John Denver’s music arrived quietly in the late 1960s and would span fervently like eagles wings across three decades. The whisper that was his entrée was the windstorm that would become America’s voice, thanks to his vast contributions. Many of the over two hundred songs he himself penned would sustain popularity beyond his untimely death on October 12, 1997, and well into today (including the induction of two state songs, one official, and one that might as well be).
Older fans gathering this past week in Aspen unanimously agreed that the next generation needs to know both of John Denver’s musical talent and his global activism. They told stories of children and grandchildren’s first words and unending recollections having to do with John Denver. Daily they shared how they want young people to learn of his greatness at a time when true heroes are nearly inaccessible.
Notably, during today’s especially divisive political campaign, John Denver fans gathered to regain the seemingly elusive values that traditionally sustain the hearts of all Americans, the steadfast ideals John stood for: love, joy, artistry, nature, song, ecology, fairness, peace, community.
John Denver was a humanitarian who campaigned in 1976 for Jimmy Carter. He traveled to Russia and was instrumental in achieving foreign diplomacy. He was a friend to presidents and dignitaries alike. John Denver’s politics tell us a lot about his values and about the people who continue to honor him faithfully. John was against all forms of violence, opposing war and oppression. He was ardently devoted to world peace. He was a maverick, and accomplished all these things before it became fashionable to do so among celebrities. One could say that John Denver set the stage for wealthy people contributing to global concerns.
John Denver was a popular figure with a particular fan base, and his music was exceptional in its depth of expression both artistically and vocally. Although John Denver was not classically trained, he had a great tenor voice, perhaps one of the greatest of the popular singers of his time, rivaled only by the likes of highly accomplished opera singers such as Jose Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti, and Placido Domingo.
What I always appreciated about John Denver is that he had the confidence to be himself, to create and celebrate his own voice. He didn’t resort to gimmicks to create an image, such as painting his tongue black, biting off the head of a bat, or gyrating his hips, like so many of his equally talented competitors did. He seemed completely comfortable in his own skin, a skin that was often chastised and mocked for being too pristine (despite the alleged and seemingly ever present alcohol and marijuana controversies), too nerdy, geeky, a dweeb, dorky. His boy next door image cost him the respect of many in his field, but to me, as a young teenager and then young woman following his career, I saw him as a stoic, gracefully meeting the challenges of his distasteful bullies. John Denver cared, and he was not afraid to care. He wasn’t ashamed, and he didn’t hide…even when others determined he might have had something to hide, such as his tumultuous relationships or his admitted sterility. He was the gentlest soul with the biggest heart. He was both as human and as divine as they come. The pressures on him, living in a post-machismo time of opportunism, must have been enormous. But somehow, John kept his focus. He turned everything into a song, and even his laments into songs of praise, and in so doing, he gave us hope. You could be in the darkest mood, listening to one of John’s darkest songs, and still, somehow through listening, come out feeling better. His voice was not just that of an angel, but of a comforting angel–one who had especially for you a kleenex and a warm embrace. He made you think. He made you celebrate. He let you despair and rejoice, and he was there for you to do it with.
Perhaps, compared to many John Denver was a regular guy. Not just a “country boy,” but a nature lover, a tree hugger, an environmentalist. He knew what mattered to him, and he left whatever mattered to the mainstream to them. Yet, he was ardent about getting his message out. The proof that he succeeded was everywhere in Aspen this week in the eyes of the hundreds of people who gathered specifically to remember his work.
Coming together in a harmony like this, at this event known as Aspen in October, marking in solemn solitude and in group assembly the anniversary of John Denver’s untimely death, was collectively and individually not only enormously fulfilling, but easily one of the greatest tributes anyone could possibly pay.
I will always remember John Denver and sing his praises–well, speak and write of them (you don’t want to hear me sing). We are all better for having had him here with us, and we are all the lesser for having lost his brilliance.
© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.