John Denver – Sunshine On My Shoulders

The post starts with John Denver and ends with Frank Zappa and Dee Snider from Twisted Sister…

John Denver’s reputation went down after the 70s and really unfairly. He was noted as square and sometimes rejected by his musical peers. That is sad to me because he was a great songwriter, guitarist, and singer. He didn’t get much street cred until…you will see at the bottom.

During the “We Are The World” filming featuring dozens of pop stars, Willie Nelson cracked, “If a bomb hit this building, John Denver would be No. 1 again.” Everybody laughed – and sneered. And the image of Michael Jackson, Kenny Rogers and others mocking Denver is a sad one. It showed just how low he’d fallen on the barometer of pop music.

Denver was an easy target for critics and peers. Robert Christgau dubbed him “the blandest pop singer in history,” and compared him to James Taylor…  “If James is a wimp, John is a simp, and that’s even worse.” I don’t think all the criticism was fair. Some of his music was really good to great like Rocky Mountain High, Sunshine on My Shoulders, and Take Me Home Country Roads.

Denver was a huge star in the early to mid-seventies.  I’m not a huge fan by any means but he did have a few songs I liked. He was a songwriter, musician, activist, and actor, and he sold millions of records (over 33 million). He was never known to be cool or hip but he was John Denver and he did things his way.

Lyn Helton
9/23/1971, NOV 8 1971 Dies of Cancer – Mrs. Lyn Helton, 20 the mother who tape-recorded her thoughts on death as cancer was taking her life, died Sunday at Denver’s Children’s Hospital. Credit: Denver Post (Denver Post via Getty Images)

Denver wrote this song in Minnesota on a rainy spring day. It first appeared on John Denver’s 1971 album Poems, Prayers & Promises. This song got a big boost when it was used in a November 1973 made-for-TV movie called Sunshine, a tale about a woman dying of cancer who recorded tape messages for her child in her final days. It was based on a true story of Lyn Helton who would listen to John Denver’s music.

The song peaked at #1 on the Billboard 100 and #1 in Canada in 1973. It was included in his Greatest Hits album that year.


The PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) was a group founded by Tipper Gore that was designed to provide censorship and/or warning of offensive material in regard to music albums that had things that parents would find offensive such as profanity, obscene images, lyrics, descriptions of sexual and/or violent matters, etc.

In 1985, several hearings were held to discuss the possibility of certain albums being required to have a ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker placed on the cover. Many musicians were understandably against this action, and some of those musicians were even invited to come and speak their minds about this issue. Three stand out in particular. Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, Frank Zappa, and maybe most notably, John Denver.

Frank and Dee spoke out against it of course and they were afraid of John Denver being in favor of it…and Congress was counting on it. Well, that didn’t happen. John gave arguably the sharpest testimony out of anyone who testified. He was eloquent and blunt. The looks on the faces of Congress say it all. Inviting John Denver to testify backfired for Congress.

John Denver on the TV Movie: “It was the true story of Lyn Helton, an incredibly courageous lady who chose to live her short life to the fullest even though she knew she would die of a rare bone cancer in a matter of months. It seems that in the last year of her life she found some happiness in my music. I was most honored to have my songs used as part of that television show.”

John Denver: “On one level it was about the virtues of love. On another, more deeply felt level, it reached for something the whole world could embrace.”

Dee Snider of Twisted Sister talks about John Denver. It should start at the place Dee talks about Frank and John.

Sunshine On My Shoulders

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happySunshine in my eyes can make me crySunshine on the water looks so lovelySunshine almost always makes me high

If I had a day that I could give youI’d give to you a day just like todayIf I had a song that I could sing for youI’d sing a song to make you feel this way

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happySunshine in my eyes can make me crySunshine on the water looks so lovelySunshine almost always makes me high

If I had a tale that I could tell youI’d tell a tale sure to make you smileIf I had a wish that I could wish for youI’d make a wish for sunshine all the while

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happySunshine in my eyes can make me crySunshine on the water looks so lovelySunshine almost always makes me highSunshine almost all the time makes me highSunshine almost always


Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

59 thoughts on “John Denver – Sunshine On My Shoulders”

  1. Another good one Max. I liked John Denver. Yes, he had a wholesome image, but wrote great tunes and sang the well. His television show was right up there with the others that were on. He left us some good songs that made you feel good, not wince.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I liked most of his singles too, well-written and sung easy-listening tunes and nothing wrong with that. It’s amazing he did as well as he did because country fans didn’t like him much – not country enough – and pop/rock ones did but I bet it might have been difficult back then to get radio guys (even in the anything goes ’70s) to play him alongside BTO and Bee Gees. Not only did he sell a lot of records, he became a real celebrity everyone knew, which not that many musicians did back then. Funniest thing I’ve seen is , in the 90s me and a couple of friends would go to a retro 80s night at a bar. Mostly, all cool new wave-y things from the ’80s… New Order, Depeche Mode, Erasure, etc. But once in awhile DJ would slide in ‘Thank God I’m a Country boy’. Not even from the ’80s. And the crowd would go wild. Everyone loved it!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Funny about him being played at a retro 80s thing lol.
      Yea he was good…he had that boy next door image…that is why it shocked people when he went to congress and did the best job of those three….I think they listened to him more because at first all the congressmen thought he was one of them…wrong.

      He did get a bad rap…he was also pretty fair actor.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I count myself with a similar level appreciation of John Denver as you described. The background about this song and the Congress hearing was compelling. I highly recommend his ‘For You’ (1988) song which I posted on last year if you haven’t heard it already. .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I do remember that but I’ll take another listen today. He was ridiculed by the 1980s but it wasn’t fair…the guy was a good singer, songwriter, musician…and a decent actor.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. His music is a cleansing/restoral: the ballads are a fresh start for the dirty/disillusioned cool-weary, and those long-held pitch-perfect high notes of his — utterly transporting (i.e., The Eagle and the Hawk) –and who didn’t yodel along through Aye, Calypso?? 😊 Yea, bring on the dolphins, JD.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Thanks for the recording of his testimony. It gave me a new view of John Denver. I was never a fan. I found him sappy and sentimental and thought of him in the same vein as The Carpenters and The Captain & Tennille. My one fond (?) memory of his music is being stuck on a minor highway in Illinois, trying to hitchhike with no cars in either direction for what seemed like hours. My friend and I walked for miles singing “Take Me Home Country Roads”, which was a current hit (so this must have been spring 1971).

    Liked by 3 people

    1. What a memory…I do like Take Me Home… I was a kid when his show was on and I remember the movie Oh God… I was never a big fan either but that testimony did impress me….and I was somewhat surprised.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I never knew the story behind this song. It’s a good song, albeit a little slow and sparse. Kind of a shame that he didn’t continue his popularity from the ’70’s into the ’80’s, but that’s the way it goes…

    Liked by 2 people

  7. When I heard “Take Me Home, Country Roads” for the first time, I liked that song right away – so much that I ended up getting a John Denver greatest hits compilation. Among others, it included “Sunshine On My Shoulders”, “Rocky Mountain High” and “Leaving On a Jet Plane”. I dug each of these tunes and still do.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Unfortunately, I can see how John Denver became an easy target. He didn’t exactly “look like a rock star”, plus I guess other musicians made fun of what you might call his wholesome image. This doesn’t change the fact Denver wrote some great songs. Plus, he clearly wanted to make a difference by supporting various humanitarian efforts – unlike many who were joking about him!

        Liked by 5 people

  8. John Denver had a profound impact on my teen years by affirming and enhancing my love for nature. I still love listening to and singing his songs. It was interesting to learn more about his other work and his impressive testimony at the hearings. If I had to pick a favorite singer/songwriter, it would be James Taylor who is a gracious gentleman. We need more people like John Denver and James Taylor in the world.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. When I think of the seventies…nature was right up there. In music and tv shows like Grizzly Adams and The Waltons. James Taylor is very close to what Denver did except Denver did more about nature…but their styles were close.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I still think Annie’s Song is terrible, but I like a bunch of his stuff too, Rocky Mountain High is a good one. Someone made a picture book of the lyrics, I borrowed it from the library when the kids were small. Carly Rae Jepsen covered it in her early folk-pop phase too.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I loved a lot of his early songs, but this wasn’t one of them. This was when he sort of turned into a caricature of himself, and his songs got long and bland, and/or the esoteric activist message in the lyrics overshadowed the music. I remember those hearings on the music labeling debate, but I don’t remember him testifying at all. He did do a great job.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My impression of him was of an entertainer…I think because of my age…I remember his television show and him being in movies…I liked his music as a kid I remember him most being in shows.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. We chattered on with Messenger, I neglected to speak, here. I have always loved JD. “Country Boy” was played to death in my area but, all of his music appeals to me, Calypso being my favorite. I don’t recall either of my patents commenting on him. I do remember Oh, God and the stir it made because of his image.

    Regarding the story, Lyn Helton was heartbreaking.

    I really miss music like this on the radio. Always reminds me of listening to AM Gold on my parents big stereo, with the Queen Anne feet and wrought-iron speaker covers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I want to see that tv movie now…but as you know….they are hard as hell to track down…even for me! It was heartbreaking.
      He was apart of my growing up…on the tv, movies, and radio.


      1. I checked IMDb and there is no listing for where you can watch it. Some older stuff is starting to show up on apps like Crackle, Tubi, Freevee, PlutoTV, Roku…

        You have found some old stuff for me, in your groups. Can’t find it, there?

        I meant to type “parents”, above…not patents. Damn thumbs…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ll try in my newsgroup…but it probably isn’t on there. I did see the trailer on youtube…I was hoping youtube would have it all…but it doesnt.


      3. Yea that is what I’m afraid of…I wonder how the trailer got out…someone probably VCR’d it with an early VCR

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I really liked John Denver, and am both appalled and disappointed to learn that Willie Nelson of all people would tell a snide joke about him at the filming of the “We Are the World” video, where they were all gathered to do something good for humanity. Denver was a talented songwriter and a decent guy, and it makes me mad that so many held him in such low esteem. It also makes me mad when artists & musicians belittle other musicians (except when they’re assholes like Kanye West).

    Additionally, Denver’s eloquent words still ring true today, when people on both sides of the aisle seek to ban books and silence discussion of issues they disagree with.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think the Congress hearing helped his reputation but it shouldn’ have some to that. He was too pop for country and too country for pop it seemed but he managed to break through anyway. I like his radio songs a lot…plus he was a decent actor.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. I never bought any of his albums- too mellow for me- but I always thought his PMRC speech was very cool. Nobody expected that. Also, I thought he was great in the movie Oh God -” I don’t have any ball!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh he was that…and one of the best guitarist ever…what I meant was…what was he thinking that Denver was going to say….him and Snider had to think that Denver was going the other way.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. He was a GREAT guitarist. I read somewhere that Jimi Hendrix developed his playing style after seeing Zappa play live. He wanted to play guitar like Zappa. You are right – Zappa and Dee Snider were probably very surprised by what Denver had to say!

        Liked by 1 person

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