Location, Location #3: Rocky Mountain High

Williams Lake
Williams Lake near Aspen, Colorado

I’ll never forget the day I heard Rocky Mountain High for the first time. It was in the Fall of 1972 and I and my toddler son, Joel, were on our way north to Elk Creek, a tiny town in the foothills of the Northern Coastal mountain range about 100 miles north of Sacramento. I’d heard John Denver before, of course. He’d already had a hit with Take Me Home County Roads, and I even had the album, but I hadn’t been really wowed by him. I was a singer-songwriter performing my music, as well as the music of the new folk artists Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot, and etc, and John’s work fit well into my repertoire.

When Rocky Mountain High came over the car radio, I pulled onto the shoulder and turned it up. I’d never heard anything like it before. Not since the Beatles had a song moved me like this. What was it? His vocals were outstanding, of course, but his voice really wasn’t any different than in earlier recordings. The musicianship of the musicians? Maybe. The song itself? Definitely. It spoke to me about the feelings going on in me, why I’d gone out on the road myself to Big Sur, where I’d camped in the canyons and on the rocky beaches, surrounded by its magnificent, unruly nature. I’d showered in a waterfall and I’d washed my jeans in Kirk Creek as it rushed through the verdant forest into the ocean. I’d spent days and nights beneath the redwood trees writing songs on my guitar. Rocky Mountain High just happened to be in the key of the life that I’d been living.

The wholesome, all-American appeal John Denver represented to the adults who’d been scared shitless by the more radical denizens of the Boomer generation helped to bring us together us a little. He was a touchstone, a bridge between us. After all of the riots and demonstrations, and then the Manson Family murders, the older generation was understandably terrified by the children it had produced. John Denver gave them hope. His big smile, his twinkling eyes, and his “Aw, shucks,” positivity helped them to see that not all of us were drug crazed, enraged militants. I have to admit that he gave me hope as well. I was tired of the anger and the angst, of everything—every damned thing—being so deathly serious. Tired of not being able to smile or laugh or joke without being called down by people who accused me of not taking things seriously enough. Sitting there on the side of the road listening to this song, tears spilled down my face. I didn’t know exactly why at the time, but looking back, it’s very clear: relief. At least for a little while, before the plastic, mindless bump-bump-bump of Disco and the inanity of vapid pop ballads, there was a short spell when songs were about the beauty of life and the world around us, a little apostrophe in time when we were allowed to take a non-gasping breath, and exhale.

John started writing this song in 1971 during the Perseid Meteor Shower, which happens every August. He was camping with friends at Williams Lake near Aspen, and while the inspiration struck quickly, it took him about 9 months to complete the song.

Perseid Meteor Shower
Perseid Meteor Shower at Williams Lake

“I remember, almost to the moment, when that song started to take shape in my head. We were working on the next album and it was to be called Mother Nature’s Son, after the the Beatles song, which I’d included. It was set for release in September. In mid August, Annie and I and some friends went up to Williams Lake to watch the first Perseid meteor showers. Imagine a moonless night in the Rockies in the dead of summer and you have it. I had insisted to everybody that it was going to be a glorious display. Spectacular, in fact. The air was kind of hazy when we started out, but by ten p.m. it had grown clear. I had my guitar with me and a fishing rod. At some point, I went off in a raft to the middle of the lake, singing my heart out. It wasn’t so much that I was singing to entertain anyone back on shore, but rather I was singing for the mountains and for the sky. Either my voice gave out or I got cold, but at any rate, I came in and found that everybody had kind of drifted off to their individual campsites to catnap. We were right below the tree line, just about ten thousand feet, and we hadn’t seen too much activity in the sky yet. There was a stand of trees over by the lake, and about a dozen aspens scattered around. Around midnight, I had to get up to pee and stepped out into this open spot. It was dark over by those trees, darker than in the clearing. I looked over there and could see the shadow from the starlight. There was so much light from the stars in the sky that there was a noticeable difference between the clearing and everywhere else. The shadow of the starlight blew me away. Maybe it was the state I was in. I went back and lay down next to Annie in front of our tent, thinking everybody had gone to sleep, and thinking about how in nature all things, large and small, were interwoven, when swoosh, a meteor went smoking by. And from all over the campground came the awed responses “Do you see that?” It got bigger and bigger until the tail stretched out all the way across the sky and burned itself out. Everybody was awake, and it was raining fire in the sky.” – John Denver

He was born in the summer of his 27th year,
Coming home to a place he’d never been before;
He left yesterday behind him,
You might say he was born again,
you might say he found a key for every door.
When he first came to the mountains his life was far away,
On the road and hanging by a song;
But the string’s already broken and he doesn’t really care,
It keeps changing fast and it don’t last for long.

And the Colorado Rocky Mountain high,
I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky;
The shadows from the starlight are softer than a lullaby,
Rocky Mountain high, Colorado.

He climbed cathedral mountains,
He saw silver clouds below,
He saw everything as far as you can see,
And they say that he got crazy once and he tried to touch the sun,
And he lost a friend but kept the memory.
Now he walks in quiet solitude,
The forest and the streams,
Seeking grace in every step he takes;
His sight is turned inside himself to try and understand
the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake.

And the Colorado Rocky Mountain high,
I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky;
You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply,
Rocky Mountain high, Colorado.

Now his life is full of wonder,
But his heart still knows some fear
of a simple thing he can not comprehend;
Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more,
more people, more scars upon the land.

And the Colorado Rocky Mountain high,
I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky;
I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly,
Rocky Mountain high,
The Colorado Rocky Mountain high;
I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky,
Friends around the campfire and everybody’s high;
Rocky Mountain high, Colorado.

Some people thought John was singing about being “high” in the sense of drugs, but from what he wrote in his autobiography, Take Me Home, I think he meant it on a couple of levels. Were he and his friends smoking something during that camping trip? I think so, but the experience he had out on the lake is a different kind of high, and I think the Rocky Mountain high he sang about is a compound one. So what? He had a spiritual, one might say shamanic experience, and who cares what acted as the doorway into it?


Meanings:

“He was born in the summer of his 27th year” –  John was 27 that summer.
“Coming home to a place he’d never been before” – He and Annie had just moved to Aspen and were building Starwood, their dream home.
“And he lost a friend but kept his memory” – A good friend from Minnesota had come to visit and was killed riding John’s motorcycle.
“Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more” – This referred to the debate at that time about bringing the Olympics to Colorado.

The other lyrics can easily be translated after reading John’s account.

Locations:

Williams Lake: A small lake 14 miles (by car) west of Aspen, CO.

Slaughterhouse Falls: A waterfall just inside the town limits of Aspen, used for the front cover of the Rocky Mountain High album cover. It’s easily accessed by a walking trail and is used chiefly for whitewater rafting.

Album cover
Album cover
Slaughterhouse Falls
Slaughterhouse Falls

I really miss John Denver’s presence in the music world and I often wonder what he’d be doing had he not died. His voice was better than ever and he was preparing a new album at the time. His soaring vocals and expert musicianship, as well as his talent for turning out songs that spoke to the heart, are sorely needed in the world today. We need the kind of apostrophe he gave us in the Seventies, but I don’t see anyone stepping up to the plate for a long, long time. At least not in my lifetime. This video was recorded at John’s Wildlife Concert in 1995 just two years before his death.

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Location, Location #2: House of the Rising Sun

Laura Santiago

There is a house in New Orleans,
They call the Rising Sun;
It’s been the ruin of many poor girl,
And me, O God, for one.
If I had listened what mama said,
I’d’a’ be at home today;
Being so young and foolish,
Let a rambler lead me astray.

Go tell my baby sister,
Never to do like I have done;
To shun that house in New Orleans,
They call the Rising Sun.
My mother she’s a tailor,
She sold those new blue jeans;
My sweetheart he’s a drunkard, Lord, Lord,
Drinks down in New Orleans.

The only thing a drunkard needs,
Is a suitcase and a trunk;
The only time he’s satisfied,
Is when he’s on a drunk.
Fills his glasses to the brim,
Passes them around;
The only pleasure he gets out of life,
Is hoboin’ from town to town.

One foot is on the platform,
And the other is on the train;
I’m going back to New Orleans,
To wear that ball and chain.
Going back to New Orleans,
My race is almost run;
Going back to spend the rest of my life,
Beneath that Rising Sun.


If you were a teen in the Sixties, just the title of this song brings that circular, A-minor, electric guitar intro of the Animals‘ recording to your mind. Considering the impact of the British Invasion at the time, with its upbeat songs about holding hands and carrying your girlfriend’s books after school, you probably thought it was kind of a weird song when you first heard it on your favorite AM radio station in 1964. But you liked it, and if you were a budding guitarist (like me), you grabbed your instrument and set about learning how to play it. Even now, it’s hard to find an earlier folk version of the song on YouTube, except for Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. What few of us knew in our youth was that House of the Rising Sun is a very old song, indeed. Its roots have been traced as far back as 18th century England, its melody associated with several British folk songs including Little Musgrave and Lady Bernard or some other variation on that title. One lyric in a bawdy English folk song is,

“If you go to Lowestoft,
And ask for the Rising Sun,
There you’ll find two old whores,
And my old woman’s one.”

As for what the House was, well, that’s open for a lot of speculation. Two British folk songs name Rising Sun as brothels; I’ve read that the physical image of a rising sun is an old symbol for prostitution in England which carried over to America. Hotels that masked as brothels often had a rising sun molded into the plaster or carved into the woodwork above their front doors. And it’s important to note that until about 1900 this song was usually sung by women.


Locations:

535-537 Conti St., New Orleans: Evidence surfaced in 2005, from excavation and research, that unearthed an ad for this house in the French Quarter that alluded to prostitution, as well as an unusually large number of cosmetics. Opening in 1808, it burned down in 1822.

826-830 Louis St., New Orleans: Offbeat, a New Orleans magazine, places the second house here between the years of 1862-1864. The building was supposedly named after its madam, Marianne LeSolei Levant. Her surname translates to “The Rising Sun,” but this begs the question, which came first?

Rising Sun Hall: On the riverfront in the uptown Carrollton neaighborhood during the late 19th Century, meetings of a Social Aid and Pleasure Club were held, as well as dances and functions.

New Orleans Prison for WomenDave van Ronk wrote in his autobiography that he had seen photos of the old prison, and over the entrance he saw a design of a Rising Sun. This caused some people to believe that the ballad is about a young girl who goes to prison. Others think she ended up as a lady of the night.

Esplanade Avenue: A house in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans has at times been thought to be the House.

Slave Quarters: In some versions of the song, the House is a metaphor for the slave quarters of a plantation, the plantation house, or the plantation itself, which were the subjects and themes of many traditional blues songs. [Wikipedia]

“Was The House a brothel? A tuberculosis hospital?
Slave quarters on a plantation?
An antebellum syphilis clinic for prostitutes?
(Really, that’s an actual theory!)
The lyrics have been changed so much over the years,
it’s really hard to tell.”

Liz Genest Smith


I’d like to go out on a limb here and tell you what I get from the lyrics above. A young girl falls for a smooth talking young man with a drinking and gambling problem. Seducing her from her mother and her home, he takes her to New Orleans. Somewhere during their relationship, probably after a bad night of gambling, he forces her into prostitution at one of his favorite brothels, The Rising Sun, to generate money to support his habits. While he’s away on a bender she attempts to find her way back home, but is caught by her boyfriend and must face returning to the “ball and chain” of prostitution. That’s my take, anyway. But conjectures and opinions about House of the Rising Sun are as numerous as recorded versions of it, and the web is loaded with both so I’m afraid I can’t give you a definitive answer. No one can, but at least the next time you hear the Animals’ foreboding guitar riff on your car stereo you’ll have a little more to think about.

535-537 Conti St.
535-537 Conti St., New Orleans
826-828 St. Louis St.
826-828 St. Louis St., New Orleans
esplanade avenue
Esplanade Ave., New Orleans c. 1900

And at last, here’s a video of the sublime Odetta singing her unique version of House of the Rising Sun.

—–

Art Credit: Laura Santiago

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Location, Location #1: Darcy Farrow

Not Darcy FarrowIn the past, both on this blog and the old one, my Armchair Circumnavigator posts have been about tiny islands in far off seas, or tiny towns in remote areas. For the past week I’ve been creating a series of posts about locations used in American folk songs. To narrow this down to three songs (for three separate entries) hasn’t been easy, and just writing the thing has been a trial because Windows 10 keeps freezing everything; twice now, I’ve lost every bit of research because Notepad doesn’t have auto-save. I know, I know. CTRL+S… It’s been frustrating and I shouldn’t have to live like this. This is the 21st century for cryin’ out loud. But we sally onward.

The first of these three folk songs is Darcy Farrow, written by Steve Gillette and Tom Campbell in 1964 and recorded by Gillette on his 1967 eponymous album. Although the song has been recorded by over 300 people, its most famous cover is probably by John Denver on his 1973 Rocky Mountain High album.

Now, the purpose of this post isn’t to perform a comparative study between the different styles artists have used to perform this great song. Jim Moran, over at Comparative Video 101 has already done so, and brilliantly. My part is to introduce you to the locations mentioned, and provide a video or two at the end of the post. That being said, here are the lyrics that pinpoint where this song allegedly took place. (Actually, it’s an invented tale, and Darcy was Gillette’s little sister who at 12 was kicked by a horse, but, happily, wasn’t fatally or even critically injured.)

Walker River
Where the Walker runs down to the Carson Valley plain…

There lived a maiden, Darcy Farrow was her name;
The daughter of old Dundee and fair was she,
And the sweetest flower that bloomed o’er the range.
Her voice was sweet as sugar candy,
Her touch was as soft as a bed of goose down;
Her eyes shone bright like the pretty lights

Yerington
That shine in the night out of Yerington town…

She was courted by young Vandermere,
And quite handsome was he as I am to hear;
He bought her silver rings and lacy things,
And she promised to wed before the snows came that year.
But her pony did stumble, and she did fall,
Her dying touched the hearts of us all;
Young Vandy in his pain put a bullet to his brain;
We buried them together as the snows began to fall.

Truckee River, Reno
They sing of Darcy Farrow where the Truckee runs through…
Virginia City
They sing of her beauty in Virginia City too…
Virginia City Saloon
At dusty sundown to her name they drink a round…

And to young Vandy whose love was true.


Locations:

The Walker is a 62 miles long river in west central Nevada. Fed principally by the spring thaw from California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, it flows into Walker Lake.

The Carson Valley Plain:  Critics sometimes note the geographical inaccuracy of the opening line of the song. The Carson Valley actually lies in Douglas county west of Yerington.

Yerington is a town in Lyon County, Nevada, where Steve Gillette grew up.

The Truckee River runs through Reno. It flows northeasterly and is 121 miles long.

Virginia City sprang up as a boomtown with the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode, the first major silver deposit discovery in the United States, and numerous mines were opened. At the city’s peak of population in the mid-1870s, it had an estimated 25,000 residents. The mines’ output declined after 1878, and the city declined. As of the 2010 Census the population of Virginia City was about 855. [Wikipedia]


Of course, we have no way of knowing how the songwriters imagined Darcy Farrow in their minds. Certainly pretty, fair, and sweet, as the lyrics claim. The woman in the first photo isn’t our subject, obviously, but she is as close as I can find to how I’ve always imagined her. Many tourists, not knowing that Darcy Farrow is what’s termed a “fake folk song” (a story that isn’t based on actual lore, but is invented), travel to Yerington every year in search of the site where Darcy and her Vandy are buried. I suppose the local population gets a little tired of telling the actual story, rather like the people of Woodstock having to tell people the music festival didn’t happen in their town, but in Bethel some 60 miles away.

Following are two videos, the first being the composer and his wife performing Darcy Farrow in 2008. The second one is from John Denver’s Wildlife Concert in 1995 just two years before his passing. I like each equally, but the quality and emotion of John’s voice makes his my favorite.

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Release

keaton

If you’re a writer and you’ve seen this scene in “Something’s Gotta Give,” you probably laughed through it, just as I do. Every damned time. It’s funny. In my experience, however, weeping while writing isn’t funny at all. It’s painful, especially now that I’m writing about my own life rather than that of  fictional character. I’ve resolved most of the painful issues in my life, but that doesn’t prohibit old emotions and regrets from emerging while I’m writing. I had to take all day yesterday off from writing because of the explosion of tears I experienced on Sunday night. At one point I went out onto the front porch to sit and watch the rain. It cleared my head a bit, but I was so exhausted, I gave it up and went to bed. Yesterday I was good for absolutely nothing, but I think I’m ready to face it again. Hopefully, I worked through everything and will now be able to write with a little less emotional baggage.

I’m not a person who cries all that much; it gives me a headache. But I have to admit, Sunday night’s binge really felt good. It wasn’t funny, but it felt good. Sometimes, we just have to push through the tears to get to a clearer understanding of ourselves and what we’re writing about, and within these Gestalt moments lay the reasons why we write at all; wet ground is fertile ground.

“Laughing and crying,
You know it’s the same release.”
Joni Mitchell

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