Thursday, March 12, 2009

Almost West Virginia

"Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River"

Those are the first two lines of John Denver's hit "Take Me Home, Country Roads," written by Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert and Denver and appearing on Denver's 1971 album Poems, Prayers and Promises. Both the song and the album were hits for Denver. The song reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It's Denver's signature tune. I've seen West Virginia license plates with "Almost Heaven" on them. It's the theme song of West Virginia University and has been performed before every home football game since 1972.

Most people, myself included until now, never seem to realize there's a couple of things wrong with the first two lines of the song:

1) The Blue Ridge Mountains are not in West Virginia. They are in Virginia and North Carolina. The northern part of the range is east of the Shenandoah River.

2) The Shenandoah River is mostly in Virginia, just to the west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. While it is true that the last 15 miles of the river (approximately) flow through the very easternmost part of the northeast panhandle of West Virginia to Harper's Ferry, the river is almost entirely in Virginia, as is the scenic valley people sing about. Most of the river is 25 to 40 miles east of West Virginia.

I really like maps, so I was a little surprised when I realized the geography in the song was a bit off. I only realized it when I was looking at my lens DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer Series. I discovered a rather embarrassing typo in a module title. I'd typed "West Virginai" and hadn't noticed it for months. While I was fixing it, Denver's song started running through my head. I remember really liking it back when it came out. Suddenly it hit me: "Wait a minute! Blue Ridge Mountains? Shenandoah River? They're in Virginia, not West Virginia."

That's when I got out my Rand McNally Road Atlas (I don't have DeLorme's Virginia or West Virginia atlases) and confirmed the locations of the mountains and the river, and when I saw that a part of the river is in a part of West Virginia that is closer to Philadelphia, PA than Charleston, the capital of West Virginia.

The duo of Danoff and Nivert were known as "Fat City" when they and Denver got together to work on the song. The duo later went on to form the Starland Vocal Band, known for their hit "Afternoon Delight" from 1976. The band had a six-week summer replacement show, replacing the Mary Tyler Moore Show spinoff Rhoda.

Also on that show were Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman, who are half of the Firesign Theatre. I've been a big fan of the Firesign Theatre since 1973, a year when I really needed something to laugh about. It was only while looking up stuff related to the song and its writers that I realized the connection.

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