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.