‘Rocky Mountain High’ should be our state song

Letter by Ken Davies

Colorado – April 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

`Rocky Mountain High’ should be our state song

With little more, in 1972, than a guitar, his voice, and a remarkably clear artistic insight, John Denver placed an image into the world of Colorado’s most known and admired identity attribute. Since then, “Rocky Mountain High” has emotionally captivated hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of people and burned into them their image of Colorado.

Like many of his songs, Rocky Mountain High is a sensation of rather than about Colorado. Conceived, basically, within the folk-song tradition, the melodic and harmonic content are specifically crafted to bring forth and maintain from the listener a sense of heightened awareness of unique aesthetic feelings that Colorado inspires in many if its residents and visitors. The words, likewise, combine both careful poetic and lyric technique in shaping memorable phrases rich in multi-meaning, well beyond mere narration or description. The third-person singular narrative style is simply the method utilized to provide the listener a “personal individual” focus to phrases evoking aesthetic awareness of the environmental surroundings and related philosophical considerations.

The often criticized so-called “simplicity” is remarkably deceptive in both the text and the music. For example, the predominance of the fifth scale degree in the melodic material helps maintain a sense of sustained serene, yet heightened awareness that wouldn’t occur if other pitches were used or melody varied too much. Lyrically, the spiritual-intellectual significance suggestiveness of “climbing cathedral mountains” or “trying to understand the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake” should provoke any perceptive person to the deeper thoughts to which the song addresses itself and points the listener. The unforgettable scenery, the awe and inspiration, the sheer power and magnitude that Colorado signifies and fires up as one experiences it makes “Rocky Mountain HIGH” a life-giving phrase for which there may be no adequate substitute. It is work like this that earned him the title Poet Laureate of Colorado in 1977, a title he held until his recent death.

This is not merely John Denver “expressing himself” nor is it merely a well-known popular song. This is a deliberately developed, artistic, “expressive form” with a proven life of its own — the essence of what any art, regardless of levels of “complexity,” is about. The successful result is the multitude of people who remark that their experience with Colorado so closely parallels the aesthetic attributes, or “feel,” of the song. To me, as a Colorado resident, a musician, and also a composer well-studied in æsthetics, it is perfectly logical and understandable that “Rocky Mountain High” has identified Colorado for millions. It is also one of many examples of why John Denver is an appropriate role model for music, music education, ecology, humanity, and certainly Colorado. The establishment of a “John Denver Music Education Foundation” in Colorado would be another worthy and significant endeavor.

As a creating musical artist, as well as a performing one, John Denver utilized and elevated the popular song genre by specifically crafting many songs around themes addressing specific aesthetic aspects of ecology as well as social humanitarian themes, both areas in which he also devoted a large part of his life in non-musical endeavors. This body of songs is no mere collection of “environmental songs” or “social songs.” Each song is a miniature masterpiece of significant magnitude, many of which have had far reaching and powerful influence on the shaping of environmental consciousness, equal, in themselves, to many a political or publicity force. The songs have depth and they move people. They’re still moving them, more than 20 years later. In February 1998, he posthumously received a Grammy award for best musical children’s album, All Aboard.

Ken Davies