On Tributes, Love Letters, and Sentimentality: To John Denver from Aspen

“Sentimentality is indulgence in emotion of its own sake, or expression of more emotion than an occasion warrants…. Sentimental literature is “tear-jerking” literature. It aims primarily at stimulating the emotions directly rather than at communicating experience truly and freshly; it depends on trite and well-tried formulas for exciting emotion; it revels in old oaken buckets, rocking chairs, mother love, and the pitter-patter of little feet; it oversimplifies; it is unfaithful to the full complexity of human experience.” — Laurence Perrine, from Sound and Sense



We love people for all sorts of reasons.  We love celebrities, it seems, for fewer reasons.  Sometimes it is their looks, but more often it is a celebrity’s talent that captures our attention.  We are fortunate when celebrities take up causes that we care about, and sometimes we care about the celebrity because they care about the same things we do.  John Denver’s interests in the beauty of nature, a sustainable environment, ending world hunger and attaining world peace are revered by so many that he has secured an audience of hundreds of thousands of faithful followers since the 1970s, most still active today, even though he’s been gone from this earth since 1997.

As a former college English instructor, I became interested in the history of a letter writing tradition that once took place during the annual John Denver Tribute Week in Aspen, Colorado.  It was difficult finding locals who knew of this event or who were wiling to discuss it.   Instead, I located representatives from Australia (where John has a huge fan base to this day) and Monterey, California, USA (where John’s experimental aircraft went down).  These affiliates very much wanted to see the tradition revived in Aspen.  When I was unsuccessful at securing interest or writers, I found a tribute radio show that would run live from Aspen that was willing to let the letters be read on air during the broadcast.  I gathered the letters written by fans in California and Australia, and when I couldn’t find anyone willing to write one from Aspen, composed one myself.  When it came time to read the letters on air, I looked for volunteers and found one woman visiting from Australia and one woman who used to live in California willing to fill in as readers — and I read my own letter.

How long has it been since you wrote a tribute to someone?  A love letter?  It’s an interesting exercise worth pursuing.  However, love letters are sentimental, and as such are off the radar of most English teachers, who are consumed with form, with style, with craft.  My training taught me to be self-conscious and dissatisfied by such sentimentality.  Yet given the kind of October I was having (stuck with an unusual and persistent cough that went on for six weeks, along with lingering grief from the loss of my mother the spring before), the opportunity to express such heartfelt sentiments seemed somewhat healing and oddly liberating.  Maybe expressing our love for something or someone–no matter how schmaltzy the end product turns out–isn’t such a bad idea after all.  Remember, in his songwriting, John Denver himself was often accused of this sort of simplicity by jealous critics and fellow artists who never reached the peak of popularity he still receives. There’s something inspired, it turns out, about writing straight from the heart.  At any rate, here is the text of the letter I wrote and read last October to the great spirit of John Denver:


Aspen, Colorado / October 11, 2013

Dear John,

It is hard to imagine all that this world lost when we lost you sixteen years ago. Not only did we lose a man we all felt close to, a man who just happened to be of incomparable talent and perspective, a man of keen wit and perception, but it seems even more evident than ever before that when we lost you, we also lost a treasured compass–our guide and our guru. We knew when we lost you that the road ahead would never be the same, but we never envisioned how we would carry on—what it actually meant to live without your remarkable influence.

All these years later, we lament that many of the causes you dedicated so much passion to continue to go unresolved. We haven’t ended poverty or world hunger. We are only marginally closer to non-polluting sources of energy independence. We continue to make weapons and feed the war machine, spilling untold billions of dollars and tens of thousands of human lives each year. Our economy has been suffering as you predicted it would, and we are probably more politically divided as a nation than in any time since the Civil War. Without your voice, we are left yearning for the kind of comfort, optimism, leadership, and direction your songs so triumphantly celebrate.

We want you to know that we continue to honor your memory. Inspired by your work, we have stayed close to your ideals. We care for our land in small ways and big. We walk and we ponder, and often we look anew with the eyes you taught us to use. We see the hawk and the eagle, and we continue to marvel at the wondrous skies and the beauty you saw and now we see in all of nature. In these ways, we are consoled, and yet we still grieve.

Every October on the days surrounding the anniversary of your death, many of us who love you most gather across the continents to pay tribute to the gifts you so lovingly shared with all of us. Here in Aspen, we visit your Sanctuary; we travel to Windstar to see Spirit and walk the land, which to our dismay was recently sold. We ride the gondolas up Aspen Mountain. We renew old friendships and make new ones with people from around the globe. We share stories, sing your songs together, hang out into the wee hours of the night at Mountain Chalet sing-alongs.  We laugh and we hug, grow closer, smile a lot, find the healing we seek, and say, “FAR OUT!,” and even occasionally “MAGOOMBA!!!” And sometimes we cry.

We attend concerts and campfires, go on hayrides, enjoy the fresh mountain air, and have a luncheon at the Cookhouse. The thing we want you most to know is that we have become a family. We call it, “Our John Denver Family.”

We know that you would be so pleased with the friendships we develop, and we feel a fulfilling sense of pride in all that you gave to us, not the least of which are these shared experiences. We remember that this level of recognition, this sense of community and at oneness is something you always wanted for yourself and for all of humankind.

In addition, because current times provide us with a wealth of resources such as text messaging and Facebook, we even manage to communicate with one another daily. You are always the main topic of conversation. On the internet, we also have access to your autobiography.  We have websites and Facebook groups dedicated to your memory. Nightly, we visit recordings of your concert performances, music videos, and television appearances. We feel incredibly fortunate to be your fans and your family. We feel lucky to have known you, to understand what you were all about.

Our dearest John, you gave us your energy, your talent, your spirit and your time, and we celebrate it all with unfaltering gratitude. We are the brothers and sisters your vision created. We are the world peace you sang for with all your heart. Your grand life was full of purpose, and it mattered to all of us and it continues to matter. We love you, we miss you, we appreciate you, and we thank you.

All rights reserved, © Debra A. Valentino