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James R. Stout

Annie's Song and Imagery

            In the fall of 1974 John Denver released what some people believe to be his best song. To tell the truth, up until the album that it was on came out, I could take or leave John Denver’s music. I liked some of it and some of it wasn’t that interesting to me. But with the release of his album, “Back Home Again”, his music came to mean a lot more to me. It still does. The first single on that album was the title track and it was far and away better (my opinion) than anything he had done previously. It spoke to my heart. But it was the second single when he knocked it out of the park. “Annie’s Song” became a huge hit, topped the Billboard record charts at #1, and was one of those songs that everything about it just seems to be a gift from God. I would end up performing that song many times when I was playing and singing for a living.

            But at the time that it came out I was just a lad of 19. I hadn’t really experienced much in life yet even if I thought that I had. I listened to the lyrics of that song and then memorized them. Those lyrics were filled with wonderful imagery. I loved them, but I didn’t honestly have a clue about their reality. There’s a line that goes, “You fill up my senses, light a night in the forest”. I had never really spent a night in the forest at the time. I had camped a time or two with my cousins, but not in a forest. It was usually beside some lake where the fishing was good. I didn’t know what a night in the forest was actually like. Now, I could imagine it, but that’s about it. Another line goes, “Like a storm in the desert, like a sleepy blue ocean.” Sounded great. Sounded really cool. But I had never seen a storm in the desert. In fact, with the exception of a couple of days in Ft. Davis, Texas when I was about 6-years-old and on vacation with my family, I had never been in any kind of desert. Ft. Davis is in the high desert of far West Texas. When it came to a “sleepy blue ocean”, well, that was completely unlike the only ocean that I had ever seen up until that time. The Gulf of Mexico around Galveston and Freeport is anything but sleepy and a muddy green as opposed to blue.

            Now, I had seen movies or pictures of places like these, but that’s just not the same as being there. As the years passed, I always had a great love for that song. I still do. But it wouldn’t be until I was 50-years-old that I would experience a storm in the desert. As good as Mr. Denver did in using the imagery of a storm in the desert in his song, it just didn’t compare to what I experienced. It was an incredible and awe-inspiring thing to see. I had parked my car up on a bluff in Utah in order to get some good photos. For as far as I could see in any direction there were bluffs and mesas and very little in the way of vegetation. You could see for many miles in all directions. To the east of where I was standing a violent storm was on display. It was too far away to hear the thunder, but there had to be thunder given the lightning and the vast dark clouds that I witnessed. As I watched the storm moving south, the rain was a dark blue monstrous thing to see.

            I was on a two-week road trip by myself. For Father’s Day that year my daughter had bought me a boxed-set of John Denver’s studio albums. Four CD’s worth of about 80 songs. Of course, I spent much of that trip listening Mr. Denver. And “Annie’s Song” was on my mind when I saw that storm in the desert. In fact, I stood there watching the scene play out in the distance and I started to sing the song. It just seemed to be the thing to do. It’s a memory that I will always hold dear. John Denver had died nearly 9 years before that day and despite having never met him, I felt like I knew him after I saw that storm.

            Now, let’s go forward about 2 years. It’s May of 2008 and my son is getting married on the beach down in South Padre Island. On my way down there by car the day before the wedding I came to the bridge that goes over to the island. It was the first time for me to see the famous turquoise blue water that the island is known for. What song came to mind? Yep, “Annie’s Song” played in my head. This was a sleepy blue ocean on that day. I had been out to the Pacific and the Golden Gate, but that water was anything but peaceful! I had seen the Atlantic from the air in Northern Florida, but it was barely visible given we landed about dusk. But there I was at the age of 52 and I was seeing the rest of that line in the song.

            As a songwriter myself, I have written about things that I have both seen and haven’t seen. I’ve imagined how some things might be and much like an actor who has never been a policeman pretends to be one in a movie roll, I have pretended or acted a part in some of my songwriting. But the best songs that I have written are about the things that I have actually experienced. I could be wrong, but I would be willing to bet that when John Denver wrote a lot of his songs they came from real experiences. I know for a fact that was the case in his classic, “Rocky Mountain High”, because in an interview he explained how he came to write that song. I’m guessing that when he wrote “Annie’s Song” it was from experience. I can only imagine how having such a song written about you must have felt to Annie. Even though they would eventually divorce, I can’t imagine that when she hears that song on the radio in her car or in an elevator or store in some mall that she doesn’t get a warm, loved feeling.

            Next time you hear a song that you’ve loved for years and it means something special to you try to imagine how the writer must have felt when they wrote the song. It may give you a better idea of what the song is about. Hey, and if you haven’t listened to “Annie’s Song” in a while, then go listen to it. Close your eyes and think about the words. It’s a beautiful song.

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