If there are two western songs that make expats think of China, they are Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On and John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. It is a twosome as bizarre as any you could imagine, with the only obvious thread running through them being their unthreatening hokey-ness. The first can be chalked up to the runaway success of Titanic, combined with a Chinese love of syrupy ballads, and apparently universal bad taste. However, there is more of a story behind John Denver.
During my first several months living in China back in 2001, a few friends took me to a Chengdu bar with live music. Although I did not know it then, I was about to have one of the most common nightlife experiences you can have in China. And yet, at the time, it seemed odd and out of place. There was no way to have guessed how normal it was.
After a few drinks, a band from the Philippines came out on stage. There were three of them: two men and a woman. They sang a couple of Chinese songs to warm up the crowd, and then to my surprise, began playing a bass line that sounded strangely like country music. Within seconds the face of the Chinese customers lit up, and as the intro carried on it became clear that this was a familiar song.
By the time the singer started in with, “Almost Heaven, West Virginia,” I knew something really strange was happening in the Chinese heartland. The song, which first become a smash hit in the West in 1971, when China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, at some point had become part of Chinese popular culture. Listening to a Filipino man singing this folk tune about a boy from America’s coal mining region longing for home, I felt slightly bewildered.
John Denver, as it turns out an environmentalist and folk musician, had a strong and peculiar connection to some of the more secretive governments in the world. In the early 1990s he performed for Deng Xiaoping at the White House, paving the way for him to be the first Western musician to tour China, in 1993. In addition, he also performed in the Soviet Union, and was the first American to perform in Vietnam following the conclusion of the war. Not bad for a guy sporting a bowl haircut.
By the time Denver made it to China in 1993 the country was already familiar with his easy-going sounds, which had already become decidedly square in America. Perhaps it was his down-home style that endured him to Chinese audiences, or maybe they just liked the melodies. Whatever the appeal was for the crowds, his non-political message was just what the government wanted. It was Western, but in small bites.
Regardless of the political motivation, John Denver became a high profile celebrity on the Chinese music scene. Legend has it that Deng already knew all of the words to Denver’s songs when he heard the singer in Washington. In a final tragic event that would link the two men forever, both died within six months of one another in 1997. Deng was ninety-three, while Denver was forty years his junior.
John Denver seems like an odd candidate to have become a music legend in China. But then again, it has 900 million people living in rural areas, and Denver woke up every morning thanking God he was born a country boy.