How do you memorialize a 1970s singer-songwriter?
Apparently, finding a river, a few boulders, a chisel, and some song lyrics is a good way to start. I discovered this truth by accident in June. While staying in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, for a sport history conference, I took my free Sunday afternoon (and my not-so-free rental car) to Aspen, about an hour’s drive through the mountains. For this working-class Midwestern boy, Aspen was spectacularly beautiful but otherwise disappointing. Imagine a ritzy outdoor shopping mall dropped down in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. Having no need for Burberry, I simply walked the streets, feeling like a vagrant in my casual yet fully respectable conference attire. A local drugstore was the only establishment I felt comfortable entering.
On the verge of getting back in the borrowed Hyundai and heading back to Glenwood Canyon, I noticed a small green sign for a John Denver Sanctuary. Intrigued, I followed the throng of be-sandaled pedestrians. The aptly named sanctuary is a carefully landscaped walking path tucked next to the Roaring Fork River. Along the path are big rocks engraved with famous song lyrics penned by a bomber pilot’s son once known as Henry John Deutschendorf. The John Denver classics so memorialized included “Annie’s Song,” “Poems, Prayers and Promises,” and “Rocky Mountain High.” That day the Roaring Fork was bursting with fresh snowmelt from the western slope, loudly justifying its moniker. The sanctuary salvaged an otherwise unexceptional sojourn.
My record collection includes many John Denver discs, including one that is probably his most famous, 1972’s Rocky Mountain High. Before my trip to Colorado, I always saw this cover as the singer standing on some random outcropping in the Rockies. Examining the photograph recently I saw how the location reminded me of the area between Glenwood Springs and Aspen. Sure enough, a quick consultation with Professor Google showed that this was Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork, not too far from Aspen.
About ten days after that chance encounter with the John Denver Sanctuary, I found myself on a very different trip to a very different part of the country, visiting family back in central Illinois. Driving around Peoria’s north side, I spotted a small green sign pointing to a Dan Fogelberg Memorial. I was quickly reminded of Aspen. Could this be déjà vu all over again? It was rainy and miserable that day and I had to get to an appointment in Bloomington, but I vowed to return soon. A couple days later, I decided to check out the folk-singer memorial. Sure enough, it was boulders—albeit only three smallish ones—etched with song lyrics and overlooking a particularly wide and serene stretch of the Illinois River. It wasn’t the Roaring Fork, but it was beautiful nonetheless—a fitting tribute to Peoria’s favorite musician son.
While Dan Fogelberg may not be as famous as John Denver, he holds a special place in my record collection. Fogelberg grew up in Peoria and his father was the leader of the marching band at a couple of local high schools, including my own teenage alma mater, Pekin Community High School. Both of my parents graduated from that fine institution, and as a child I remember spotting pictures of Lawrence Fogelberg in their musty yet treasured yearbooks. (Apparently, the kids in the band thought Larry Fogelberg was a bit of a taskmaster and secretly called him “Frog,” but that is mere hearsay.) After graduating from Peoria’s Woodruff High, where his father had also taught, Dan enrolled at the University of Illinois to study art.
The younger Fogelberg launched his music career at the Red Herring, a landmark campus cafe, before connecting with manager Irving Azoff and moving to Nashville to work as a session musician. In Tennessee Fogelberg recorded his 1972 debut album, Home Free, featuring a penciled self-portrait on the front cover. That album didn’t top the charts, but the follow-up release, Souvenirs—recorded in southern California and featuring guest performances by Joe Walsh, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley, among others—turned Fogelberg into a star. That album included “Illinois,” a tender, pedal-steel-guitar-infused paean to his Midwestern roots:
“Dusty day dawning, three hours late
Open the curtains and let the rest wait
My mind goes running three thousand miles east
I may miss the harvest but I won’t miss the feast
And it looks like you’re gonna have to see me again…
Illinois, Illinois, Illinois, I’m your boy”
Perhaps even more autobiographical is a track called “The River,” which ends Fogelberg’s debut album. Considering the location of his memorial, it is a particularly poignant track:
“I was born by a river
Rolling past a town
Given no direction
Just told to keep my head down…
I was raised by a river
Weaned upon the sky
And in the mirror of the waters
I saw myself learn to cry…
I will die by a river
As it rolls away…”
Both Rocky Mountain High and Home Free were released in 1972. Both albums include either aural or visual river imagery. Both singers are honored at similar memorials next to rivers that played significant roles in their lives. It is an odd coincidence that I accidentally discovered both memorials just a week apart—but as I work through my vinyl collection (#vinylproject2014) I am grateful for the chance encounters.
Brian M. Ingrassia teaches American History at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author of The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012).