Track of the Day: 'Take Me Home, Country Roads' by John Denver

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Dylan is the latest reader to add to our placed-based series:

My closely guarded secret is that I grew up in West Virginia not really liking John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” This is sacrilege. The song is deified in the Mountain State. It’s the official state anthem. (This is odd because the lyrics actually invoke geography—Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River—that actually describes the Commonwealth of Virginia, not West Virginia.)

Nevertheless, for the past 29 years, “Country Roads” has permeated my life. My first grade class performed it in the lunchroom, even accompanying it with sign language. During our high school trip to New York City, Jamaican steel drum players heard where we were from and ecstatically chimed out the tune unprompted. After moving out of state, it has become a common reference point when I was asked where I’m from. And every West Virginia wedding I go back for ends in everyone forming circle on the dance-floor, arms intertwined and singing, “Take me home, to the place, I belongggggggggg.”

But the song eventually caught up to me. Maybe it’s the charm of a gorgeous melody sung with quavering loneliness. Maybe it’s the lyric “almost heaven,” which recognizes the feeling of living somewhere that is simultaneously beautiful and undeniably impoverished. Maybe it’s the magic of a song that ushered me into adulthood, whether I liked it or not. Whatever it is, it worked.

For a few fantastic covers of that country song, check out our note featuring a reggae version from Toots and the Maytals and a German-language version by Dieter Dornig. Bring mich nach Hause!

Update from reader Jeremy, who can relate to hearing the German rendition up close:

Wow, thanks for a great Track of the Day. I've always like the song and it’s remarkable how universal it is. It’s remarkable how many times and in how many diverse places I’ve heard it. I grew up in Virginia and have always sort of identified with Denver’s description of the Blue Ridges and the Shenandoah, yet the times that the song most sticks in my mind have been in in totally different contexts.

The first time I went to Munich for Oktoberfest I was treated to the song being covered by a traditional German brass band as we walked into a beer hall tent. The entire tent was singing along at nearly full volume and the entire scene just emphasized the universal camaraderie that the best international gatherings can bring out in people. We ended up having a wonderful afternoon with everyone around us, including a group of Russians seated next to us with whom we could only communicate by drawing images on a sheet of paper.

The other instance that stands out in my mind was roughly five years ago while I was traveling alone in Vancouver and feeling lonely and homesick. Seeking comfort food I ended up in a ramen restaurant and was treated to a K-Pop cover of country roads that translated everything but the “West Virginia” line into Korean. Somehow the song brought me back to Virginia and Munich at the same time and put a smile on my face.

Another reader, Garrison, highlights a Japanese version:

I was struck by your discussion of international renditions of “Country Roads,” so I thought I’d add another take to the pile. I’ve always enjoyed the song, but the first time the song ever really jumped out at me was when I heard it in a Japanese animated film. The protagonist of Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart, an aspiring writer, struggles over the course of the movie to rewrite the song in Japanese. The final product serves as the song for film’s ending credits (a translation—which I cannot vouch for the accuracy—is available here):

It’s interesting how a song with such a specific geographic focus has such an international presence, but I think the nostalgia it evokes for a
“home” is something that anyone can relate to. Everyone has their own West Virginia.

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