Perhaps John Denver’s most famous song, Country Roads became the anthem of the blue collar American. While the world was steam rolling ahead with highways and bypasses, Denver preached the idea of, quite literally, the country road. Like Robert Frost, the road less travelled became the path that Denver chose to take. Denver’s voice, which can be hokey at times, is filled with genuine longing.
While travelling is often seen as a great escape, Denver espouses the simple beauty of coming home. In this case, home is West Virginia (try Toots and the Maytals cover for a West Jamaican variation). A perfect example of Americana folk, Country Roads is at once poignantly simple and remarkably beautiful, hinging on the notion of what “West Virginia” could mean to the listener. It isn’t just that specific state (“Blue Ridge mountains//Shenandoah river”); West Virginia is a symbol for all the complex beauty that home truly is. Even a hardened, cynical New Yorker like myself cannot help but feel that tug at the heartstrings.
Leaving on a Jet Plane
The opposite of Country Roads, Leaving on a Jet Plane is a song about departing that represents the sadness of those fuelled by wanderlust. In an era where people were losing brothers, fathers, and husbands left right and centre to the Vietnam war, Leaving on a Jet Plane has a much broader meaning to it than simply saying goodbye to a loved one with John Denver’s own unfortunate death coming in a plane crash in 1997. Denver’s typical head-voice may have defined corny American folk for good, but there’s no doubt this is one of the most-covered songs about departure.
Like bookends, these two songs perfectly frame the notion of American travel. From the advent of the railroad, to chain gangs, to Jack Kerouac, road-tripping in America has a myriad of cultural connotations and Denver is about as good a place to start as any.