Lately I’ve been kind of obsessed with John Denver. Now, before you go thinking that John Denver sucks, allow me to say, I know. Believe me…growing up in the 70s, John Denver on the radio was like community-sanctioned child abuse.
(That’s one of the interesting things about music: even the greatest songs, played too much, can, at best, lose appeal, and, at worse, drive you nuts.)
But a few weeks ago PBS showed a special about John Denver. (This was during their pledge week, when they pull out all the old music to tug on the heart- and purse-strings of their Boomer donor demographic.) Suddenly childhood memories were washing over me in his melodies–from the early 70s when I was 3 or 4, through to the end of the decade.
And I had to appreciate again that John Denver kind of kicks ass. There is definitely a reason he was so insanely popular.
In the tv documentary they mentioned the amazing honesty in his voice.
Of course his was a brilliant songwriter, as "Leaving on a Jet Plane," showed, which Peter, Paul and Mary first made a hit. The rhymes in the lines, "Now the dawn is breaking/It’s early morn/The taxi’s waiting/He’s blowing his horn," are both tightly constructed and perfectly natural.
Other times his lyrics could be more than a tad cheesy; schmaltzy; cliche.
Another comment from the documentary that stuck with me was that "Sunshine On My Shoulder," which in many ways is a positive and even uplifting song, also has a hint of sadness, melancholy and loss in it. Something about the ways he sings it slow, in addition to the melody and the "if I had…" lyrics.
Listening to the song today, I’m struck by how says "sunshine almost always" instead of saying ‘sunshine always makes me smile.’ And he ends the song not with a full chorus, that would have ended on "smile", but with an abbreviated chorus, so the song ends with the three words "sunshine almost always," which is kind of poingant.
Sometimes I think that much of life contains this intoxicating mixture of beauty and sadness. Great art captures this. One reason I love traditional Chinese and Japanese poetry, such as haiku, is that it often contains this melancholy blend of tenderness and longing.