The natural beauty and the interesting people of Colorado have inspired many wonderful songs through the years. In this series of posts, we look at some of the best of these. The songs considered to date are:
The fog on a London morning is not the same as the toxic haze of Beijing, and both are different from the the wide open vistas of Montana’s Big Sky Country.
Songs like Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Ole Buttermilk Sky” evoke images of particular and distinct locales.
The sky that is seen from any place on Earth is determined and shaped by what is below it. Its breadth may be framed by mountains or extend across an ocean to the horizon. The color of the sky and the clouds it holds result from the dust and humidity of the land, and the clouds often form around geographic features like lakes or mountains.
The sky above is familiar to those below who have seen its ways. They can predict the weather based on the color of the sunrise or sunset, and they can use the stars to guide them home.
In a real sense, any place on this planet is defined by the sky which is above it. Therefore, it would seem that a song like Pure Prairie League’s “Boulder Skies” should tell us something about the City of Boulder. But it doesn’t.
“Boulder Skies” is a pleasant song performed by talented musicians, and it is definitely a Colorado song; though I can’t say precisely what it is about – other than a brown-eyed “Colorado Canyon Girl.” But was she real, or just a pie in the sky dream? Continue reading →
The 2016 presidential election is finally over. It appears that when all the votes are counted, Hillary Clinton will have received nearly a million more votes than her opponent, Donald Trump. Consequently, Mr. Trump will be the next President of the United States.
How does that work? Although the result is not what would be expected in a democracy, it is par for the course in the constitutional federal republic under which we operate in this country. When I am asked why that should be so, I generally reply that the answer is obvious from the words “par for the course.” The Framers of the Constitution were mostly good old boy politicians who got together on the golf course and had come to expect that the lowest score should win.
That explanation may be accepted by the average American; but I know that you, Dear Reader, are well above average. I know that you know that the first American golf course was not established in Savannah, Georgia, until 1794 – five years after the Constitution came into effect. Recognizing that, I will proffer a more detailed account. In doing so, I want to keep within certain space limitations and I do not intend to write an academic paper. There will be no footnotes and many of the statements will be general, though I will gladly provide references for anyone who feels they are necessary.
Under the United States Constitution, the selection of the President falls to the members (“Electors”) of what is known as the Electoral College (although that term is not used in the Constitution).
After the Revolutionary War, the new United States of America operated under the Articles of Confederation, which was a form of constitution agreed to by the original 13 states. It soon became clear that those Articles were deficient in many ways, and a new Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in May of 1787. By July that year, most of the basic elements for a federal government had been agreed upon and a committee was appointed to work out the details. One of the most important of those “details” was the office of the President. Continue reading →
Singer/songwriter/poet/novelist Leonard Cohen departed this world yesterday, November 10, 2016, less than two months after his 82nd birthday. He was admired and famous enough that today the print and electronic media include numerous pieces remembering him and his work. I won’t add to that, except to say that in 2013 I posted some thoughts about a Leonard Cohen concert I saw with my brother Jim more than 40 years ago, when the singer was still a “youngster.” You can read it by clicking here.
I have just returned from a week in Florida where there seems to be a law that tourists are required to listen to Jimmy Buffett’s “drunken Caribbean rock ‘n’ roll.” Down there, nobody even thinks about – and perhaps they don’t even know about – Jimmy’s long-time ties to Colorado, which began no later than 1970 when “A Mile High in Denver” was included on his very first album, Down to Earth (1970).1
Jimmy Buffett was born on Christmas Day, 1946. He grew up in Alabama and Mississippi, and earned a degree in History from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1969. However, he really wanted a career in music and soon moved to Nashville where he worked for the regional staff of Billboard magazine and played in local clubs. He is a talented writer and musician and was quickly discovered and signed to record for Barnaby Records, a label owned by singer Andy Williams.
Sometime before that first record came out, Jimmy vacationed in Colorado. It being 1970, and Jimmy being Jimmy, the title’s reference to being a “mile high” has been seen as a sly reference to drugs. It may very well be that, but the song is mostly about a vacation in Colorado.
That first album is stylistically much different than Jimmy’s later work. Back in 1970, he seemed to be another folksy singer/songwriter offering social commentary with songs like “The Christian?” and “Ellis Dee (He Ain’t Free)” and clever tunes like “Captain America.” However, that first album also had an excellent song about Jimmy’s grandfather, a old seafaring man, called “The Captain and the Kid” that gave a hint of his future work.
Jimmy did not remain in Colorado. After he left Nashville, he spent a couple of years busking in New Orleans and Key West, during which time he developed the “Gulf and Western” style that has defined his career and made him rich and famous.
Still, he must have liked Colorado because when he became rich and famous he moved here and bought a house on Snowmass Road outside of Aspen. Continue reading →
By special request, this installment of Colorado Songs considers a song that is actually called “Colorado,” written by Rick Roberts.
Often, it is difficult to determine what may have motivated or inspired the composer of a song. That is not the case here because Rick Roberts wrote a book called Song Stories and Other Left-Handed Recollections in 2014 which explains many of his songs, including this one.
It seems that after high school he decided to travel from Florida to California to become a rock star. On the way, he passed through Boulder, Colorado and stayed for a few months. When he finally hitchhiked to Los Angeles, he found that becoming a star was not quite as easy as he had envisioned, and started thinking that maybe he had made a mistake leaving the beauty and culture of late-1960s Boulder. Then, he writes, “[t]hat was when this song came tumbling out. … It was one of the first songs I ever wrote that was not just an imitation of somebody else’s work.” The parts about the girl he left behind were made up for the sake of the song.
Roberts’ luck did change for the better. In 1970, Ed Tickner, the manager of the Flying Burrito Brothers, heard Rick playing at a small club. He was impressed with the young man at just the time Gram Parsons had left the Burritos and the group was looking for a replacement. Tickner and Chris Hillman invited Rick to join their group and his songwriting talents began to blossom. Within a few months, the Flying Burrito Brothers released their eponymous third album which included “Colorado” and six other songs written by Roberts..
The Flying Burrito Brothers essentially broke up shortly thereafter, though they continued with differing lineups as a country music group for many more years. Roberts, meanwhile, began a solo career and moved back to Colorado in the mid-1970s (answering the question at the end of this song: “Colorado, … won’t you let me come home?”). Continue reading →
In the mid-1960s, the most popular rock band in Colorado was the Boenzee Cryque (pronounced BEN-ZEE CRICK), which was formed in 1964 by Sam Bush, who later started the new Grass Revival, and several of his friends. The personnel changed from time to time as members were drafted, married, moved and pursued other interests. Still, they remained a working band, playing clubs, high school dances, fraternity parties – maybe a bar mitzvah or two, though I can’t say for sure. For awhile, they had a #1 single in the regional market.
Their greatest popularity was between 1966 and 1968 when their lineup included a pedal steel guitarist named Rusty Young. Young had played in country bands since he was in elementary school, and his work with Boenzee Cryque was an important step in the development of country rock.
Autumn in Nederland
Boenzee Cryque disbanded in 1968 as a direct result of the breakup of a much more famous group, the Buffalo Springfield, whose most famous members – Steven Stills and Neil Young – had decided to strike out on their own during the recording of their final album, Last Time Around. Other musicians came and went during those months, but by the time they were ready to record the last song, “Kind Woman,” the group was essentially just Richie Furay and Jim Messina. For that last track, Furay invited Rusty Young, whom he had known in Colorado, to come to California to play pedal steel. The result was one of the best songs ever done by Buffalo Springfield, and Young stayed in California to form a new group with Furay and Messina.
That new group was Poco, which included Young, Furay and Messina, as well as George Grantham, who was the Boenzee Cryque’s drummer, and Randy Meisner, who was a vocalist/bass player for a band called the Poor, which was made up of former members of another Denver band, the Soul Survivors. Continue reading →
In this “Colorado Song” installment, we will look at “Denver,” from Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger album. The song lasts less than a minute, but it is quite pleasant and worth listening to.
Red Headed Stranger is a concept album that was released in 1975. It was the first album Willie recorded for Columbia Records under a contract that gave him complete creative control over his recordings. The concept was based on a song that had been written for Perry Como in 1954 – though Como never recorded it. At that time, Willie was the host of a radio show called “The Western Express” on station KCNC in Fort Worth, Texas. For three hours (and later, four hours), he would sing and play guitar, play records and take calls from listeners. He began playing the version of “Red Headed Stranger” released by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, and sometimes singing it, himself. Willie used it as a “cradle song” to get children in the audience to take their naps at 1:00 p.m., and he sang it at bedtime for his own daughter – though it certainly is not a children’s song.
The story that is told begins with a cowboy coming home and finding his wife has left him. Throughout the first side of the album, another short song written by Willie, “Time of the Preacher,” is repeated several times, with slight differences. At the end of the first version, before the cowboy learns of his wife’s infidelity, we are told “now the preachin’ is over and the lesson’s begun.” The next version comes after he finds his wife gone, and this one ends: “Now the lesson is over and the killin’s begun.” It is followed by another short piece, a medley of a Willie Nelson composition called “Blue Rock, Montana” and a few lines from “Red Headed Stranger,” which tell of the cowboy finding his wife and her lover “in a quiet little out of the way place.” They are not a sympathetic couple, for “they smiled at each other as he walked through the door/and they died with their smiles on their faces,/yes, they died with their smiles on their face.”
After he has killed the unfortunate couple, the cowboy realizes what he has done, and his lament is described in “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” which became Willie’s signature song. That is followed by “Red Headed Stranger,” telling how the cowboy rides away, “wild in his sorrow,” taking his deceased wife’s horse with him. In another town, he meets a blonde woman who tries to play upon his affections and steal his wife’s horse; but as soon as she reaches for the horse, he shoots and kills her, also. We are told:
“The yellow-haired lady was buried at sunset;
The stranger went free, of course,
For you can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman
Who’s tryin’ to steal your horse.”
As you can see, it’s not really a children’s song
“Time of the Preacher” is then reprised, this time ending, “when you think it’s all over, it’s only begun.”
The cowboy heads south, and the second side of the album begins with the song featured here, “Denver.” Continue reading →
Colorado is noted for the majestic beauty of its mountains and the nobility of its people, and those qualities have inspired many wonderful songs. Like anywhere else, though, there is also a bit of weirdness around these parts; and that, too, has been the subject of a song or two. “The Ballad of Alferd Packer,” by Phil Ochs, is of the latter category.
Alfred G. “Alferd” Packer
Alfred Griner “Alferd” Packer was born in 1842 in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. When the American Civil War broke out, he twice enlisted in the Union Army, but each time he was soon discharged because of epilepsy. Legend has it that during his second enlistment, Packer had his name tattooed on his arm, but the tattoo artist misspelled it as “Alferd.” For some reason, he liked that name better than Alfred, so he began using it.
After his second short enlistment, Packer seems to have headed West and spent the next decade prospecting and working at various jobs in mining camps. In the winter of 1873, he was in Utah, and joined a party with 20 other prospectors to travel to Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. It was a hard winter that year, and in January of 1874, when the party reached the camp of Ute Chief Ouray, they were advised to delay their expedition until spring. Most of the miners heeded that advice, but five of them decided to push on through the mountains, and they hired Packer to guide them.
Ten weeks later, in early April, Packer turned up alone at the Los Piños Indian Agency located between the towns of Saguache and Gunnison. He said that he had been injured and fallen behind his companions. However, it was reported that he had several wallets in his possession, with rolls of money in each – and none of the other miners had been seen.
About a month later, he began to admit that the others had died or been killed, and that he had eaten parts of their flesh in order to survive. The details of his story changed considerably over time, so it is not known exactly what happened. Packer was arrested, but he escaped from the jail and remained free for nine years until he was found in Wyoming and re-arrested. After a trial, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. According to the local newspaper, the presiding judge, one M. B. Gerry, pronounced the sentence as follows:
Stand up yah voracious man-eatin’ sonofabitch and receive yir sintince. When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven Dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of ’em, goddam yah. I sintince yah t’ be hanged by th’ neck ontil yer dead, dead, dead, as a warnin’ ag’in reducin’ th’ Dimmycratic populayshun of this county. Packer, you Republican cannibal, I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it. Continue reading →
“In My Colorado Home” is a song first recorded by the Sons of the San Joaquin. Those readers who are paying close attention to this point may object that the San Joaquin Valley is in California, and not Colorado – and that’s true.
The Sons of the San Joaquin are a trio consisting of brothers Jack and Joe Hannah and Joe’s son, Lon Hannah. The Hannah family moved from Missouri to California’s Central Valley during the Great Depression. Jack and Joe’s father became a fan of the Sons of the Pioneers in the 1930s, when that group was a trio made up of Roy Rogers, Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan, and he would often sing their songs at home.
Spanish Peaks, La Veta, Colorado
Half a century later, in 1987, Lon Hannah thought it would be fitting to perform some of those old songs at a birthday celebration for his grandfather, and he enlisted the aid of his father and uncle for the performance.
Jack and Joe Hannah are interesting and talented men. Both had played professional baseball for many years in the 1950s and early 1960s – Joe as a catcher in the Chicago Cubs organization and Jack as a pitcher for Milwaukee Braves’ farm teams. When they retired from baseball, both became high school teachers and coaches, and Joe was also the high school music director. They had performed together at local events for several years and were certainly prepared when Lon suggested the performance for their father.
The family trio was a great success and they soon began playing professionally. Their success continued, and in 1992 Jack and Joe both took early retirement from teaching to become full-time musicians. The following year, Lon, who was an elementary school teacher, took an extended leave of absence from his position and resigned soon thereafter.
The songs on their first four albums, which were released between 1990 and 1993, were almost all cover versions of songs that had been written and performed by the Sons of the Pioneers. In 1995 they released an album called From Whence Came the Cowboy that contained mostly original songs written by Jack Hannah, either alone or with a co-writer. Jack’s songs were featured on most of their later albums, and were good enough that he was named the Western Music Association’s Songwriter of the Year in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2006 and 2011.
One of the songs on From Whence Came the Cowboy was “In My Colorado Home,” which Jack co-wrote with cowboy poet Darrell Arnold1. It seems that the song may have been influenced by “Rock Me To Sleep in My Rocky Mountain Home,” which had been recorded in 1935 by the Sons of the Pioneers, but Arnold brings a legitimate tie-in to the State of Colorado.
Darrell Arnold was born and raised in the small town of La Veta in southern Colorado. He studied Wildlife Biology in college, served four years in the Air Force and held a number of different jobs before he became a journalist in 1983. In 1990, he started a publication called Cowboy Magazine, which was known as the “voice of the working ranch cowboy” until it ceased publication in 2008. I believe that Mr. Arnold still lives in La Veta – which has a population of less than 800 – where he collects Social Security and still writes the occasional poem.
The Hannahs are also pretty much retired, but they still perform in California from time to time. Here is the original version of “In My Colorado Home,” showing their wonderful harmonies: