paint that deep picture.
The tragedy of John Denver wasn’t that he died in a plane crash. The tragedy was that he was drawn by superstardom and fame into things like movies (Oh God) and being drawn into doing too many projects that took him away from family and destroyed his first marriage (Annie Martel). When many folk singers were satisfied with getting recorded by minor labels, Denver was taken on by RCA Victor then later dropped as the label was following changing trends. For many folk musicians, small venues like the Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, WI, or events like living history festivals and the like would be fine. Denver’s fantastic life had a cost.
John Denver was typical of any artist who painted, photographed, wrote music and literature. Creativity is what comes out when you take it all in and find a way in how to express those thoughts. John Denver could never write for Tin Pan Alley. Nor could he have possibly fit in with the somewhat rigid schedule that the Country Music culture in Nashville demands of their artists. It had to come from within.
Some people dismissed John Denver as being philosophically new age. He had the ability to be a deep thinker and many people have that but do not have a clear way of expressing that. He had a passion for nature and the environment and it showed.
Composing music or images with a camera or paintbrushes and canvass works like that. It means to arrange things so that they make the statement that you want to say.
It is no different than this photo. I was the photographer. I determined what I saw and where the colors were going to be. In music, the writer determines which notes are played when. A singer/songwriter like John Denver mates those notes with words and expresses thoughts that most of us have but don’t know how to express.
John Denver’s music was indeed different. He was given an award by the Country Music Association and yet he wasn’t really a Country singer and did not think of himself as such. His tenor voice had a rich silkiness to it. Like Paul Simon, he could take you to that Kodak moment. He could strum a guitar almost like Leo Kotke but would mate his music more to lyrics that would send you soaring over mountains like an eagle or sailing across oceans with Jaques Cousteau on board the Calypso. He was a folk singer, and, at that, he was in the realm of Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie by lending his voice to a cause he believed in! His passion for the environment and conservation was amazing! It was in nature and in life that John Denver found inspiration for many of his songs. In fact, in death, his remains were scattered in the Rocky Mountains where he found his greatest inspiration in nature.
But with this great talent and passion for life, came some lack of judgment at times. A fling that happened with a fan at a post-concert party contributed to the strain on his marriage with Annie even though he was forthright about it. His marriage to Annie was strained as his career was taking him in so many directions at once. He felt that he was becoming like his dad in a different sort of way. His dad was “Dutch” Deutschendorf one of the United States Air Force’s top test pilots. He was never home. John’s father often sacrificed home with duty.
John Denver relished himself in other media. Some thought he could act and he was in several movies starting with “Oh God” with George Burns. He was an environmental advocate and sent out as a cultural ambassador by President Jimmy Carter to which he responded with something similar to the “duty, honor, country” that called on his father to put on a uniform and fly fighter jets for the United States Air Force.
Other folk singers would settle for less fame and smaller audiences. Women like Claudia Schmidt and Sally Rogers still perform today just as they did in the 1970s and 1980s though with much less touring. Leo Kotke, though he is aging, was, up until COVID, playing to large halls. And Paul Simon, well, it is all about the music. Pete Seeger, well, he still plays his music to lead protests for the kind of justice he believes in.