To heck with the Rocky Mountains, it was Minnesota that inspired John Denver's first No. 1 song
As the Fargo Theatre welcomes a John Denver tribute show Dec. 3, a look back at the Minnesotan who inspired more than one of his songs and how the state's cold spring inspired another.
FARGO — How many of us can finish this lyric?
“You fill up my senses…..”
“Like a night in the forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain"
As you sing those words, (and I know you are) you can almost hear the soft guitar notes and clear, gentle voice of superstar John Denver.
Denver’s “Annie’s Song” was a monster hit for the folk singer turned pop/country 1970s superstar. Fans probably know that the song was written for Denver’s wife Annie Martell Denver. But fans in the upper Midwest might be interested to know, Martell was a Minnesota girl.
Who is Annie Martell Denver?
Martell grew up the oldest of four children in St. Peter, Minnesota. A 1964 graduate of St. Peter High School, she enrolled in her hometown college, Gustavus Adolphus, to study art education. It was there that her life would change dramatically.
During her sophomore year, a trio of young men came to campus to perform. One of its members, a clean-cut bespectacled blond named John Deutschendorf, took notice of the pretty brunette.
Martell told the story on a recent episode of the Mo Rocca podcast, “ Mobituaries .”
“John was giving a concert with the Mitchell Trio. And afterward, he was playing his guitar and there were a group of people that were doing a play and kind of a silly little musical, and I was the girl that carried the signs across the stage Act One, Act Two, and according to John, I had a pair of blue jeans on and a flannel shirt and penny loafers,” she said.
She told People magazine in a 1979 interview that John told her it was then that “he fell in love on the spot.” He wrote her a letter three weeks later saying that he hoped they could see each other again. They did a year later when he was performing another concert at nearby Minnesota State University, Mankato.
They had their first date there. Annie said John was charming and asked a lot of questions and he was an immediate hit with her parents.
John “really appeals to those mothers,” Annie told People.
They didn’t waste a lot of time after that. They were engaged nine months later and married June 9, 1967, at First Lutheran Church in St. Peter.
The Minnesota muse
After the wedding, the couple lived in Chicago for a short time and later settled in Edina, Minnesota. It was while living in Edina from 1968 to 1971 that John wrote the songs for his first three albums, including his first number-one song "Sunshine on my Shoulders," which he said he wrote on one of those cold, dreary Minnesota late-winter, early spring days when everything is still gray but he said, "spring in fact is happening. That's why the song is so slow and melancholy."
John performed all over Minnesota during those years. In 1970, he performed at Edina High School for students who staged a walkout in support of teacher pay. Also, in 1970, he played at the inauguration of Gov. Wendell Anderson. The two men became friends, and Anderson would go on to become the godfather to John and Annie's son.
In 1971, the Denvers moved to Aspen as John began to pursue a solo career away from the trio. It was in Aspen where “Annie’s Song” was born.
The young couple (he was 23 when they married, she was 20) had gotten into a fight and John took off to clear his head in the Rocky Mountains that have become as synonymous to him as the granny glasses and mop-top hairdo. He wrote the words to “Annie’s Song” in a few minutes while on a ski lift high above the snow.
Annie told newspaper reporters at the time, “When he played it to me, I cried. I was very honored by it.”
In the Mobituaries podcast she said it still moves her.
“I still cry when I hear it. It’s really beautiful and so many people have used it in their weddings,” she said.
Over the years, when people learn who she is, naturally the song comes up.
“People still stop me to talk about it,” she told a reporter in 1999. “What I want people to know about that song is that, while I was John’s muse for it, it was really about John’s ability to love. It came from his deepest heart.”
Leaving on a jet plane
“Annie’s Song” isn’t the only time Annie inspired John’s music. In 1969, less than two years after they married, he wrote what would become his first hit as a songwriter, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” The song became a huge hit for Peter, Paul and Mary and many believed it to be about a young soldier flying off to serve in the Vietnam War. However, that was not John’s intention. He had written it about the hardship of leaving Annie so often as he went on the road.
Eventually, those days on the road took their toll on the marriage. In 1982, the couple divorced after 15 years of marriage. The couple shared custody of their two adopted children Anna-Kate and Zachary. John remarried and later divorced Australian actress Cassandra Delaney with whom he had a daughter.
However, John never forgot Annie. He would send her flowers on her birthday and Mother’s Day.
It was incredibly exciting. I had never left Minnesota before I met John, so it was thrilling to go around the world and meet people like Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.
It was just a couple of weeks after her birthday in the fall of 1997 that Annie would talk to John for the last time.
“I thanked him for the flowers he’d sent for my birthday and he went very quiet. He said, ‘Oh, but Annie, I love you’ and I said, ‘John, I love you, too. Have a great trip, and I’ll see you when you get back,’” she said.
But she didn’t get to see him again. John Denver died when the plane he was piloting crashed near Pacific Grove, California, on Oct. 12, 1997.
Even before the Denvers divorced Annie was starting to forge her own path. She began to champion causes such as world hunger and arts programs. In 1982, she came back to Minnesota to serve as the chairwoman for the Children’s Home Society of Minnesota’s benefit concert. (Her children were adopted through the society.)
Now 76, the former Mrs. John Denver leads a life out of the spotlight very different from the whirlwind days in the early ‘70s when John’s star shone so brightly.
“It was incredibly exciting,” she told a reporter in 1999. “I had never left Minnesota before I met John, so it was thrilling to go around the world and meet people like Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.”
But what made her smile after John’s death was not necessarily the memories of rubbing elbows with the biggest stars in Hollywood, but the day her children found that letter sent in 1966 from the struggling young musician named John Deutschendorf who hoped only to see her again
To borrow a phrase, the letter clearly filled up her senses.
“I keep it on my desk now,” she said. “It still moves me to see it.”
If you go:
WHAT: Rocky Mountain High Experience: A John Denver Christmas Starring Rick Schuler
WHEN: 8 p.m. Dec. 3
WHERE: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway, N. Fargo, N.D.
TICKETS: Jadepresents.com or call 866-300-8300
STEP BACK IN TIME WITH TRACY BRIGGS
Hi, I'm Tracy Briggs. Thanks for reading my column! I love going "Back Then" every week with stories about interesting people, places and things from our past. Check out a few below. If you have an idea for a story, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.