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The Considerable Mystery of the Highest-Flying Troubadour

mitchell trio

Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., later known as "John Denver," born Dec 31, 1943 in Roswell, New Mexico (!), improbably became the best-selling and among the most "uncool" troubadours ever, with what turns out to be an unusual and mostly untold story....

Who hasn't at least heard of John Denver? Now even my middle-school age kids and their friends are singing "Take Me Home, Country Roads" as some kind of an internet meme, after a long slack period when arguably the best-selling pop artist of the 1970s had seemingly faded into whichever sunset was appropriate for cheesy folk-pop icons. While researching the handful of instances when mega-popular American music has featured solo troubadour performances, I found that no chart-topping song has consisted of simply a person playing a song since 1928, when Jimmie Rodgers "The Singing Brakeman" had a smash #1 hit phenomenon with his guitar and yodeling on the blues-tinged "T For Texas (Blue Yodel #1)." I also found out that during those 89 years since 1928, the only two of what we might call "acoustic-guitar powered" troubadours who have had a significant presence on the pop music charts over an entire decade were an unlikely pair: Taylor Swift and John Denver. Swift is still growing and unfolding and not ready for summaries, so let's take good look at Denver through the troubadour lens of our viewfinder. In 1976 Newsweek called him the "...most popular pop singer in America," and mixed into his 30-year musical legacy are fourteen Gold and eight Platinum albums.

First a little disclaimer/backstory. About the time I was first starting to play guitar and sing for other people, John Denver exploded in popularity, on the heels of "Country Roads" which rocketed to #2 in 1971, the year I graduated from high school in Maryland, not far from West Virginia. It was on the "Poems, Prayers & Promises" album, which I had already bought before the song was released as a single, and I also had Denver's 1969 first album, "Rhymes and Reasons" from which I learned the poignant Jerry Jeff Walker song "My Old Man." (I still have my worn copies of those records I've been lugging around since I was a teenager, with my name written on them in magic marker, though I just found out yesterday that there were two other albums between those: "Who's Garden Was This?" and "Take Me To Tomorrow" both from 1970.) I had also seen Denver perform twice, as an opening act for Peter Paul and Mary, and also as a solo performer in 1970 at the Cellar Door in Washington DC, when I was 16 and learning to play guitar. He was very good– a strong 6 and 12-string guitar player who strummed and fingerpicked well and played harmonica; he did a couple fingerpicked guitar instrumentals, was utterly charming and did funny novelty songs, love songs, political commentary, satire and ballads, and was a first class folksinger/troubadour performer. At that time he would have been 27 years old, and married for three years already to his wife Annie Martell. Denver seemed to me then, and he seemed all along through his career, like a reincarnation or embodiment of a classic Medieval troubadour, who sang his rhyming love songs with his guitar to entertain the king and woo the maidens. He would have even looked great in tights and a codpiece, with a peacock feather in his cap, but I'm glad he stuck to jeans. How he ended up loaded with money and fame but drenched with strings and the King of the Easy Listening category is almost a Shakespearean tale of humanity, music and commerce, and I can't find that it has been told properly anywhere.

Whether it was the syrupy production on his pop albums, or as my perception of what Åke Holm referred to as Denver being “often maligned in the cynical '70s due to the singer’s sunny disposition and earnest environmentalism,” I confess to becoming "turned off" to Denver's music, seeing him as some kind of "sellout" or a best-selling recycled version of the dorky 1950s matching-shirt sanitized pop-folk, almost a musical version of a Hallmark card. I never felt the need to learn another of his songs until 40 years later when I backed up a singer doing "Annie's Song" at a wedding, and got the melody stuck in my head for a week. The PopMatters web site said lucidly about John Denver: "His was an image wrapped in sincerity and disarming, if sometimes hokey, charm. On one hand these were his weaknesses – he was an easy target for the critics – but they were also his strengths, as he came across as genuine and honest. Denver’s down-home optimism was the perfect antidote for an America recovering from the hangover of the ‘60s and embroiled in the ongoing Vietnam War and Watergate."

Though he took the troubadour sound to the masses like no other musician in my lifetime, I have long had the feeling that there was something unnatural or wrong in the marketing of John Denver that I have come to conclude ultimately hurt the troubadour cause, making at least a full generation of white males feel awkward about being nice while singing sensitive or emotional songs with an acoustic guitar. I'll try to avoid talking about this any more here. Denver's cringey songs about the environment, his pseudo-cosmic ideas and revelations and the drippy string arrangements on his albums sounded corny to my ears in 1975 and they sound worse every year, like the Anita Kerr singers and those dreadful strings on otherwise timeless Ray Charles, Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline records. My friends and I have long felt that something in Denver's success and cheeriness caused a gag reaction in the American public, and ultimately made our work harder as performers because it reached a point where no one wanted to see a mild-mannered, clean white guy earnestly playing acoustic guitar-driven music, no matter what they knew, did or sounded like. It also feels like Denver's uncool, aw-shucks vibe and super-sensitivity has been a magnet for scoffing and a key inspiration for the merciless mocking of folksingers on MTV, Beavis & Butthead, South Park and other cynical comedy programs.

The John Denver Experience

Now that I am researching the presence of the troubadour in pop music I finally had to confront the John Denver phenomenon and trajectory, and study his music and his story in some depth. I haven't bought a Denver recording since 1970, but luckily I don't have to, and I can listen to his music and learn a great deal about his life and legacy in my armchair. The more I look at Denver, the more questions I have, and the more mystery I find. Not scary mystery with death or crimes, just things that don't add up or seem logical. There were so many white-guy folksingers in the early 60s who came out of the Kingston Trio-driven Folk Boom era who could sing and play guitar and write songs, but only a tiny handful managed to climb the ladders and reach the highest levels of pop music success, and Denver went impossibly high. Roger (originally Jim) McGuinn formed The Byrds and did well, but his solo career has been only in the coffeehouse world. Gram Parsons (Yes, he too was a singing folkie at Harvard, whose birth name was Ingram Cecil Connor III) became a legend after his death, but never had any pop music success. Michael Johnson was in the Mitchell Trio with Denver, and he was funny, handsome and smart and a better singer than Denver and a fabulous guitar player who taught Leo Kottke how to play and even studied with Segovia, and he had a Number One Pop Hit and a Number One Country Hit, though he didn't write many songs, and apparently was not destined for stardom. The Smothers Brothers were successful and had a hit TV show for two years, but their recordings were never on the charts, they didn't draw giant crowds, and they never navigated the pop music power circles or did the mating dance with fame quite like real stars do. Kenny Rogers probably became the closest, but he never felt like a solo troubadour kind of guy and he went from a band member to magnetic country crooner star without seemingly going to a key emotional and personal place that Denver inhabited.

Why was America ready in 1971 for a mild-mannered superstar white-guy troubadour/healer/jester, and how did John Denver of all people become the Chosen One? What was his secret? Hard work? Granny glasses? He had so little personally in common with Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Leadbelly or the various pioneers who had defined the 20th century American guitarist-singer genre. They were a little scary–very much "Other"– like they might steal your liquor or seduce your daughter. But John Denver seemed clean, unthreatening and marketable. He had what some people called "undeniable charisma," and audiences liked him instantly. He looked like a young Clark Kent in some old photos, ready for his newsroom job. When he quit college at age 20 and moved to Los Angeles to try to make it in music he sang at an open mike, and Randy Sparks, the owner of the club, hired him and gave him a cheap place to live, and not long afterwards even co-signed a loan for the shy young Henry John.

A Possible Answer

There has to be some logical explanation for why John Denver flew so high, other than marketing formulas or luck, though I am afraid the only one that fits the data points is not something you will call logical, but I suspect people in Colorado might agree with me. (I regret that my theory doesn't involve him being born in Roswell, New Mexico, though he was only 4 years old and may have still been there when the UFO incident occurred, and it is faintly possible that an alien life form entered his young body in 1947 there. It is even more fanciful to imagine that the aliens were investigating Roswell because they knew John Denver had been born there.) Denver's songs are not incredible, he wasn't deep, and likely no college poetry classes are studying "Sunshine on My Shoulders." He broke no musical ground like Jimi Hendrix or the great innovators, his voice was a bit nasal, and though his rhythms were steady, there was no voodoo, he had no funky grooves like Scott Joplin or Bob Marley and did no instrumental magic tricks like Merle Travis or Eddie van Halen. "Take Me Home, Country Roads," Denver's signature song that put him on the map, and that is now closing in on a billion Spotify streams was mostly written by Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert; Denver helped write the bridge and got rid of the "Naked ladies, men that looked like Christ, and a dog named Poncho nibbling on the rice" 3rd verse. Good call, but not brilliance. There were better-looking troubadours out there with better haircuts. We'll investigate his producer Milt Okun later to try to understand his role, but Denver himself had to contain the magic ingredient– you can't graft or transplant the essential stuff into a test subject or make something in the laboratory. John Denver was like Buffy the Vampire Slayer; he discovered that he had a power, he figured out how to use it, believed in it and worked at it his whole life.

The uncomfortable answer, and the only thing resembling an explanation of how Henry John sold those tens of millions of tickets and records is that he was able to control and reliably dispense some form of personal musical energy that made people feel good. Somehow when people heard his music, their brains squirted a little bit of some chemical into their bloodstreams, and Denver was able and willing to deliver it whenever he needed to. Like Bruce Springsteen, he did long, high-energy concerts, and was said to be impeccably focused and together at showtime, and almost never delivered a lame performance or failed to connect to the vital energy source. Right under the noses of all the hippies and the rednecks he was channeling something, a form of low-level troubadour shamanism that I don't think he even understood himself. His descriptions of why he played music and how he came to find his powers singing for people are not colorful or self-aware, and he doesn't seem to have had a guru or spirit guide who showed him how to do it. He had an instinct, he connected to a joy source inside himself and harnessed it to a gut-level, innocent but urgent camp counselor energy field that meshed perfecty with the Zeitgeist of the bruised, battle-weary Americans who had ridden the tsunami of the 1960s and watched it wash away so many things they had thought were eternal. Millions of people needed some medical, spiritual and psychiatric help and every form of comfort at that time in history, and no matter what anyone thought of him, John Denver was helpful, took his role seriously, and he rode the bronco of stardom in the pop music rodeo ring pretty well, considering what damage it caused to so many other riders.

Intertwined with our trying to understand him and his music is the story of how he was almost never able or willing to present it to us in its stripped-down, basic solo troubadour form like Jimmie Rodgers did in 1928. Troubadours didn't really change in those 43 years or in the 430 years before that, but the pipelines and practices of the music business did.

THIS AD BELOW IS NOT AN ONLINE AD- IT'S FROM JOHNDENVER.COM...

mitchell trio

The John Denver "Camping Bundle" from the johndenver.com web store

John Denver's Troubadour Recordings

I began my investigation of the John Denver Incident by logging on to Amazon Unlimited, iTunes and Spotify streaming platforms to listen to his body of recordings, which is substantial. I never counted songs exactly, but there are about 620 tracks on 52 albums available for streaming, though of course many of them are either the same tracks reissued on compilations, or remastered for 21st century streaming and listening. Wikipedia says there are about 300 different songs in his catalog and that he wrote about 200 of them. The first thing I realized, especially after listening on headphones to several live performance albums, that Denver was, as I remembered him, a sappy but strong and believable singer, a very capable guitar player, and a consummate performer and professional. I was surprised to find that he had recorded half a dozen Beatles songs, a solo fingerpicked version of "It's A Sin to Tell A Lie," an old swing tune, and also a fingerpicked jazz instrumental, and I hadn't paid attention to the fact that he had toured and recorded with some stellar musicians like James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, Jerry Scheff, Hal Blaine, Emory Gordy and others who I knew had played with Elvis Presley, EmmyLou Harris and others.

I was anxious to hear Denver solo, to really hear his essence "without the make-up," but found that only a tiny handful of those 620 tracks fit that bill. Some live concert recordings have recently showed up that feature Denver’s solo performances more than usual, but by the time he made them he was always playing for big audiences, and was trying to scale upward his troubadour sound, which made him bash the guitar and oversing. The solo performers at Woodstock mostly did the same thing. (Now that everything is being filmed, it seems that pop stars like Lady Gaga who do solo songs now do a better job of preserving the intimacy than was the norm in the past.) I wish someone had recorded a live show of Denver around the time I saw him. The sizable group of his curated “Classic,” “Essential,” “Greatest Hits” and “Collection” albums do not contain a single track without heavy studio production. Those 620-odd Denver cuts currently available for listening on Spotify contain only 18 solo performances– of which 11 are from live albums and overseas releases (mostly from "Live At Cedar Rapids" [1987] where there is a lovely live solo version of "Country Roads" without the band.), one is a super-short novelty song from 1969 ("The Ballad of Spiro Agnew" [16 seconds long], one a spoken word poem ( "The Box"), "The Ballad of Richard Nixon" (a 5-second empty track), "I've Been Working On the Railroad" and "Daddy, What's A Train" were released a month before his death on a children's album that came twelve years after his peak success, and one is an unreleased archival solo acoustic out-take of "This Old Guitar" from 1974 that appeared on a compilation.

This leaves exactly one song, “You Say That the Battle is Over,” on Autograph, Denver’s 14th album, recorded in 1979 and released in 1980, that was issued in his lifetime that consists simply of him singing in the studio while playing his guitar. This was the kind of thing he did for years, and that many of us saw him do very well. The song is not amazing, nor is the performance, but it's fine and effective, and it makes you wonder why of those 300 songs it was the only one of its kind– or if they were planning to overdub stuff on top of it and it was left the way it was. It also makes you wonder what some of his better songs would have sounded like if he had been allowed to do a lot of takes and get a really good performance of them unassisted. Would people have liked those if they heard them? He was a journeyman troubadour who had mastered the art form of delivering a song with his guitar, yet like other pop artists before and after him, when he climbed to a certain rung on the ladder, he largely stopped doing any purist solo music on a recording. The Autograph album reached #39 on the pop and #28 on Billboard’s country charts, though only the title track charted briefly at #52, and at the time it came out Denver was well past his peak successes of the first half of the decade. The album failed to even reach gold record sales of 500,000. The decline had begun in earnest, and the record companies were wondering what to do and what the next new young artists were up to.

About those Syrupy Strings...

The John Denver that people heard so much on the radio was eternally covered up by strings and studio production, which seemed at odds with his Everyman, outdoorsy, clean-cut image. When rock & roll arrived, white singers like Pat Boone famously "covered" black songs by doing white-guy imitations that were not so African and scary, which was the source of the common musical term "cover." With John Denver, we had the white middle class acoustic guitar folksinger songwriter being bleached whiter with strings, flutes, orchestra arrangements, backup singers and bands– to similarly cover something up to make it less threatening and wild. The BIG QUESTION is: Was John Denver destined to be a star, perhaps even a symptom of an almost inevitable mass acceptance of the solo troubadour in American culture? After a long, slow climb through the 20th century the singing guitar players had steadily taken more territory from crooners, orchestras, vocal groups and even rock bands, and were poised to plant a flag on top of a hill somewhere. Or was his success just a product of the relentless marketing that was done to him? What if he was the harbinger of the New Troubadours we have today– not shackled to silly notions of folk songs, or helpless pawns of marketers like they were in earlier times. Maybe Denver could have been more like Ed Sheeran, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett or any number of 21st century songwriters with depth and integrity, whose records would be unthinkable with the kind of production Denver was given. He might have been a decent bluegrass singer, or even done well in the Celtic music boom if he had stayed less famous. Was Denver really one of the winners, or could he be seen instead as a victim of old-school music business mafia holdover types who still worshipped Sinatra and Bing Crosby, and found a hard-working, talented and malleable kid they could apply their formulas to? Was he actually a trailblazer who set the stage for modern singer-songwriters? Could his image and sound have been done much better had he been more like Alison Krauss or even Taylor Swift, who seem to call their own shots artistically and business-wise?

mitchell trio The Deutschendorf Family (with Brother Ron in back)

Who Melted the Cheese and Why?

I feel the presence of a conspiracy– some hand or force that seemed to want to make sure that Denver's music always featured gooey strings, orchestration and even flutes. It feels to me like this conspiracy is not the work of an evil person or group with a tangible or clear agenda, but instead is merely a manifestation of the centuries-old lack of respect of troubadours and folk music by the world of "higher music." It likely took shape and was activated inside people who came into positions of power in the music business, and their actions were guided by this unspoken force. People are always shaped by the cultural forces around them, and it may be almost a rule that they are rarely aware of how their attitudes were formed in them.

Most of Denver’s catalog of recordings are almost a textbook of how to cover up a troubadour with backup musicians, strings and syrupy orchestral production. There are now two versions of "Country Roads" competing for airplay and streaming hits, called the Original and the Rerecorded versions. They are similar and both nice performances by Denver, though the Rerecorded version is getting three times the traffic, and it has strings and harps that sweep in halfway through the song. The original version just has Mike Taylor's beautiful acoustic guitar and Eric Weissberg's ethereal pedal steel guitar weaving around the vocals, which seems consistent with the subject of the song and the performance. It's as if the Conspiracy decided to even cover up the Denver tracks out there that had no cheesy production and replace them with Velveeta-drenched versions that are of course a little louder and clearer-sounding. Who made the decisions and why did John Denver's record producers feel the need to sonically bury his strong and versatile acoustic guitar and troubadour prowess, and give him a pop sheen that was so at odds with his denim & leather jacket, trout fisherman and mountain-climbing persona? Maybe it was Denver himself, though fundamentally it was his personal musical energy and not the overall sound that drove Denver’s connection to his listeners. Can we find out if he personally lobbied for or against the production? Denver’s body of work, especially his most popular records, also seems to mark the beginning of the “troubadour intro” style of record production that has remained the norm for decades, especially in Nashville, where nearly every high-profile commercial song begins with a few seconds of an acoustic guitar before the band and rhythm section or overdubbing takes over.

The "Lost" Album

love again cd

In 1996, presumably on the heels of the very successful MTV Unplugged phenomenon and Eric Clapton's mega-platinum Unplugged success, Denver recorded a new album titled “Love Again,” where he did nice new performances of many of his best-known songs. It was produced by Denver himself, released on CMC, an independent record label founded in North Carolina by Tom Lipsky in 1991, with some connection to Denmark. CMC filed for bankruptcy in 2018, which might explain why that album has entirely disappeared from the digital landscape, and remains conspicuously missing and nearly impossible to locate online. The album has had at least two versions and three different titles, including “Unplugged,” which I think was the name given to the European version of the CD, but it shows up as a choice on iTunes. I had to buy a used copy on the internet to hear it.

It contains and may be the source for the now-common "Rerecorded Country Roads" but also has a very nice and unusually sparse "Jet Plane" and "Back Home Again," maybe his best ever performance of them, with guitar, vocal, bass and piano, that I can't anywhere else. Confusingly, the Shazam app says Jet Plane is the 1969 version from "Rhymes & Reasons" and that Country Boy is the original one which they are definitely not. Even if I input a segment from Country Boy that has an electric guitar solo that never even appeared on the extant versions it still insists it is right. The Conspiracy seems to even be feeding false data into the Shazam app algorithms or database to get it to give wrong results to keep us from identifying this hidden album, as if to make sure it remains shrouded in darkness and mystery. The CD also contains a unique lost version of "Perhaps Love," an unknown and unattributed live version of "Rocky Mountain High" plus a very nice piano-vocal version of "For You" that all appear nowhere else. The album offers a clue to the mystery of whether he liked the strings, because it has a little bit of that sound, but it is unattributed in the liner notes, unless it is Chris Nole who is listed as piano and keyboard, who might have used synth-keyboard strings, which is my best guess as to how they got that sound. There are several funny things going on, because it has some of the newer, sanitized, cheesier versions, so possibly it was a licensed compilation whose license ran out or was revoked, or an attempt by Denver to do a less-produced album. There are also multiple songs on Spotify that say they are being performed by John Denver as artist, but that are lame covers by unknown people, who presumably have found a loophole to get streaming money and that aren't being shut down by Spotify or Denver's people. There is a lot of money in Denver's catalog of recordings, and it would not surprise me if beasts large and small were fighting over it.

Digging Deeper into Denver

I bought a copy of "Mother Nature's Son", the only biography of Denver, written in 1999 by English music journalist and non-fan John Collis, hoping it might shed some light on my questions, which it didn't. Collis' view of Denver never even came close to the way I now see him, as an impossibly high-flying troubadour who somehow rode invisible waves to far places, and Collis only discussed his music in terms of the usual genres, marketing and music business viewpoints. His one attempt (p116) to explain Denver’s success as being rooted in an identification with white listeners who felt little kinship with the African roots of blues, rock and jazz fell apart quickly as he realized that Denver’s hippie pantheism, pot smoking and environmental activism were antithetical to his white bread heartland appeal among what were referred to as “rednecks” in those days. Collis quickly abandoned his efforts to analyze Denver’s appeal to his huge fanbase since he had no theory, and he never came close to suggesting that the solo troubadour energy I am so interested in might have been at the core of Denver’s massive and unique popularity.

Denver's banal 1994 "Back Home Again: An Autobiography" book revealed even less secrets, though Denver did describe himself in deeper detail than I wanted, especially regarding his marriages and their ups and downs. He may well have been a genuine, naturally corny hopeless romantic. His calm, deliberate recounting on p185 of a big fight he had with Annie before their divorce was creepily nonchalant: "...before I knew it I had her up on the kitchen counter and my hands were around her throat... I hadn't come to hurt her...I had almost lost control but I didn't... and that's when I got the power saw [chain saw] going. First I cut off a corner of the kitchen table and then I cut up the dining table." His redneck fans might have loved that story, but as juicy as it was I would rather hear him talk about his music. Music is why we are interested in him at all, not because we want to know all his feelings about everything, though him trying to saw their bed in half with the chainsaw was an amazing image that grew some wings after the book was published.

Denver barely said a word about how his musical sound took shape, other than "I'd long been intimidated by the musicians whom Milt Okun found to play with me.... I couldn't say what worked and what didn't and I would just take what they gave me...." This and other clues gave me the feeling that Denver himself was not the architect of his sound, which is consistent with the fact that sometimes there were flutes and other times banjos and fiddles, twanging electric guitars or cavernous drums. Denver also detailed when he first started playing club gigs, that he was introverted and had difficulty meshing with the hip crowd he fell into when he quit architecture school and moved to L.A. at age 20 in the early 60s to pursue music. Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers and other now-familiar names were also hanging around the Troubadour club open mikes and forming bands. Denver's memory was that he was one of the few who was not starting a band, and was comfortable playing solo, which he did 6 nights a week, starting at Ledbetter's, the club in Westwood owned by New Christy Minstrels founder Randy Sparks (1933- ). Sparks was 10 years older and already successful, and he convinced Henry John to drop his real name and become John Denver, and offered him some gigs at his club. It seems clear that Denver was happy delivering songs by himself and remained that way, but he later accepted that his backup band would steadily grow in size as he got more famous and played larger venues. At the beginning of his solo career he had just a trio like Gordon Lightfoot, with Dick Kniss on bass and Mike Taylor (1948-2010) on lead acoustic guitar. Denver reportedly treated his musicians and stage crew extremely well, and was totally professional, reliable, generous and hard-working at all times, even during his heyday.

Let's review what we know about the music. By age 20, Denver was playing solo in clubs, learning a lot of songs, practicing guitar, developing his style and stage presence and losing his virginity, which he felt the need to describe in his book, maybe because the rest of the book was not very exciting, other than the chainsaw incident of course. His engagements were usually extended when they were finished, and he seemed to be succeeding on the club circuit, but he wanted to be a bigger part of the music business. He was ambitious, hard-working and driven, with a stern military father shadow looming over his Midwesterner mindset. John's first big "break" came when he landed a job in 1965, beating out 250 applicants (!) to replace Chad Mitchell in the now-defunct but popular Chad Mitchell Trio, renamed "The Mitchell Trio" for two years. Denver recorded three albums with that trio, including the first version of his song "Leaving on A Jet Plane." In 1966 the other two members, Mike Kobluk and Joe Frazier also quit, so the new replacement members of that group were briefly Michael Johnson (now deceased) and a man I've never heard of named David Boise. They made one record in 1968 as "Denver, Boise & Johnson." (I knew Michael but didn't know this part of his past, and could have asked him vital questions, but he died in 2017, just before I started this troubadour research project.)

mitchell trio 2 Mitchell Trio on Mike Douglas show: Michel Johnson, David Boise, John Denver w/ Paul Prestopino (guitar)

The producer, arranger and general mastermind for the Chad Mitchell Trio was a 40-year old former classical pianist, arranger and conductor from Brooklyn named Milt Okun, who was leading the auditions to reform the group with new members. Okun was newly swinging his weight around as the creative engine behind Mitchell's folk success and especially Peter, Paul & Mary's harmonies that roared to the top of the charts in 1962. PP& M's debut album spawned several hits including "If I Had A Hammer," and ultimately sold over 2 million copies. As a producer and business strategist in the center of the new success of folk music, Okun had put the word out to the Brothers Four and his other stable of young singers to be on the lookout for good replacements for Mitchell, and a tip from one of them led Okun to ultimately offer Denver the job in the trio. That marked the beginning of their nearly 30-year relationship that remained positive, though Denver recorded a couple albums with other producers before his tragic death in an airplane accident in 1997. Okun spoke eloquently about Denver at his funeral, and wrote a famous op-ed piece in the L.A. Times where he defended Denver body of work against critics who belittled it. Okun essentially created Denver's pop sound, though a decade earlier he had arranged and co-produced Peter, Paul & Mary’s sparse yet very popular albums that typically added only a string bass to their basic two guitar sound. Admittedly, the 1966 PP& M “Album” began to feature noticeably more overdubbing and production, with even more on the 1967 “Album 1700” that followed the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album by five months. Did Okun evolve with the times or just fall under the Beatles' oversubbing spell like so many countless others? Was it really necessary in 1971 to overproduce troubadour music in order to sell it in large quantities?

Who Was Milt Okun and What Was He After?

Milt & John Milt & John in their prime

Milton Theodore Okun (1923-2016) seems to be the chief culprit and “orchestrator” (literally and figuratively) of the John Denver pop sound, since he produced Denver’s first 18 albums, including all of the chart-toppers, and probably wrote many of the parts and basically shepherded Denver's entire music business success. Jerry Weintraub was Denver's business manager most of his career, though I cannot find out if he voted in the decisions of how to produce Denver's music, and partner & fellow arranger Lee Holdridge was also a co-conspirator who probably contributed ideas but did not appear to make key decisions. Milt Okun was very involved in music marketing, promotion and publishing as well as production, and was described by Mark Moss of Sing Out Magazine as “... one of a handful of incredibly influential publishers, organizers, managers, directors, presenters who sprang up during that era.” Unfortunately Okun died in 2016, though in his memoirs he confessed to having been a 1950s guitar-playing folksinger himself as well as a classically-trained pianist, arranger and conductor.

Okun offers no direct clues why he felt the need to pile so much cheesy post-production on top of Denver’s songs for so many years, though he seemed more than happy to take credit for Denver's success. “Along the Cherry Lane: Tales From the Life of Music Business Legend Milt Okun” mostly offers insights into Okun's deep classical music roots and passions, his legendary business deals, and the evolving story of his Cherry Lane Music publishing venture. (The most startling part of Milt's book was how harsh he was on Peter, Paul & Mary, who he claimed were awful singers who took weeks to learn each song as he patiently spoon-fed them for hours on end the harmonies he wrote. I'd like to hear their side of the story, since they never sounded like bad singers to me.) Okun himself opened up some new avenues of inquiry into how he had such a gigantic influence on troubadour music in America, and ultimately the world. As I see him now, through my troubadour lens, I get more insight into the Denver mystery than any other angle I can find, but there is still nothing resembling a clear picture or a feeling of understanding how it all went down. In Okun's obituary, the Los Angeles Times wrote that in Denver "Okun saw a raw Americana talent, but the folk scene was fading and labels were largely uninterested." Okun struggled, and eventually got Denver a four album deal with RCA , including a modest $7000 advance for each record, and it was album #4 where they struck pay dirt in 1971. Only two years later RCA boldly released "John Denver's Greatest Hits" that became the best-selling record in the long history of the hallowed record company.

Milt Okun's life story sounds random and almost fictional, but he became a very wealthy, influential and powerful man, who worked amiably and effectively with some of the biggest names in American music history, leaving a long trail of admirers behind him as well as control of a large number of musical copyrights. His list of friends and achievements is staggering, and it is very hard to find anyone with anything negative to say about Milt, so when I accuse him of being the mastermind of a conspiracy to cover up troubadours, I will make few friends and raise many eyebrows. He was said to be smart, thoughful, modest, kind, savvy and talented, and he didn't screw the artists and always paid the royalties correctly. There is little darkness to be found in his book or whatever is said about him, though he wrote and published it, and I cannot find any conspiracy theories of blackmail or skullduggery other than the usual music mogul thirsting for money and power stuff. No mafia connections, secret homosexuality, extortion– just a lot of music, meetings, hard work and deal-making. The answer from his camp on all accusations will always be about money–  that whatever he did it was because that's what sells or that's what he thought would sell, which in America is always an acceptable explanation. But I want to introduce some reasonable doubt that there was another factor that involved– the idea that solo troubadour music isn't good enough or is a "lower" art form than orchestral and more complex music, and would benefit from some "help" to clean it, dress it up and make it more digestible for the masses, who want McDonald's hamburgers, not wild game. There are a lot of "fishy" aspects to this story that lead me to believe that the best-selling and highest-profile troubadour figure of the 20th century was very controlled and shaped by a man who perhaps shouldn't have had this control, and had a skewed or antiquated idea of how a folksinger/troubadour should be packaged and presented to the world.

Through my troubadour binoculars, I see what could be construed as a tragedy, that allowed a powerful man to cover up a charismatic singer-songwriter's music in the name of "commercial success," which exactly parallels what solo guitarist Chet Atkins did in country music in the same era, when he became a huge force in shaping the cheesy "commercial" Nashville sound that never let us hear Patsy Cline or Jim Reeves with a twanging country band behind them. Many years later Chet publicly apologized for drenching down-home music with string sections, and it is possible that these two men, both of whom seem to have deeply believed that someone singing with a guitar was an incomplete sound, both contributed significantly to the setting back the public acceptance of my art form by an entire generation or more. It is almost paradoxical that Chet was a master of solo guitar, but he loved to cover himself up also, and it's almost impossible to find recordings of him by himself. His public TV special toward the end of his life was almost comical. I was anxious to see him dig in on the guitar, and I think there must have been a record number of backup musicians and guest artists, and I barely saw or heard him after the very first song. I think it is interesting that blues writer Ted Gioia offered the same explanation for what happened to the blues. He thinks the brass band, blues-mama, Vaudeville style popular blues music that sold millions of records beginning with Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" in 1920 caused a significant delay in the public's being exposed to and learning about the original and more fundamental forms of blues, especially what is now often called "Delta blues." People feel similarly about how commercialism diverted and subverted the impact and public understanding of rock, rap or punk music forms. Yet public discussions and widely-known  histories focus almost entirely on the commercially successful music and artists, as if they are the only ones who matter. Back to Milt...

Okun was born in 1923, and his family was deeply involved in classical music. Milt began as a piano prodigy at age 4, and felt like he was headed for a career as a concert pianist until an infection as a teenager in the years before antibiotics left him bedridden and unable to play piano for two years. This nixed the pianist career option, and perhaps scarred him psychologically in ways a good analyst might be able to explain. Milt fondly recalled excitedly going to the opera regularly as a child, and of being obsessed with it and learning about all the composers, singers and parts. Another thread entered his life via Schroon Lake, a vacation spot his parents owned in the Adirondacks where he spent his summers. There he saw both Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger perform, and it was where he developed his campfire folk guitar skills, which he did in a very Burl Ives-flavored style. He also got a degree in music in 1949 from New York University and two years later a masters from Oberlin College in conducting, leading him to be simultaneously a leftist folksinger, a skilled pianist, singer, arranger and conductor. He taught junior high school music in New York for several years, but continued his pursuit of folk music, and even recorded six albums of folk revival ballads in the late 1950s. He made records as a solo singer-guitarist, a record of love song duets with forgotten singer Ellen Steker, and an album with a forgotten but rousing high-energy 4-piece Hootenanny group called The Skifflers.

LP

That means that Milt Okun put a lot of time and energy into being a folksinger– it was not a summer project or a passing interest. Most of his recordings were on the little-known Canadian folk record label Stinson Records who got on the map with Bob Gibson and folksinger/actor Theodore Bikel (1924-2015), whom Milt singled out angrily as someone who stole his arrangements. Bikel was the same age as Milt, and died a year sooner a couple miles from Okun, and it is possible he might have been a hidden arch-enemy we should also tell the analyst about. Milt's recordings are all long out of print, never reissued on CD, not available for streaming, and only fragments of them exist as sound files on an obscure Swedish folk hobbyist web site (several cuts are posted below). Okun even played at Carnegie Hall, and was reviewed by Robert Shelton of The New York Times, but the critics and the folk community of New York, especially the Little Sandy Review (1959-1965), did not like Milt's sound or the inauthentic liberties he took with those authentic folk songs he sang with his nylon-string guitar and stiff voice. Milt tellingly claimed, quite proudly, in his memoirs that he might have been the first folksinger to sing and play guitar in front of an orchestra, as if that was an important achievement and something that needed to be done. I wish he had elaborated on what it was exactly that this accomplished, other than to cover up the folksinger, puff up his ego and feelings of self-worth, and to somehow "civilize" the sound and make it finished and complete. Milt certainly spent the rest of his music career following that template, and whatever satisfaction it gave him has been an ongoing nemesis for troubadours and folk music advocates who don't agree that adding orchestral production to folk music makes it better.

mitchell trio The Mitchell Trio with John Denver

Our imaginary analyst might perk up here at the possible future consequences of the rejection the "folk community" gave young Milt as he poured his heart into his folk music. Could this be the fuel that led the bruised, geeky lad to grow his power and become the Marvel Comics villain who would later exact his revenge on the folk community and their "authenticity?" I bought some used LPs of Milt's early work, and have posted mp3 files of a number of the songs so you can hear for yourself this man whose own personal music and voice has been essentially lost (or perhaps purposefully hidden ...) His own folk music vanished, but like a puppet master he ultimately controlled the pathways by which other voices reached countless millions of ears. The idea that he might have been manipulated by an invisible puppet master himself is looming as the solution to John Denver mystery, and it is perhaps not fair to blame him for doing what he felt was right, though there were other people putting out folk music in those days that was not overproduced. Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, Ian & Sylvia and even Joan Baez recordings weren't drenched with pop production, though they didn't sell as well as Denver, and maybe the ghost of Milt Okun could tell us why...

Okun took a job playing piano for Harry Belafonte that led to him becoming a singer, arranger and conductor, and he toured with Harry for almost six years, and credits him for a sizable but unspecified chunk of his musical education. Okun was living in Greenwich Village, and after being fired by Belafonte he landed the job of creating the vocal sound of Peter, Paul & Mary at the request of their inventor/manager Albert Grossman. Grossman was also famously managing the young Bob Dylan and helping to launch both artists as major folk-pop stars. It was PP&M's recordings of his songs that started Dylan's career, though interestingly the original Chad Mitchell Trio released the first cover of Blowin' in the Wind in January 1963, just nine months after Bob's original 1962 solo version.


This music posted below came directly from the man who determined John Denver's sound for eternity, and the songs paint a picture of a person and his musical sensibilities, especially because they are so sparsely performed, with just a guitar or an extra banjo.


America's Best-Loved Folk Songs LP (Jan. 18, 1957) Baton Records [BL #1203] Sung By Milt Okun, featuring Roger Sprung on 5-string banjo, [produced by Sol Rabinowitz] concertina or keyboard acc.- unknown.

adirondack

01-Cindy
02-Wanderin'
03- The Fox
04- Shenandoah
05- Rock Island Line
06- Big Rock Candy Mountain
07- Casey Jones
08- On Top Of Old Smoky
09- Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly
10- Goodnight Irene
11- Sweet Betsy From Pike
12- Hush Little Baby
13- John Henry
14- Riddle Song
15- Skip to My Lou
16- Blue Tail Fly


Adirondack Folk Songs & Ballads LP(1963) Stinson Records [SLP #82] Sung by Milt Okun  [Notes by Marjorie Lansing Porter and Kenneth Goldstein/ no producer given]

adirondack

01-Belle of Long Lake 2:25
02-Lass of Glenshee 3:18
03- The Days of 49 2:16
04- Come to the Fair 1:25
05- The Good Old Days 1:29
06- Dolan's Ass 3:24
07- The Fatal Wedding 2:26
08- The Gypsy Davey 1:16
09- Bert Le Fountain's Packard 1:27
10- The Banks of Champlain 2:12


I am straining to understand the struggle inside Milt Okun between his folksinger alter-ego, his deep classical training and professed first love of opera, and his significant ambition and desire to organize, succeed and make things happen. Even as he was pursuing a folksinger career he produced a film called "Techniques of Conducting," directed the Adirondack Folk Song & Dance Festival, and conducted the Village Community Chorus. As an Oberlin graduate in the 1950s, he undoubtedly fell into left-wing politics, and into believing the typical viewpoint of the literate music world toward folk music. He said himself that: “...composers like Dvorak had mined their own folk traditions and opened up everyone’s eyes to the riches and beauty… it is everyone’s music- our music.” Okun said dramatically at the end of his memoir that "It is in Wagner that I found the defining truth, in music, of my life in music." Yet he seemingly drank the Folk Boom Kool Aid, and loved singing Negro work songs and lusty sea shanties.

I feel sure I can smell that there was some Troubadour Shame involved, and down deep Milt knew it wasn't "higher" music and was unworthy, which I'm sure his parents made clear when he was first learning folk guitar. And I suspect that John Denver had the same hidden shame, since virtually all troubadours have for 450 years, so he might have acquiesced to having his music covered up by the well-connected music business man, who was nearly exactly the same age as Denver's father, and who deep inside believed that the "right" and "worthy" thing to do did not involve allowing the raw, bare-bones, unadorned troubadour sound to predominate.

"Something To Sing About"

LP book

In 1968 Okun conceived and produced an unusual, mysterious and quite ambitious multi-artist 3-LP folk album with a somewhat-accompanying 241 page hardback book of the same title, “Something to Sing About," published by MacMillan. It seems to have been an early example of Okun mixing nepotism, cronyism, deal-making and puppeteering with his love of folk songs, arranging skills, work ethic and get-it-done leadership, and is a key piece of evidence in understanding him. This was the year between the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, and amid the massive financial success of numerous big folk acts and shortly before he began piling production on top of John Denver records, Okun apparently wanted to the world to know how much the new hip folk and folk-rock scene owed and was rooted in traditional folk songs. He also wrote rather well in the book about how the meaning that modern songwriters felt in their original songs was matched by the respect they had for tradition and their roots. Milt also seems to have wanted to plug some artists he managed and controlled, feature their songs (that he published), and get them to prove his point.

Oddly the record has no label, and the handwritten matrix number code on the records uses the prefix "MOS-1" for the six sides, presumably referring to "Milt Okun __", indicating that this was the first record on this imaginary "record label" or some kind of a bootleg. The amount of effort he put into making the record and book was considerable. Okun got 75 musicians, an extremely impressive "who's who" of folk artists to suggest what their favorite folk songs were, and he put a couple dozen of them on the album, and all of them in the book. It must have been Okun who wrote the very well-written blurbs about each artist and the song, and he created a piano/vocal sheet music arrangement of each song that was how he envisioned a pianist playing that song, even though none of the artists on the project played piano, nor was there any piano on any of the recordings. In the introduction to the book, Okun wrote that "The impact of the folk revival of the Fifties created a new revolution in American pop music." He then interestingly took a jab at the critics who had rejected his music: "These generally libertarian people suddenly became rather narrow-minded about how a traditional song should be performed, how it should sound, what sort of accompaniment it deserves." The fact that Okun included himself on the LP, alongside the most hallowed artists in the history of folk music is bold to say the least– as if to say "If you listen you'll notice I'm as good as they are..."

book

The LP contained 38 songs, 35 of them done by white artists, that were a mix of already-recorded songs by presumably whomever he could get permission to inlcude from the various record companies involved, plus a number of freshly-recorded folk songs by John Denver, Peter, Paul & Mary and Tom Paxton, who essentially "worked for Milt." Okun contributed a track on the LP of himself singing "Hush Little Baby," taken from one of his earlier Stinson albums. There were a number of reissues of recordings by now-familiar folk names Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, John Hurt, The Weavers, Josh White, The Smothers Brothers, Ian & Sylvia, Jean Ritchie, Phil Ochs, Odetta and more, but he had Tom Paxton contribute five new tracks for the project, including a lost but very nice version of his classic "Marvelous Toy" plus four lovely and reverent versions of the folk songs Little Mohee, Danville Girl, Spanish Is A Loving Tongue and Shenandoah, that feature a string bass and some brilliant but uncredited lead guitar parts, and even a dobro that sounds like Peter Childs.

Okun also got Denver to record new versions of three unusual folk songs. Denver obediently and nicely sang the British Isles Child ballad “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry” with just a 12-string guitar and vocal. It was the song he had chosen as his entry in the book, as a member of the Mitchell Trio. Oddly, the Trio contributed 4 other songs to the LP that were not in the book. In the book, Bob Gibson chose the song “Wagoner’s Lad,” but on the album Denver sang it instead, with a second fingerpicked acoustic guitar that could have been Gibson. The melody, words and chords differ somewhat from Okun's written arrangement. The most unusual track must be the subject of a joke somewhere, since it is a high-energy version of “Old MacDonald Had A Farm,” which in the book was the song chosen by Arlo Guthrie, who must have been pulling Milt's leg. Arlo's only appearance on the LP is a delightful and well-recorded 1968 nearly eight-minute (7:57) live concert version of his "The Motorcycle Song," which is noticeably out of place in the collection, and recorded at the Bitter End in New York. It has a long, zany Alice's Restaurant-style monologue in the middle, just a year after a studio-produced version of that song with electric guitar had appeared on his very successful "Alice's Restaurant" album on Reprise Records. Somehow Denver was the guy who sang "Old MacDonald" for posterity with only his immaculately cheerful guitar and someone's banjo (probably Roger Sprung) with all the inane barnyard animal sounds faithfully delivered. There were 23 artists on the LP, and very oddly, almost the only writing inside the box, which has no names or addresses anywhere, is a "Special credit with deep appreciation" to other record companies and artists for allowing them to be included, with all 21 artists in that list (Okun didn't thank himself or Stinson by name), but the only name missing is John Denver. I wonder if John Denver made coffee also, or swept the studio after the sessions. Anyone who wants to solve the mystery of this album might try to chase down the co-producers names: Jean Goldhirsch and Thomas Humber or the Promotion Consultant Margot Bockus. Humber shares his name with one of the inventors of the bicycle, greatly hampering internet searching, but Goldhirsch co-produced and assisted production on later John Denver and Laura Nyro records that were produced by Okun. She appears to have been a protegé or associate of his, or possibly something more scandalous.

book

Questions about this album abound, which seems to be part of the Milt Okun vision... The CHILDREN'S SIDE explains some things, like the "Old MacDonald" track. But Phil Och's "Power & the Glory" with the lyrics: "But our land is still troubled by men who have to hate/ They twist away our freedom & they twist away our fate /Fear is their weapon and treason is their cry/ We can stop them if we try..." hardly seems like children's fare, nor does Jack Elliott's "More Pretty Girls Than One." Paxton already had written several commerially successful songs, and the year before in 1967 Peter Paul & Mary had their only #1 pop hit ever with Denver's song "Leaving on a Jet Plane." It seems odd to ask or pay either Paxton or Denver to do what they did, especially to get 25-year-old John to sing "With an oink oink here, an oink oink there, here an oink, there an oink, everywhere an oink oink..." None of these tracks can be found anywhere, not even in any of the most detailed Tom Paxton, Jean Ritchie or John Denver discographies, and they appear nowhere online other than a private YouTube post by someone who owns the record. I have included links to many of them here, since you should hear for yourself what these tracks sounded like. Could Okun's failure to sell this record have been a turning point that convinced him to use more studio production and not feature either folk songs or solo troubadour accompaniments on future recordings?

The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry [John Denver- (1968)] (unreleased and VERY GOOD)
The Wagoner’s Lad [John Denver- (1968)] (unreleased and also VERY GOOD)
Old MacDonald Had A Farm [John Denver- (1968)] (unreleased)
Hush Little Baby[Milt Okun- (1961)] (from "America's Best-Loved Folk Songs")

The Marvelous Toy [Tom Paxton- (1968)] (unreleased and VERY GOOD)
Little Mohee [Tom Paxton- (1968)] (unreleased and VERY GOOD)
Danville Girl [Tom Paxton- (1968)] (unreleased)
Spanish Is A Loving Tongue [Tom Paxton- (1968)] (unreleased)
Shenandoah [Tom Paxton- (1968)]  (unreleased)

Motorcycle Song [Arlo Guthrie- (1968)]  (unreleased and VERY GOOD) coming soon

When I asked Tom Paxton about these sessions, he replied: "_ _ _ _ _ _ _..." (coming soon I hope)

“My heart was always in opera...”

Opera, the other recurring thread in Okun's world came back into the picture when in 1981, six years after the peak of Denver's success, Okun brokered a deal with CBS records and persuaded legendary opera tenor Placido Domingo to record a duet with Denver of "Perhaps Love," an unreleased Denver composition. “My heart was always in opera,” Okun told music website Artist House Music in 2011. In his memoir, Okun took great pains to explain that Domingo was the greatest voice of the 20th century, and Milt was quite a groupie, in awe of the singer even as he managed to include him in his money-making musical puppeteering. The song was a multi-platinum crossover hit, and that success seems to have been the greatest joy and accomplishment of Milt Okun's life. He was able to weave together his deal-making and business skills, his lifelong love of opera and his career-spanning control of John Denver's sound and image to put the folksinger into an alien musical environment where he did surprisingly well. It is hard to tell who exactly liked the song– was it Denver fans, Domingo fans, opera fans, folk fans, all of the above or none? Okun could have had Domingo be the fish out of water, and sing along on a folk anthem, a hoedown or a remake of "Old MacDonald Had A Farm," but instead the song made it clear that the "proper" and "higher" operatic singer would throw down the singing gauntlet and dare the folksinger to reply, like a "Dueling Banjos" of overblown sentimental white male singing. Placido sang the first verse over mostly Denver's guitar, but when John sang verse two at 0:42, the cheesy production came in right with him, growing steadily, and the final sound on the song was the string section. Milt dangled the prospect of songwriter royalties and fresh markets for Denver, whose star was fading, which got him on board, and Placido was given some incentives that made him a great deal of money. The song is a confusing creation, a sort of two-headed monster, but to our man Milt Okun who built and shaped the John Denver sound, it was a triumph that meant the world to him and presumably also to his loyal wife Rosemary, who had suggested the idea of the duet in the first place. I wonder if she was secretly the one responsible for piling strings on top of John Denver.

Epilogue

John Denver is gone, and we can ponder the John Denver Experience–  what there was, and wistfully what might have been had those big dice rolled differently. Each of us will have a chance to make up our minds about whether he was genuine or phony, honest or scheming, or whether he was a perpetrator, a victim, or a wide-eyed cheery guy along for the ride. John's music is the vast majority of what we have left of him, and it's possible we all have to learn to ignore both its lack of depth and the polyester clothes, eye-liner, lipstick and rouge that was put on top of it, just as we have learned to ignore the Anita Kerr Singers on Ray Charles' "I Can't Stop Loving You" and some other horrendous production that other recording artists have endured. Maybe John's simple and very heartfelt music and his perkiness under pressure did help heal the country on the heels of Vietnam, the assassinations and Watergate. And maybe it can do somethihg similar again, or inspire a new and improved version of the Troubadour Griot/Healer/Poet-Soothsayer who might be out there ready to sing for us and Take Us Home to the Place We Belong, whether or not it is in West Virginia.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... You deserve a reward or a door prize for making it to the end. Please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,

HARVEY REID

 ©2019