The first line of John Denver’s song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” calls West Virginia “Almost Heaven,” and when you’re in the mountains, that description can sound pretty accurate.
Almost Heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life there is old, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, growing like a breeze
Country roads, take me home
To where I belong
West Virginia, Mom of the Mountains
Take me home, country roads
But those winding country roads were immortalized by someone who had never driven them.
Correspondent Conor Knighton asked: “Do you never been to West Virginia before writing the song? »
“No,” said Bill Danoff. “Well, in my dreams!”
Danoff, along with then-girlfriend and bandmate Taffy Nivert, played a rough draft of “Country Roads” for their pal John Denver after a gig one night in Washington, D.C.
“John’s greatest contribution to anything at that time was simply his enthusiasm, ‘Well, let’s get it over with! “” Danoff laughed. “You know, 1:00 in the morning, 1:30, you know? ‘Let’s go!'”
The three stayed up late collaborating on the version that aired 50 years ago.
Danoff said: “When it came out in ’71, you know, the Vietnam War was really great. And we had, oh, hundreds of thousands of troops there. So coming home was a big, big problem.”
It was a song about home, but not about Danoff’s home. Knighton asked, “You’re from Massachusetts. Could it have been so easily ‘Almost Heaven, Massachusetts’?”
“Yeah, except I didn’t like that word!” Danof replied “West Virginia” rang good.
And it turns out that a lot of other people thought so too. The song was John Denver’s first hit and, despite questionable geographic accuracy (the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River in the lyrics are barely within state lines), West Virginia have widely adopted.
West Virginia University students sing the song after every home win.
It is a must for wedding receptions. You can find the lyrics on posters and T-shirts, everywhere from small-town storefronts to the back of Senator Joe Manchin’s boat.
But the lasting call outside of the state was more surprising. From “The Office” on TV to Octoberfest in Germany, the song is known around the world.
“We can think the song is about any place — it names West Virginia, but it doesn’t have to be,” said Sarah Morris, an assistant professor at West Virginia University. She studied the global impact of “Take Me Home, Country Roads”.
“People are taking the song and reclaiming it to be about the place that lives in them,” Morris said.
“So they’re just swapping their own geo-references?” asked Knighton.
“Changing the geographical references, changing the lyrics, changing the location. But it doesn’t really change the song, and it doesn’t really change the meaning of the song.”
This version of Toots and the Maytals was a hit in Jamaica:
In Hawaii, it’s “West Makaha”.
From France to Brazil, the reinterpretations are countless. The song is extremely popular in Japan. The plot of the animated film “Whisper of the Heart” centers on a teenage girl who translates “Country Roads”.
The feeling of nostalgia, of homesickness, is universal. “It’s the rare song that doesn’t just sing something, but causes it,” said country star Brad Paisley. He grew up in Glen Dale, West Virginia. He’s been playing “Country Roads” since he learned to play guitar, but the song took on new meaning for him when he moved to Nashville.
“I think once you pull away the song takes on a lot more character and depth,” Paisley said. “You hear that on the radio and you’re not in West Virginia, like, you hear that in your car and it lights up, and when you hear that iconic acoustic guitar part – ‘while driving down the road, I feel like I should have been home yesterday.'”
Morris said: “Leaving and coming home has always been something West Virginians have experienced. But we’ve been at a loss in our population since 1950. So I think that’s a perennial mood for people. people of West Virginia.”
“I grew up in the capital, Charleston,” he said. “I learned to ride a bike on the back roads. I left the state after high school, but I’m still nostalgic about it. It’s like the song goes, ‘All my memories gather around of her.”
Morris said: “One of the things I thought of was a Welsh concept called Hiraeth – this deep longing for a place you can’t quite name, it’s home but maybe more. It may be a place you’ve never been, or the house you’ve only dreamed of. It’s that deep attraction to the place.”
No matter what home means to you, there’s no place like this. Danoff said, “Place is really intangible. It’s ‘the place I belong.’ I think that’s the key line. It’s what people are looking for in their lives.”
“Like so many people,” Knighton said, “I didn’t return home for the holidays in 2020, which made this year’s return particularly meaningful. At the end of the year, the place I ‘belong is at the end of a country road.’
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Story produced by Aria Shavelson. Publisher: George Pozderec.