Growing up, my dad enjoyed listening to John Denver records, especially his classic Poems, Prayers & Promises (1971), which included major hits like “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. After my father passed away, I inherited many of his old vinyl records, including his John Denver collection. At first I listened to them for nostalgia’s sake, never considering what the words meant.
But one evening, as I sat and listened to the album with a friend, something struck me for the first time about Denver’s message. During subsequent hearings, I paid closer attention to the songs and saw a theme running through his album: longing.
Take Poems, Prayers & Promises from top to bottom and you’ll see it come through clearly. The opening title track reflects fondly on the past and looks to the future with hope. There’s longing for a happy ending. John Denver’s cover of the Beatles’ hit “Let it Be” also longs for a better future. “Gospel Changes” hints at a way of reaching that good place.
Then we come to a couple songs blatantly about longing: “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado”. Both find Denver singing about places he (or someone else) is longing for. He’s not in the place he wants to be, he’s not as happy in the present as he was in the past. “Around and Around” tries to correct this some. Though time is rushing by, he still seeks out joy in nature and memories. However, as he covers James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, he laments the loss of a friend and the way our fallen world works. The closing song, “The Box”, is a spoken poem that longs for an end to war and pain.
Aside from the lyrical content in Poems, Prayers & Promises, John Denver’s singing also conveys a tone of pathos. The past was ideal, the present is not, and he can only hope for a better future.
We all relate to this sentiment. When I caught on to his theme, I was fresh out of college, fatherless, and figuring out what to do next. I longed for something more than what my life looked like at the time. As years move on, the longing shifts slightly. I yearn for an end to war, death, pain, and sin. We all want to see the world in a better, peaceful place. We all want the world renewed.
Whether or not John Denver ever felt this peace in his own life, I believe the answer to be found in Jesus Christ. He promises a new heavens and new earth, but there may be millennia of heartache before that comes to fruition. Why? Because God has a purpose for it, which makes it harder for us to understand sometimes. Still, longing isn’t a bad thing. It’s good for us to yearn and strain against the wait, hoping for a new age, and ultimately finding that hope and longing satisfied in Christ.