The Song That Sold America to a Generation of Asian Immigrants

John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” had an unlikely resonance across Asia 50 years ago. Today his ode to West Virginia conjures a different type of longing.

John Denver playing the guitar
History Colorado / The Atlantic

A fixture of saccharine Super Bowl commercials and orthodontists’ waiting rooms across the country, John Denver’s platinum record “Take Me Home, Country Roads” turned 50 years old last month. Kitschy, yet earnest; dated, yet eternal. In its terse descriptions of bucolic West Virginia—“Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze”—the gentle folk tune can conjure nostalgia for a place you’ve never visited and a life you’ve never lived. It’s as classically American as a McDonald’s apple pie; an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States.

But over the past half century, Denver’s Appalachian anthem has also lodged in the hearts of many families in Asia, thousands of miles away from the Blue Ridge Mountains. In a 2009 paper, the sociologists Grant Blank and Heidi Netz Rupke published an informal survey of college classrooms in Western China that found that “Country Roads” was the most popular American song among the students. Although the survey’s sample was small, its findings were, as Blank and Rupke write, a testament to the song’s enduring relevance as a “powerful cultural symbol.”

Introduced to Asia during a period of U.S. military influence, domestic political upheaval, and increased outbound migration, Denver’s song about reminiscence and homecoming found an audience grappling with deep cultural and demographic change. Many listeners encountered in the pastoral scenes of Denver’s lyrics a landscape upon which they could project pure fantasies of an ascendant United States. Thus, a song drunkenly belted out at West Virginia University tailgates was transmuted into an aspirational, mythological hymn.

Denver was perhaps an unlikely candidate for stardom in Asia, but his musical career intertwined with a time of rapid transformation on the continent. After the death of Mao Zedong, a new era of U.S.-China detente began. In 1979, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping made the first diplomatic trip to Washington by a sitting leader of China since World War II. For this historic summit, President Jimmy Carter hosted festivities at the Kennedy Center, featuring the likes of the Joffrey Ballet, the Harlem Globetrotters (a seemingly obligatory fixture of geopolitical statesmanship), and John Denver.

Carter’s idea of an unforgettable night must have left an impression on the Chinese delegation. In 1985, Denver was invited to be one of the first Western artists to tour modern China, with his performances set to broadcast on state-controlled TV networks. Denver himself proclaimed that “the Chinese are more familiar with me than with any other Western artist.” Although his trip stalled, reportedly because of concerns over venue location and crowd control, in 1992, Denver embarked on a multicity tour of the country. At a time when the Communist Party’s anti-American policies still colored daily life, Denver’s music was among the first and most popular pieces of American pop culture to be widely disseminated across the nation.

While Denvermania spread across China, the artist was seen as a deliberate tool for U.S. cultural influence in other parts of the continent. Karen Tongson, a professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California and the author of Why Karen Carpenter Matters, told me that the music of soft-rock artists such as Denver and Karen Carpenter gained massive followings because of the availability of Armed Forces Radio (now called the American Forces Network) over decades in regions with a significant U.S. army presence, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Korea. The music that was played over military airwaves had to be muted in its subject and in its politics—think of how Robin Williams’s character in Good Morning, Vietnam would repeatedly find himself in trouble for playing rock and “that funky music” as a DJ for the U.S. military in Saigon.

Back in America, much of what captured the attention of Gen X looked like Elton John’s liberatingly vibrant costumes, sounded like Jimi Hendrix’s overdriven amps, and promised Marvin Gaye levels of sex. But the smallest notes of vulgarity often didn’t make it out of speakers in Asian countries tied to the U.S. military’s fraught presence. So old-school balladeers and schmaltzy serenaders like Denver and Carpenter became radio mainstays. For officials of both the U.S. Armed Forces Radio and the Chinese Communist Party, Denver offered an anodyne simplicity fit for programming, and in this simplicity, millions of Asian listeners found resonance. As Tongson told me: “A song like ‘Country Roads’ would’ve been clean enough to sing at church for Christian Asians.”

Though introduced over the airwaves, Denver found wider circulation through guitar-wielding fans. In his book Circuit Listening: Chinese Popular Music in the Global 1960s, Andrew F. Jones, a professor of Chinese literature and media at UC Berkeley, writes of how the mass production of guitars marked an infrastructural change across Asia. By the early ’60s, Japan had established itself as one of the largest global producers of electric and acoustic guitars. As Japanese manufacturers subcontracted operations to neighboring countries, guitars became significantly more affordable and accessible across the continent. Bookstores sold songbooks with easy-to-follow sheet music for works by popular contemporary singer-songwriters such as James Taylor and Carole King. “I’m guessing every single songbook had ‘Country Roads,’” Jones told me. “It became the canonized anthology piece for people who wanted to learn this repertoire.” The popularity of these acoustic pop tunes was inextricably tied to the growing interest in learning English, Jones said: “If you wanted to be sophisticated or worldly, you had to be able to speak the language.”

For children in Manila who fell asleep to the radio and college students in Seoul absorbing the nuances of English dialogue at their guitar clubs, “Country Roads” was part of a playlist that helped mold cultural sentiment toward America. This was the music of ambition from a country of economic might, but also the music of suburbanity and stability. Easy-listening artists such as Denver projected a certain “whiteness, squareness, wholesomeness,” Tongson said. “There was a particular kind of aspiration to that level of belonging and the normalcy of it all.”

As these songs of American opportunity proliferated across Beijing and Bangkok, Asian people were beginning to make their way to U.S. cities such as New York and Los Angeles in large numbers. From 1980 to 2000, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that the Asian immigrant population grew more than threefold, from 2.5 to 8.2 million. For many of those who chose to relocate across the Pacific, Denver’s corny ballad about Appalachia became a symbol of an idealistic version of America—a romantic conception sanitized of the moral stains of Jim Crow, Japanese internment, and McCarthyism.

My old man was one such believer in this Denverian dream. Born and raised in a small port city in South Korea, he grew up harboring the images of American splendor he had heard about from Denver, Tom Petty, and the Eagles. In 2001, he took a one-way flight from Incheon to JFK International with his wife and sons. He had few family or friends on arrival in the U.S., and limited language ability. The only thing of substance that awaited him was the hope that life could be better for him and his children in a country that would be “almost heaven.” In the basic facts of his life’s trajectory, he probably wasn’t all that different from the six Asian women killed near Atlanta, the postal worker reportedly stabbed in the Bay Area, or the grandma that police say was spat on in White Plains, New York, this year.

Once an anthem for the possibilities of Americana, “Country Roads” half a century later might resonate with the Asian diaspora in a different way: as a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life. While it used to be a blank canvas for the hope of their youth, the song’s emotional resonance has evolved as many Asian people’s illusion of America has dissolved: There was no Denver hit called “Go Back Home (Where You Belong)” or Eagles track called “Lyin’ Slanty Eyes.” For my parents and their cohort, immigration’s emotional cost is enumerated by the weddings of new family they couldn’t meet, birthdays of friends they couldn’t celebrate, and funerals of loved ones to whom they couldn’t say goodbye. To a generation that has experienced the fallacies of the American dream, “Country Roads” might still feel like a song of longing—though less for an aspirational, imagined home than for one where they know they’ll belong.

In his novel Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu writes of “the slightly older Asian businessman standing patiently in line for his turn” at an American karaoke bar.  “When he steps up and starts slaying ‘Country Roads,’ try not to laugh, or wink knowingly or clap a little too hard,” Yu writes. “Because by the time he gets to ‘West Virginia, mountain mama,’ you’re going to be singing along, and by the time he’s done, you might understand why a seventy-seven-year-old guy from a tiny island in the Taiwanese Strait who’s been in a foreign country for two-thirds of his life can nail a song, note perfect, about wanting to go home.”

Last year, after two decades of living in America, my parents moved back to the city in South Korea where my dad grew up, to the same building where classic-rock LPs from his teenage years have been accumulating dust in the attic. I don’t know if he still thinks about visiting West Virginia. But after all this time, he’s finally home.