Willoughby: Colorado, a muse, elicits songs that connect heart to soil
Legends & Legacies
Nationally recognized lyrics about a state such as California or Colorado bind people to people, and people to place. One example leaps to mind, John Stewart’s “There’s California bloodlines in my heart /And a California heartbeat in my soul.” And how about “I left my heart in San Francisco,” by Douglass Cross, or “California dreamin’ ” from The Mamas and the Papas? If you love the southern part of the golden state, America’s “Ventura Highway” reminds you of an experience “Where the days are longer/The nights are stronger/Than moonshine.”
Other songs, to be sure, may denigrate a state that others love. Those who close a door behind them in California sing Jerry Jeff Walker’s “L.A. Freeway” all the way to Colorado. “Adios to all this concrete/Gonna’ get me some dirt road back street.”
Colorado inspires its own portfolio of songs, although perhaps not as many as do larger states. But you need only a few powerful tunes to connect heart to soil. The state’s most famous lyrics are not widely recognized, unfortunately, for their roots. These lyrics describe, but do not name, the state. Nevertheless, the view across the plains from atop Pikes Peak in 1893 inspired Katherine Lee Bates’s “America the Beautiful.” Nor does A.J. Flynn’s classic, “Where the Columbines Grow” mention Colorado. But those who studied Colorado History recognize “Where the scream of the bold mountain eagle/Responds to the notes of the dove,” words that ring through our beloved state song, adopted in 1915.
In modern times many folk artists recorded “The Colorado Trail,” arranged by poet Carl Sandburg and Lee Hayes, a member of The Weavers folk group. The lines mention the state: “Weep all ye little rains. Wail winds, wail. All along, along, along the Colorado Trail.” But these words do little to build an exciting emotional bond. Bob Dylan refers to Colorado twice in his version of “A Man of Constant Sorrow.” But that song doesn’t lift the spirits to the mountaintops, either. However, country stars have mined Colorado for more golden lyrics. For David C. Kirby’s “Colorado,” Merle Haggard sang, “Have you ever been down to Colorado?/I spend a lot of time there in my mind/And if God doesn’t live in Colorado/I’ll bet that’s where He spends most of His time.”
John Deutschendorf did not change his name to Detroit, nor Davenport. Because of his attachment to the state he renamed himself John Denver. Our quintessential anthem “Rocky Mountain High” reverberates with the state name and was named Colorado’s second official State Song in 2007.
For those of us who grew up in Colorado and have to leave that high even for a short time, Denver’s “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado” rings with a memorable metaphor, “He’d rather spend his time out where the sky looks like a pearl after a rain.”
As with San Francisco’s well-worn song, other lyrics lay claim to their own cities. Jimmy Buffett carves a memorable image, “I’m about a mile high in Denver/Where rock meets timberline/Where God and trees create the breeze/Tonight I’ll call it mine.”
Denver wrote Aspen’s own anthem, “Starwood in Aspen” for a Wintersköl song competition. The song expresses the disconnect between Los Angeles and Aspen, “It’s a long way home to Starwood in Aspen/A sweet Rocky Mountain paradise, oh, my sweet Rocky Mountain paradise.”
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band composed my favorite state songs. “Ripplin’ Waters” by Aspen’s Jimmy Ibbotson captures with melody and lyrics all we love about our high mountain paradise. The song mentions neither Colorado nor Aspen, but there’s no other place “Warm as the mountain sunshine/On the edge of the snow line/In a meadow of columbine.”
Another Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song, written by Steve Goodman, repeats the now-classic yearning from Hollywood for Aspen. Any time of year when I listen to “Colorado Christmas” with eyes closed, I see, hear and feel snowfall on my heartland. “The closest thing to heaven on this planet anywhere is a quiet Christmas morning in the colorado snow.”
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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