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-strangerRed 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 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

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:

Continue reading


This post is about the song “Colorado,” by Paper Bird . . .  but before we get to that, let me talk a bit about my kids’ education.

In 1993, the summer before our son Michael began 4th Grade and our daughter Suzanne began 2nd Grade, our family moved to the mountains outside of Idaho Springs, in Clear Creek County, Colorado.  Clear Creek is small county, and over 70% of it lies within national forest and other public lands.  There were (and still are) fewer than 10,000 people living there, so the school system was rather small.  The whole county had four elementary schools, one middle school and one high school, with the middle school and the high school sharing a single building.

Carlson Elementary School, Idaho Springs

Carlson Elementary School, Idaho Springs

Our children attended Carlson Elementary School in Idaho Springs.  The principal was a gentleman named Kim Summeril.  His wife, Gayla, was a counselor for the school district, and their son, Caleb, was a student at Carlson.

Kim was one of those picking and singing kind of principals.  He would regularly bring his guitar to school and go to the different classrooms to sing songs with the students.  He was popular and Carlson seemed to be providing a good education, so we were disappointed when Kim left a couple of years later to accept a position paying a lot more money as a principal in neighboring Jefferson County, which has Colorado’s largest school district.

The children in the Eastern part of Clear Creek County attended King-Murphy Elementary School through 6th Grade, and then were bused to Idaho Springs when they began middle school.  Sarah Anderson was one of the girls from the King-Murphy region.  She was in the same class as Suzanne, and they both sang in the choir for several years.  Sarah had a beautiful voice, and the choir director always made sure she did some kind of solo at all the choir concerts.

Now let’s jump forward to early 2013.  Michael and Suzanne were grown and Cathy and I had moved down the mountain to Arvada nearly eight years earlier.  I was walking along the Ralston Creek Trail with Darcy, our new 3-month old puppy, when two people riding bikes passed us going in the opposite direction, and then turned around and stopped next to us.  One of them asked me, “Didn’t you used to be Lou Weltzer.”  I admitted that I still was, and as they removed their bike helmets and sunglasses I recognized Kim and Gayla Summeril.  I had not seen them for at least 10 years.

Paper Bird

Paper Bird


We talked for little while and asked about each others’ families.  They told me that Caleb was playing in a band called Paper Bird.  It seems that in the summer of 2006 Caleb had gone hiking with Sarah Anderson and two other friends, Paul DeHaven and Esme Patterson.  They were all musicians and had brought instruments along with them, so they began jamming on the streets of the ski town of Breckenridge, and somehow got a gig to play that night at a local coffee house. Continue reading


In an earlier post, I mentioned that a statute enacted more than a century ago designates “Where the Columbines Grow” as the official Colorado State Song, but in 2007 the Legislature adopted a Resolution naming John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” as an “official co-state song.”  Here, we will look at “Rocky Mountain High.”

John Denver

John Denver

John Denver, whose real name was Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., was born into a military family in Roswell, New Mexico, and moved frequently as he was growing up.  He studied architecture for a short time at Texas Tech University, but dropped out in 1963 and moved to Los Angeles to begin a career in music.  In 1965, he replaced Chad Mitchell in the Mitchell Trio (formerly the Chad Mitchell Trio) after Mitchell left to pursue a solo career.  That group disbanded in 1969 and Denver began his own solo career as a singer-songwriter.

He was a prolific songwriter, recording more than 200 of his original compositions, and recorded often.  Eight of his albums sold more than a million copies, and half a dozen others sold more than a half million.  His association with Colorado was not limited to taking his name from the state’s capital; he resided in Aspen from 1970 until he died in 1997, at the age of 53, in the crash of his personal experimental aircraft.

Denver’s most popular song was probably “Rocky Mountain High.”1, which was written

Cathedral Peak and Cathedral Lake, Aspen

Cathedral Peak and Cathedral Lake, Aspen

in August of 1971 and released as the title song of his 1972 album, Rocky Mountain High.  It soon became a Top 10 hit in both the United States and Canada (where the Rocky Mountains may also be found), but was especially popular in Colorado.  In 1974, by which time he was the most popular male performer in the United States, he was selected as poet laureate for Colorado.

By the late 1970s, John Denver seemingly became less interested in producing new music as his attention was focused on a variety of humanitarian and environmental issues.  He founded the non-profit Windstar Foundation in 1976 and the World Hunger Project in 1977.  He was appointed to the Commission on World and Domestic Hunger by President Jimmy Carter and he received the Presidential World Without Hunger Award from President Ronald Reagan.  In 1993, he was the first performer from outside the classical sphere to receive the Albert Schweitzer Music Award for humanitarian activity.  Denver was one of the first American pop artists to tour both the Soviet Union and Communist China in an effort to promote international cooperation and understanding.

One criticism leveled at Denver’s music was that his songs were often simplistic, sentimental and overly sweet. Continue reading


In considering songs about Colorado, it is important to remember § 24-80-909 of the Colorado Revised Statutes, which provides:

That certain song entitled “Where the Columbines Grow”, the words of which were written by A. J. Fynn and the music of which was composed by A. J. Fynn, is hereby adopted as the official state song of Colorado to be used on all appropriate occasions.



Accordingly, we have to discuss “Where the Columbines Grow.”  It is the law, and has been since 1915.

Now, I have lived in Colorado since the 1950s, and I have only heard this song performed perhaps half a dozen times.  That makes me wonder exactly what an “appropriate occasion” might be, though I am pretty sure this is one.  However, before considering the song, itself, we should look at columbines and their legal context – Specifically, §§ 24-80-905 through 908, which state:

24-80-905. Columbine:  The white and lavender columbine is hereby made and declared to be the state flower of the state of Colorado.
24-80-906. Duty to protect:  It is hereby declared to be the duty of all citizens of this state to protect the white and lavender Columbine Aquilegia, Caerulea, the state flower, from needless destruction or waste.
24-80-907. Limitation on picking state flower:  It is unlawful for any person to tear the state flower up by the roots when grown or growing upon any state, school, or other public lands or in any public highway or other public place or to pick or gather upon any such public lands or in any such public highway or place more than twenty-five stems, buds, or blossoms of such flower in any one day; and it is also unlawful for any person to pick or gather such flower upon private lands without the consent of the owner thereof first had or obtained.
24-80-908. Violation a misdemeanor – penalty:  Any person who violates any provision of section 24-80-907 is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine of not less than five nor more than fifty dollars.

The legislative history tells us that the lavender and white columbine was designated the state flower in 1899, but the provisions calling for its protection and criminalizing the picking of the columbine were not added until 1925.  It makes you wonder whether the intervening 26 years had been an time of floral vandalism making it necessary for the Legislature to take extreme measures.

This is not the time or the place to consider that issue.  We are talking about the state song, even though there is not yet a criminal penalty for failing to include it “on all appropriate occasions.”

The flower we usually think of as the “Colorado columbine” is a perennial that grows from seed, reaching a height of about 15 inches, and is found in mountain meadows or wooded areas (it prefers partial shade) in late Spring or early Summer.  In Colorado, the flower is usually blue or purple, but there are some 60 species of columbine that come in many colors.

Arthur John Fynn, a respected Colorado educator, certainly knew about the columbine.  He moved to Central City from New York in 1889, at the age of 32, and resided in the state until his death in 1930.  He wrote what became the lyrics of the first three verses of “Where the Columbines Grow” in 1909, and composed the music a year or two later. Continue reading


When I was attending college in Boulder, a friend of mine – a 21-year old reminiscing about her childhood long before in Colorado Springs – told me that when you look out at the scenery in Boulder you see the mountains; but when you look out in Colorado Springs you see the MOUNTAIN.  And if you climb the MOUNTAIN and look back, you see America the Beautiful – which just happens to be the second song in our Colorado Songs series,.

THE MOUNTAIN - Pikes Peak as seen from Colorado Springs

THE MOUNTAIN – Pikes Peak as seen from Colorado Springs

The MOUNTAIN, of course, is Pikes Peak, which rises to 14,115 feet above sea level.  Although it is only the 30th highest mountain in Colorado, it is more than 8,000 feet higher than Colorado Springs, which lies only 12 miles away.  It is higher than any point in the United States that lies East of its longitude, so it is an imposing and impressive sight.

Nevertheless, it is not difficult to get to its summit.  There is a steep, but fairly easy hiking trail; a paved auto road runs to the top; and there is a cog railroad.  It was a little more difficult back on July 22, 1893, when Katherine Lee Bates, an English professor from Wellesley College who spent several weeks one summer teaching at Colorado College, went to the top.  She described her ascent as follows:

One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pike’s Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.

While on the mountain, she began a poem in her notebook, writing, “O beautiful for halcyon skies . . .”  That is probably not exactly the way you remember the words, but they have changed a bit over the years.   Continue reading


From time to time, I have commented in these pages on songs that pertain to Colorado – songs like “Get Out of Denver” and “Colorado Christmas” and “On the Natural.”  As you know, there are hundreds of songs written and recorded about our state, and seemingly hundreds of people have compiled lists of the best or worst of those songs.  I have decided to join them, and spend the next several weeks looking at what I consider some of the quintessential Colorado Songs.  This post is the first installment, and I will begin with “Colorado Trail.”

Some of you may know the Colorado Trail as a 486 mile long hiking trail extending from Denver to Durango, at average elevation of over 10,000 feet; but that wasn’t completed

Major cattle trails

Major cattle trails

until 1987, and this song is much older.  It seems that the trail referred to in the song was a spur of the Great Western Trail that ran from near San Antonio, Texas to Ogallala, Nebraska, and which ran roughly parallel to the more famous Chisolm Trail.  The Colorado Trail was not well known or much used, but it extended all the way to Montana.  All of these trails were used to move cattle to towns located on major rail lines, and all fell into disuse as railroads expanded their service into cattle country. The Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad (C.B.&Q.R.R.) essentially followed the Colorado Trail as it brought rail service to Greeley and Northeastern Colorado in 1887.

An interesting thing about this song is that its composers are usually listed as Carl Sandburg and Lee Hays.  Today, we think of Carl Sandburg as the biographer of Abraham Lincoln and the poet who gave us “Chicago” as the “hog butcher for the world.”  However, long before he ever published any book, Sandburg was a traveling salesman and political organizer who traveled across much of the country.  Somewhere around 1910, he acquired a guitar and found that he could attract larger crowds by singing folk songs in addition to reciting poetry and plying his wares. Continue reading