Several of my close friends after college relocated to the Cincinnati area for their careers and my wife and I often visit them. On my first trip to Cincinnati, my friends took me out a bar/restaurant called the Hofbrauhaus.
We got a table in the main room, got some nice fresh pretzels and lots of good beer. The evening was off to a great start and as we were catching up a band started their set, which consisted mainly of a drummer and an accordion player. They played everything from tradition polka music to German drinking songs to Sousa marches and pop songs like “Sweet Caroline.” The atmosphere was fantastic and everyone in the room was singing along and dancing to this incredible band on stage.
Every time the band played a song that people knew everyone would stand up on the wooden seats sing along and rock out. My favorite song they played that night was “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
I didn’t know the lyrics, but catching enough of the words to just sing through the song with the room full of people was one of my favorite musical experiences. Maybe it was the people in the room or the beer in my stomach but man, that song felt so good to sing at that time and ever since then “Take Me Home, Country Roads” has been on my favorite songs.
Like most people in my generation, I rode off John Denver as kind of being wimpy, white-bread, country-pop music. Looking at pictures of John Denver it seemed clear that not was he an artifact of the my parents generation but an artists that only the lamest people in my parents’ generation enjoyed.
There is some truth to that presumption. John Denver’s music is non-threatening and appeals to a specific crowd but he captures a sense of reverence and nostalgia that may come off as a little corny. The thing is that is exactly how our memories are sometimes.
John Denver released “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in 1971 and it became one of John Denver’s signature songs. This song is a well-loved anthem for the state of West Virginia and is played by the West Virginia University Marching Band at the beginning of every home game.
The melody of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is simple and doesn’t move around across a wide range of note. However, the rise and fall of the melody is carefully crafted and creates a sense of direction. In the first verse, the melody in the verse rises to “Blue Ridge Mountains” and then rests on a lower note on the word “Shenandoah.” The word “river” has a slight rise on its last syllable that propels the melody into the next phrase.
The second phrase of the verse is similar to the first phrase but instead of having a slight rise in the end of the phrase, the chorus picks immediately begins. There is space between the first phrase and the second phrase of the verse, but there is no space between the second phrase and the chorus. Making the end of a phrase happen at the same point as the beginning of the chorus, this phrase elision, sweeps up the energy of the previous phrase like wave gently pushing the listener forwards into the chorus.
The melody in the chorus rises up to the middle of that phrase and descends as we would expect, however the way that the melody rises is both dramatic and unexpected. “Country Roads” rises up, meanders on “take me home” and then descends to the low note on the word “place.” Instead of having a steady build to the top of the phrase on the word “belong,” there is a jump up to “-long” of “belong” that brings a sense of yearning and a genuine feeling of purpose.
This is a song about missing home, about wishing you could be in the place that you feel most comfortable and the long notes in the chorus and the reminiscing verses bring a sense of warmness truly capturing the feeling of being home. Yes, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” sounds like the music equivalent of a sepia tone photograph but it’s feels real and I can’t really imagine this song sounding any better then when with John Denver singing this song with the pop country background behind him.
This song mentions a lady’s voice, a mountain mama, and a miner’s lady. There are hints of a girl that flow through this song like reflection of light in a stream. They song doesn’t tell a cohesive story but instead presents different images that like a mosaic which instead of presented an image creates a feeling.
Nostalgia is a tricky feeling. When you have great memories of a place and you revisit the location, often they aren’t as amazing as you remember. I went back to Hofbrauhaus and it was fun but it wasn’t as magical as the first time that I visited but I still had a great time. In some ways the feeling of wanting to go back, that nostalgia was better than actually going back.
If we hold on to memories for the purpose of trying to replicate them we will continuously be disappointed but if we keep them in our minds as places we can go to find comfort and happiness we will never be alone and always be at home.