Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

DENVER, JOHN (1943-1997)

John Denver was a popular entertainer and songwriter whose music exalted simple living and the natural beauty of the American West. He was born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. in Roswell, New Mexico, on December 31, 1943. His parents, Henry John "Dutch' Deutschendorf and Erma Swope, were native Oklahomans who moved frequently due to Dutch Deutschendorf 's career as an Air Force flight instructor and test pilot.

The Deutschendorfs were descendants of German Russian colonists who settled on the Ukrainian steppes during the reign of Czar Alexander I. By the 1920s an American branch of the Deutschendorf family had put down roots near Cordell, Oklahoma, along the Washita River. For years afterward, their prairie farmstead in Oklahoma would serve as the home place of the Deutschendorf family. John Denver composed some of his earliest songs while he labored in the dusty wheat fields of western Oklahoma during the summer months. He was only a teenager at the time, but the experience of working so close to the land exerted a profound and lasting influence on his life philosophy and his music.

Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. rose to fame after a song he had written, "Leaving on a Jet Plane," was recorded by the musical trio Peter, Paul, and Mary in 1968. His career as a songwriter soon blossomed into that of a popular performer and also a movie and television actor. By the mid-1970s his new name, John Denver, had become a household word, and both his music and his shy yet upbeat personality endeared him to millions of fans all around the world.

John Denver wrote and recorded many musical hits, including "Rocky Mountain High," "Sunshine on My Shoulders," "Take Me Home, Country Roads," and "Annie's Song." Despite Denver's frequent reference to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, he also wrote songs about memorable experiences and characters drawn from the Plains of western Oklahoma and Kansas. The song "Matthew," for example, was inspired by real-life wheat farmer and close relative Dean Deutschendorf.

One of the many causes that Denver championed was that of the environment, and it was a theme that dominated the musical compositions of his later years. On October 12, 1997, he was killed in a single-engine plane crash near Pacific Grove, California. A few days later, a memorial service was held for John Denver in Aurora, Colorado, at the edge of both the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, the two regions he so proudly celebrated in his distinctive and uplifting music.

See also EUROPEAN AMERICANS: German Russians.

Timothy J. Kloberdanz North Dakota State University

Denver, John. Take Me Home: An Autobiography, with Arthur Tobier. New York: Harmony Books, 1994.

Deutschendorf, Abe. "Memories of My Nephew John Denver." Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia 21 (1998): 6–7.

Kloberdanz, Timothy J. "Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr.: The World Knew Him as John Denver." Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia 21 (1998): 1–5.

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