music journalism, Op-Ed

Coming and Going: Does John Denver Epitomise American Travel?

For a man named Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. (“Deutschendorf” translates as “German village”) to change his name to John Denver says a lot about his attitude to belonging. Despite claiming a particularly corny strand of homesick Americana as his own, Denver née Deutschendorf epitomised something about the coming and going of travel that just won’t leave us alone. And it’s just as well. iCrates’ very own cynical New Yorker finds space in her heart for Denver’s classic American road music.

Chuck Klosterman wrote (and I paraphrase) that the beauty of road trip movies (and their music), is less about the places seen, but more about the personal development of the protagonist over the course of the trip; in other words ‘it’s the journey, not the destination’. Clichés are clichés for a reason, though, and Klosterman was right. In an era of American transformation, hitchhiking, and social liberation, the quintessential idea of American travel also changed. The unexpected harbinger of this American idea of travel was John Denver. While often written off as kitschy, Denver’s music represented the American desire to return to simpler times, to honest values and to home, whatever and wherever home might be. The possibilities of travel were heightened during this era and Denver’s music represented something that was accessible to almost everyone. Focussed on the simple ideas of going and coming, leaving and returning, there are two, albeit hugely famous songs by John Denver that epitomize the dualities of American travel.

Country Roads

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.