He was a musician. He was a poet. He was a philosopher. More than all this, he was an activist.
What a shame that he died too soon.
On 12 October 1997, John Denver (born Henry John Deutschendorf) died when the private plane he was piloting crashed. The details of his death can be found here.
He is best remembered by the world for that very beautiful love song "Annie's Song." In the Cordillera, he is renowned for the song Take Me Home, Country Roads which was unofficially adopted as the Cordillera anthem.
But not everyone is aware that like Jackson Browne, John Denver was an activist who used his music to question inequality and injustice everywhere. As a young child raised in Sunday school, I was passionate about justice and equality. This was the 1980's. We had John Denver cassette tapes and I would listen to them over and over again. The virtues I learned to appreciate in Sunday school I appreciated all the more.
When I was in college, my generation was going gaga over Madonna and the orange-haired Cindy Lauper, and dancing to the ear-piercing sounds generated by weird looking people who called their noise metallic rock and roll. It could not relate to my music choice, and neither could I to its (although for a time in the 1990's, I was crying to Toto's I'll Be Over You after my first love slipped away. I also became deeply interested in Depeche Mode's Somebody because my then ka-relasyon who is now my husband swore he could have written that song for me).
Even among Filipino activists, Denver is not widely appreciated and I guess it stems from their not knowing how profound his music is. It seems not to have commercial appeal. In the 90's ear-damaging noise was selling and Denver was creating soft music although his songs created noise of their own because they expressed the concerns of the common people. I think Denver knew this. To his eternal credit and my eternal happiness, he did not succumb to the temptation of wealth. He did not let the market change his music. I think he was hoping he could change the market.
In the song One World, he laments global socio-economic stratification. He asks, "Why are you calling this the third world? I only know that it is my world. I hope someday it can be our world. Can you imagine one world, one world? This world is made for everybody. This life is gift for everyone. This earth is bound to keep on turning. This day is flowers in the sunshine, sunshine." In Let Us Begin, his castigation of US military interventionism and the Reagan administration's military spending policy is unequivocal: "What are we making weapons for? Why keep on feeding the war machine? We take it right out of the mouths of our babies, take it away from the hands of the poor. Tell me, what are we making weapons for?"
He invites the world's attention to the case of the homeless in Falling Leaves. "This is for the refugees/ The ones without a home/ A boat out on the ocean/ A city street alone/Are they not some dear mother's child?/ Are they not you and I/ Are we the ones to bear this shame? And they this sacrifice?/ Or are they just like falling leaves/ Who give themselves away/ From dust to dust, from seed to shear? And to another day?? If i could have one wish on earth? Of all i can conceive/ T'would be to see another spring/ And bless the falling leaves."
In It's A Possibility, the tenor-voiced John Denver exhorts the world to unite to end hunger and injustice. He says, "For all the times that you've wondered why/ The world turned out this way/ And all of the times that you've asked yourself/ About the games that people play/ About the politics of hunger/ And the politics of need/ How the politics of power/ Seem to be the politics of greed." He speaks for the defenseless children and poignantly articulates their dreams in I Want to Live.
He also popularized the song Bread and Roses written in 1912 by James Oppenheim as a tribute to the Suffragette Movement. Here are some lines from that song which moves me to tears everytime I hear it: "As we go marching, marching/ We battle too for men/ For they are women's children/ And we mother them again/ Our lives shall not be sweetened/ From birth until life closes/ Hearts starve as well as bodies/ Give us bread, but give us roses/ As we go marching, marching/ We bring the greater days/ For the rising of the women/ Means the rising of the race/ No more the drudge and idler/ Ten that toil where one reposes/ But the sharing of lifes glories/ Bread and roses, bread and roses." Tell me, isn't this beautiful?
And John Denver brought to life Ed McCurdy's The Strangest Dream during a massive rally denouncing the US-instigated Vietnam War. With fire in his soul, John Denver sang: "Last night I had the strangest dream/ I'd ever dreamed before/ I dreamed the world had all agreed/ To put an end to war." I think this song should be revived especially with a brewing US-Iran War and the ongoing US-led war in Iraq wreaking horror of all sizes, shapes and nationalities.
I could go on and on about John Denver's politics. As I said in the blog Bread for the World, "Many modern day intellectuals wrote books on ideology and theories that they developed and, for their works, are now extolled by the world as philosophers. John Denver wrote and sang songs that make him no less a philosopher. The whole world will one day realize this."
I never met John Denver. But we could actually have. The virtues he kept searching are the same ones I pine for. His music heavily influenced my life. This world is still as turbulent as he left it. Poverty is massive. Imperialism is still the norm for the First World. But there are people who, because of John Denver's music, are standing firm in the name of the peace, justice, love and equality to which he dedicated his career. This gives us hope that all is not lost. His life was short. But his influence outlives him.
Rest in peace, John Denver. Death insulates you from the politics and injustice that made you unhappy.
- cheryl daytec/ 12October07