ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH A Colorado Song

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.  However, those “weaknesses” produced the feelings of optimism and easy acceptance that made the songs popular and has kept them popular decades after Denver’s passing.

“Rocky Mountain High” is certainly simple, sweet and sentimental, but it has generated quite a bit of controversy.  When it was first released, many radio stations refused to play it because they believed that it promoted the use of drugs to achieve a “high.”  That issue was also raised, and ultimately dismissed, during its consideration for “co-state song” by the Colorado Legislature.2 There was even speculation that the line about “I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky” was a reference to flying saucers and alien contact (after all, he came from Roswell, NM).

The song is actually much simpler, and was explained in detail by Denver several times, including in his autobiography and in testimony before Congress.  Each August, in the late night and early morning sky, the northern hemisphere is treated to the wonderful spectacle of the Perseid Meteor Shower.  Not only is it often the most prolific meteor shower of the year, it is the most popular because it occurs in the summer when the nights are warm and the cosmic show can be seen by anyone who wishes to stay up late and spend some time away from city lights.  In August of 1971, John Denver and some of his friends did just that – they camped at Williams Lake near Aspen, at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, and watched the Perseid shower into the wee hours of the morning. He began composing the song that night, finishing it a couple of weeks later with the assistance of fellow musician Mike Taylor who “showed [him] this guitar lick and suddenly the whole thing came together. It was just what the piece needed.”

Many of the lyrics refer to incidents that were very personal to Denver.  For instance, the very first line is:  “He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before.”  This refers to the fact that John and his wife had made Aspen their home shortly before his 27th birthday.  He then says, “When he first came to the mountains, his life was far away on the road and hanging by a song,” referring to his life as a musician performing all across the country.  When he talks about “climb[ing] cathedral mountains,” he is probably thinking of Cathedral Peak and its neighbor, Castle Peak, which are two of the highest peaks in Colorado and are located just outside of Aspen.  The line about “he lost a friend, but kept the memory” refers to an incident in which a friend from Minnesota had come to Colorado to visit and was killed in an accident while riding Denver’s motorcycle.

John Denver’s concern for the environment is also evident as the song points out that he cannot comprehend “why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more, more people, more scars upon the land.”

Here is one of John’s recordings of “Rocky Mountain High”:

Rocky Mountain High
By John Denver and Mike Taylor

He was born in the summer of his 27th year
Coming home to a place he’d never been before
He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again
You might say he found a key for every door

When he first came to the mountains his life was far away
On the road and hanging by a song
But the string’s already broken and he doesn’t really care
It keeps changing fast and it don’t last for long

But the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabye
Rocky mountain high (Colorado)

He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below
He saw everything as far as you can see
And they say that he got crazy once and he tried to touch the sun
And he lost a friend but kept his memory

Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky
You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply
Rocky mountain high

Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear
Of a simple thing he cannot comprehend
Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more
More people, more scars upon the land

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly
Rocky mountain high

It’s Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
Friends around the campfire and everybody’s high
Rocky mountain high
Rocky mountain high
Rocky mountain high
Rocky mountain high
Rocky mountain high
Rocky mountain high

 © SONY/ATV MUSIC PUBLISHING LLC, WARNER/CHAPPELL MUSIC, INC., RESERVOIR ONE MUSIC

For an index of the Colorado Songs in this series, please click here.

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  1.  John Denver wrote many other songs that were extremely popular, including “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Annie’s Song,” “Sunshine on My Shoulder,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”  The popularity of “Rocky Mountain High” is evidenced by the fact that, according to allmusic.com, various versions of Denver performing the song are available on nearly 100 different albums.
  2. Actually, the issue has not been completely “dismissed.”  At the John Denver Sanctuary outside of Aspen, which was dedicated in 2000, there are stone obelisks on which the lyrics to several of his songs have been etched.  The obelisk with the lyrics for “Rocky Mountain High” omits this line from last verse:  “Friends around the campfire and everybody’s high.”  (see Aspen Times, October 13, 2007)

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