John Denver, musician and actor, is born on this day in Roswell, New Mexico. Denver is remembered for the music he created, and for helping people begin thinking of the West as a pristine unspoiled wilderness rather than an area where cowboys, miners, and homesteaders earned their living.
Born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., Denver was the son of an Air Force officer who moved his family repeatedly during Denver’s youth. After studying architecture at Texas Tech, Denver moved to Los Angeles in 1965 with dreams of becoming a successful folk singer. He gradually built up a reputation as a gifted songwriter and played in the Chad Mitchell Trio before embarking on a solo career in 1969.
Denver’s breakthrough as a singer-songwriter came with the 1971 hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which reached number three on the U.S. pop charts. Softening the often hard-edged rural working class themes of traditional folk music, Denver created a style that celebrated the natural world as a source of beauty and spiritual wisdom rather than a place where one farmed, mined, or cut timber. In tune with a larger national trend, Denver’s music suggested that the West was the heartland of environmental values. Denver even took his stage name from the capitol of Colorado, a state celebrated for its “New West” spirit, and built a home in the then-quaint Colorado ski town of Aspen, Colorado.
Denver’s evocation of a new environmental and spiritual understanding of the West reached its peak with his 1972 album, Rocky Mountain High; the title song of the album celebrated the mind-expanding power and spirituality of the Rockies. Denver also became active in environmental politics, and several environmental groups recognized his efforts to preserve wilderness areas in the Rocky Mountains. Although his singing career cooled in the less spiritually oriented decades that followed, Denver continued to work for environmental causes and participated in a 1995 WildLife Concert to support efforts to protect species and habitats around the world.
Denver had a passionate interest in flying, and piloted planes of all types and sizes throughout his life. While flying an experimental aircraft over Monterey Bay in October 1997, Denver lost control of the plane and crashed into the ocean, dying instantly. He was 53 years old.