1943 – 1997
by Steve Gosden
No entertainer has had the impact on ecology and the environment as has New Mexico-born John Denver.
John Denver was born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. on December 31, 1943, in Roswell, New Mexico, the son of an Army Air Corps flight instructor and his wife. Young John lived the life of an Army brat, moving from base to base, living in Phoenix, Arizona, Montgomery, Alabama and Fort Worth, Texas.
As a young teenager growing up in Phoenix, Denver felt a close affinity with the land and would visit the desert every chance he got. In junior high and high school, although he played guitar and wrote music, he was basically a loner.
While in high school and living in Fort Worth, Denver’s parents grew apart and there was talk of divorce. Not wanting to be a part of the family breakup Denver left home and drove to Los Angeles where he stayed several days with family friends before his dad came and got him.
After graduating from high school in 1961, he attended Texas Tech where he majored in architecture. While there he played musical gigs around the area, sometimes by himself, sometimes with a group called The Alpine Trio. By 1964, bored with school, he dropped out and returned to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. He began performing at Ledbetter’s, a club in Westwood and later moved to Encino, Caifornia where he began performing as the opening act for the Backporch Majority.
During this time he changed his name to John Denver because he identified with the Rocky Mountains.
He left California for New York City where he auditioned to replace Chad Mitchell in the famous folk music group The Chad Mitchell Trio. He got the job and they became known as the Mitchell Trio. During this time the Vietnam War was in full swing and their songs included satires on Lyndon Johnson and the war, including Tom Paxton’s “We Didn’t Know” and Phil Och’s “Draft Dodger Rag.”
Denver began writing songs, including “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which became a big hit when recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. During this period (1966) he met Annie Martell of St. Peter, Minnesota. They married on June 9, 1967. They would later adopt a boy, Zak, and a girl, Anna Kate.
In the Summer of 1969, Denver got a recording contract with RCA Records. His first album, “Rhymes and Reasons”, came out in the fall of 1969. By his third album (1970), Denver’s social and political leanings were more clearly defined, recording Tom Paxton’s “Whose Garden Was This?” — his first song about the environment. The album,”Whose Garden Was This?” sold fewer copies than any record he’d ever done. After his third album, the Cellar Door booked him as a headliner for the first time.
Denver’s 1974 recording of “Annie’s Song” tells of a love, but in real life their marriage was starting to fall apart and they divorced in 1982.
By this time John Denver was becoming a major star with hits like “Take Me Home Country Roads” (1971). He appeared on the “Merv Griffen Show” and the “Bob Hope Show.” He starred in the movies “O God” (1977) and “Foxfire” (1987). Over a fifteen year period (1969 – 1984) he recorded twenty-five albums for RCA.
By the early 1970’s Denver’s music began showing a more ecological feeling. He wrote and recorded “Rocky Mountain Suite” in 1972. One of it’s memorable lines, “The life in the mountains is living in danger, with too many people, too many machines,” succinctly summed up one of the main themes of the environmental movement.
Denver continued to search for other ways to express himself. In 1972 he was already thinking “Love the earth as you would love yourself.” He had been attracted to the ideas of the 1960s flower children, especially the idea of loving one another.
Becoming more and more influenced by environmental concerns, Denver became an expert on birds of prey, which led to his writing the song “The Eagle and the Hawk” (1971). On a road trip, Denver and his friends got into a discussion on the threat of nuclear power. This led to the creation of the Windstar Foundation, an institution that combined school, meeting place, and model environment.
Denver’s work with Japanese aikido led him to reexamine his knowledge of nutrition and nutrition questions led to questions about hunger, especially world hunger. Becoming involved in the Hunger Project, he wrote the song “I Want to Live” (1977), which became the group’s anthem. During this time, Windstar continued to grow and evolve.
In 1979 Denver became interested in Alaska and the idea of people working and living with the environment, not against it. With the Alaska pipeline being built, Alaska was being used to meet the energy needs of the rest of the country, a concept that Denver opposed. He firmly believed that we needed the wilderness more than it needed us. This was during a time when environmentalism was considered a dirty word in Washington.
According to Denver’s wishes, Windstar was to be a demonstration of what we know technologically and scientifically that is in harmony with nature. He looked to renewable forms of energy like wind and sun, not nuclear power.
A strong proponent of solar power, this was his influence in writing “Sunshine on My Shoulders” (1971). In 1976 he bought a thousand acres of land in Snowmass, Colorado, for Windstar. Here people would come to learn about the environment and it’s connections between mind, body and spirit.
With his marital problems and other personal problems in his life, Denver began to develop an alcohol problem that would remain with him for the rest of his life. He is very candid about this in his autobiography “Take Me Home” (1994).
By the mid 1980’s Denver was quickly becoming disillusioned. RCA Records was no longer interested in promoting or even releasing his albums. According to Denver’s autobiography, during the Reagan administration, the public did not want anything with substance, including music. Nothing mattered as long as it looked good.
During this time Denver still toured, but his performances became an ongoing effort to celebrate Planet Earth as home. Windstar continued to thrive, with such intellects as R. Buckminster Fuller serving on it’s board of directors. Windstar recognized that the planet Earth is a living, breathing organism whose vitality, beauty, and growth depend on it’s ability to exist as a unified and harmonious whole. As a think tank and school, Windstar fostered the concept of harmony individually, collectively, and environmentally.
In 1986 Denver met Cassandra Delaney in Sydney, Australia. They married on August 12, 1988. She later gave birth to Denver’s daughter, Jesse Belle. Denver and his wife divorced in 1993.
In 1993, at age fifty, Denver continued his work with Windstar and at the same time continued to battle his personal demons. On October 12, 1997, he was killed when the experimental plane he was flying crashed into the Pacific Ocean just off the California coast. He was 53 years old.
One of the best sources of information on John Denver’s life is his autobiography “Take Me Home” (1994), published by Harmony Books.
- The Windstar Organization has an elegant tribute to Denver as well as lots of quotations from his ideas about the environment and living in it.
- The Rocky Mountain High Fan Club has lots of information and web links for Denver and his music as well as other topics.
- Johndenver.com has a biography, photos and more.
- The website for the public television program “Nature” has a page about a program they did, honoring Denver’s contributions to the environmental movement.
- The Forever, John Denver Community website has tributes to Denver and ongoing discussions of his ideals.