China's love affair with "Take Me Home Country Roads"

Jeffrey sez, "The nice responses to my essay on 'Hotel California', has emboldened me to send a follow up on the curious life in China of another American song from the 1970s. Namely, the one that finds John Denver waxing nostalgic about West Virginia."

This is a particularly apt moment to post something about the Chinese love affair with John Denver's music, which I alluded to in passing in that same BOOM article, since the romance began exactly 35 years ago. The starting point for it, which paved the way for Denver touring China later, was his performance of "Rocky Mountain High" at a January 29, 1979, gala held in Deng Xiaoping's honor, during the Chinese leader's famous trip to America in 1979. (This performance can be seen just over a minute into this documentary, which also includes clips of the Harlem Globetrotters playing ball and an American children's chorus singing in Chinese at the same event.)

U.S.-Chinese relations have ebbed and flowed since 1979, a year that opening with ties between the two countries being formally "normalized" (setting the stage for Deng's visit to the U.S.), but the popularity of John Denver and especially his song "Country Roads" across the Pacific has stayed constant. This is demonstrated by the episode of the Chinese version of "The Voice" shown above. I am grateful to the multitalented banjo playing singer and speaker of Mandarin Abigail Washburn (who sometimes tours with her husband Bela Fleck, but has most recently been playing with The Wu Force, an "avant-garde Appalachian-Chinese folk trio" ) for bringing this emotion-packed clip to my attention. She did so, fittingly enough, when she, James Millward (a leading scholar of Chinese and Central Asian history, who is also a talented bluegrass musician), and I were all in Nashville, brought together by the good people of Vanderbilt University for an event focusing on the interesting things that can happen when music flows between China and the United States.

中國好聲音2013-0927 塔斯肯《Country Road Take me Home》 (Thanks, Jeffrey!)

Notable Replies

  1. I know that because of Studio Ghibli...most Japanese people of a certain age know this song as 'Concrete Road'...

    And properly done at any karaoke event, generally gets the people goin' to speak...

    Edit: It's nice to see this guys' perfectly acceptable version and how happy it makes everyone; John Denver may be corny as hell, and dead...but his old-timey tracks (at least those that I like) may be underrated and unappreciated in many places, but I declare: 'Montana Skies' kicks ass and I ain't afeard to say it.

  2. as mentioned above, Studio Ghibli's "Whisper of the Heart" uses the song as an underlying theme. Thanks to wiki, Olivia Newton John's version (used in the film) was a real big hit in Japan.

    of course, my favorite version is Country Roads via Toots and the Maytals. smiley

  3. jeffk says:

    It's curious that this song is so popular in a culture so foreign to the one it's celebrating. Think, for example, of a Chinese folk song that's wildly popular in America. You don't need to be offended on everybody else's behalf all the time you know.

  4. snikle says:

    One of my nieces spent a couple of years in Ireland when this tune was going the rounds in a techno mix. She was able to share the Denver version with some of the youth she was working with, who had no idea of its origin.

    As a displaced West Virginian myself, I know the power of this song to leave not a dry eye in the house for those who miss the hills. However the rational side of my brain has always been irritated he couldn't get the geography right. His two specific references- the Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge- are in Virginia.

  5. It's the life of the song that's curious, not the life of China.

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