Three years after Katherine Lee Bates penned what many people consider the best-known song actually birthed in Colorado — “America the Beautiful,” which was actually a poem that would eventually morph into America’s unofficial second national anthem — Arthur John Flynn (born 1857), penned “Where the Columbines Grow,” which would morph into the state song that no one knows.
Flynn had come to Colorado in 1889, after being educated in New York. In 1896, Flynn, who was a teacher in both Central City and Alamosa, before joining the faculty at Colorado State University in 1898, was traveling by horse and wagon to visit Indian tribes in the San Luis Valley. He came upon Schinzel Flats, near Ellwood Pass, when it was resplendent in blossoming columbines. This vision provided the inspiration for “Where the Columbines Grow,” but it did not provide inspiration for prompt creative action, as Flynn did not start actually composing the tune until 1909. It was first performed in 1911 and was adopted on May 8, 1915, by the Colorado Legislature as the official state song.
But there was controversy that lasted clear up until the hippies started descending upon Colorado in droves with their guitars in hand. This controversy was based at least partially upon the fact that “Where the Columbines Grow” does not even once contain the word, “Colorado,” something you would think would be important in a state song.
In 1916, the Colorado Federation of Women’s Clubs unanimously voted to repeal “Where the Columbines Grow.” Faced with a cadre of irate women’s clubs, the State Legislature did the only reasonable thing: it backpedaled and held a state-song competition in 1917. Four songs were performed for the legislators, who, one can presume, were right then thinking big time in terms of committing mass hari-kari. “Where the Columbines Grow” won hands-down, with 34 votes. Finishing a distant second was “Skies are Blue in Colorado,” by John Ramsey, which only garnered 17 votes, even though, unlike Flynn’s tune, it at least contained the name of the state within the bowels of its lyrics.
The anti-“Where the Columbines Grow” faction however, was not placated by something as bothersome as the democratic process. In 1947, Senator John J. Harpel proposed replacing “Where the Columbines Grow” with a military march, “Hail Colorado.” It thankfully did not pass.
As late as 1969, Representative Betty Anne Dittemore initiated a bill to have “Colorado,” otherwise known as “If I had a Wagon,” named official state song. The proposal died in committee.
The weirdest thing about having “Where the Columbines Grow” as the official State Song is not its lack on the word “Colorado” within its lyrics. The weirdest thing is, rather, its dark lyrical heart. After the obligatory effusive opening stanza, the song turns rather “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”-ish.
Here are the lyrics of “Where the Columbines Grow,” which, on its best day, ain’t exactly a toe-tapper. Pay particular attention to verse two verses, which ain’t exactly poster material for the Colorado Tourism Board:
Where the snowy peaks gleam in the moonlight,
Above the dark forests of pine,
And the wild foaming waters dash onward,
Toward lands where the tropic stars shine;
Where the scream of the bold mountain eagle
Responds to the notes of the dove
Is the purple robed West, the land that is best,
The pioneer land that we love.
Chorus: ’Tis the land where the columbines grow,
Overlooking the plains far below,
While the cool summer breeze in the evergreen trees
Softly sings where the columbines grow.
The bison is gone from the upland,
The deer from the canyon has fled,
The home of the wolf is deserted,
The antelope moans for his dead,
The war whoop re-echoes no longer,
The Indian's only a name,
And the nymphs of the grove in their loneliness rove,
But the columbine blooms just the same.
Chorus yet again
Let the violet brighten the brookside,
In sunlight of earlier spring,
Let the fair clover bedeck the green meadow,
In days when the orioles sing,
Let the goldenrod herald the autumn,
But, under the midsummer sky,
In its fair Western home, may the columbine bloom
Till our great mountain rivers run dry.
That damned chorus one more time
In the early ’90s, a new movement to replace “Where the Columbines Grow” as Colorado’s state song began. This go-round, a fourth-grade class in Fort Collins petitioned the State Legislature to replace Flynn’s little-known song with, you guessed it, 1972’s “Rocky Mountain High,” by long-time Roaring Fork Valley resident John Denver, born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., in (of all non-Colorado-mountain-type places), Roswell, New Mexico.
That effort failed. Then, in 1998, the Fort Collins fourth-graders were at it again. At Kruse Elementary School, they wanted to replace “Where the Columbines Grow,” with “The Colorado Song,” by folk diva Judy Collins, who grew up in Denver. But there was also Johnson Elementary School in the same city, lobbying yet again for “Rocky Mountain High,” which on March 12, 2007, was finally given its full due by the state legislature, when it was officially named via State Senate Resolution 07-023 Colorado’s “second state song.”
In 2014, Denver scored yet again on the state song front when the West Virginia state legislature voted “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as one of four official anthems of the Mountaineer State.
But I digress.
It’s not like you’re going to get tired of hearing people sing “Where the Columbines Grow.” After 25 years of living in Colorado, I’ve never heard it sung a single time. My wife, born and raised in Colorado, vaguely remembers hearing it one time when she was in elementary school. (She has yet to fully recover from that traumatic experience.)
Still, it’s entirely possible to download at least two versions of this tune, both of which will likely make you at least consider moving to another state.
One version is by, of all things, head-banger band Pinhead Circus, and is found on their “Coolidge 50” album.
The next version is decidedly not by a head-banger band. On “Melanie’s Melodies of the Rockies: Soothing Songs of the Old West for Home and Fireside,” there’s a nice folksy, almost operatic, version that, by the first chorus, will have you running full speed for the liquor cabinet.
It should be noted, as you’re scrambling to download “Where the Columbines Grow,” that no other album that has ever been produced contains the word “Colorado” in as many song titles as does “Melanie’s Melodies of the Rockies.” It should also be noted that this is not THE Melanie (Safka), of “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain”) fame. This is a Melanie no one has ever heard of. Kind of like “Where the Columbines Grow.”
RFWJ editor M. John Fayhee is the author of 10 books, including “The Colorado Mountain Companion,” from which this column is excerpted.