John Denver performance poster in the October 6, 1969 edition of the Almanian Newspaper. John Denver performs with acoustic guitar [LEFT]. His lyrics to his album Rhymes and Reasons [RIGHT]
A rumor has circulated campus for far too long without a clear answer. Did John Denver perform at Alma College? Did he perform Country Roads for the first time here? The answer to both of these questions is yes. And he performed not just once, but multiple times from 1969 to 1971. Although his arrival was a rumor, we can now look back and confirm his impact on campus life over fifty years ago.
American Icon, John Denver, launched his solo music career by performing in small venues and college towns across the United States. Remarkably, John Denver made one of his earliest debuts at Alma College in the Fall of 1969.
John Denver led music concerts across the United States at the height of the Vietnam War. One of those performances was right here at Alma College. In October, he performed his album Rhymes and Reasons live. A room of 800 spectators in Alma, Michigan, watched history unfold before them as John Denver sang music inspired by friendship and love. Words that would eventually work to bring home a generation fighting a war few wanted.
His lyrics were meaningful, and the Almanian called him a “poet” and “sensitive to human emotions.” John Denver was so well-received at Alma College that he would return in the Spring of 1970. There, he would play Rhymes and Reasons again. An album that exploded in popularity upon its release the previous year.
Times were changing, and the campus felt different, politically. Especially towards the war in Vietnam. Students had been conscripted into the war, and peace seemed like a distant memory. When Americans grew to oppose the war, musicians became the voice of change. Musicians like John Denver picked up their guitars and played at venues and parks to protest the war. Students especially were highly receiving of this entertainment and a cause to end the violence.
The Almanian writers – in the same edition of the newspaper – directly opposed the war in Vietnam. “The Vietnamese people have fought a long time against western imperialism. People in America must realize and condemn this imperialism to effectively oppose the war.”
John Denver sang words etched in the memory of those who remember protests against the war. “For the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers. Their laughter and their loveliness could clear a cloudy day.” Alma College loved his music because they saw him as a poet of their generation. The lyrics were printed in the October edition of the Almanian. Proof he performed these songs live in a casual setting before they went on album.
In 1970, John Denver returned to Alma with new songs. “The way he sings reflects all the things John Denver is.” His music was poetry, and his poetry was music. He performed Leaving On a Jet Plane on two shows on the Alma College campus. The 13th and 14th of January were sold-out performances. Crowds stood in applause and demanded an encore.
One of his last performances at Alma was in February 1971. Alma welcomed his return, and he sang Country Roads for the first time before its release in April 1971. Alma College students who attended the concert were among the first to hear that iconic song most people know today.
When he arrived, he apologized for being late. “When he got on stage, he explained that he had fought with the blizzard and that the weather had won by forcing his car into a ditch.” Country Roads may have been forgiving, but Michigan roads were not. He then promised he would do his best to give an excellent performance. He did.
Linda Heiss – former Almanian writer – described the atmosphere that John Denver created in his performance.
“The concert was informal and relaxed which made the bleachers seem more comfortable than usual. He entertained well because he wasn’t Just performing, he was expressing himself. He sang songs which were full of life and which surveyed life in our country. The second part of the program consisted mostly of songs of his beliefs concerning people, life, war and America, very poignant.”
“The crowd experienced and informed John that he had made up for being late. That they enjoyed his outstanding concert was evident by the final standing ovations he received. What can be said but…. Thank You, John Denver.”
Incredibly, John Denver performed here at Alma College. What changed? Why have the wandering musicians stopped their pilgrimage? Perhaps, when we societally adjust to life in Covid-19, more artists will emerge to sing of friendship and love. If they do, send them to Alma College.