The Hundred-Year Controversy Over Colorado’s State Song

Sheet music cover for Where The Columbines Grow
Sheet music cover for "Where the Columbines Grow" by A.J. Fynn (1911)

When asked to name Colorado’s official state song, many Coloradans will shrug without an answer. That’s all right. Not everyone stays on top of state symbols, and it isn’t a fair question anyway. Colorado doesn’t have just one song as its official anthem. It has two. And that’s just part of the controversy that’s raged on for over a century.

 

It all started in 1911, when Denver resident A.J. Fynn composed a brief but delightful song called Where the Columbines Grow. It was inspired by a field of violet-blue columbines he discovered while hiking near Schinzel Flats in Southern Colorado. Snow-capped mountains, majestic wildlife, meadows of columbines and clover, and environmental preservation are themes celebrated in his lyrics. 

 

Fynn published the sheet music for Where the Columbines Grow in 1915 and dedicated the song to the Colorado pioneers. By an overwhelming legislative vote, it was adopted as Colorado’s official state song that same year.

 

Opposition was quick to raise its head. People who objected to the song pointed out the state’s name was absent from the lyrics. This is technically true. “Colorado” is nowhere to be found within the song’s trio of verses. But that complaint glossed over the fact that the title Where the Columbines Grow is an unambiguous homage to Colorado’s beloved state flower: the Rocky Mountain columbine.

Rocky Mountain Columbines
Rocky Mountain Columbines (Crested Butte, Colorado)

A motion to jettison Where the Columbines Grow was presented to lawmakers in 1917. Three songs were offered as alternatives, all of which checked the box of having the name “Colorado” in their lyrics. With open minds, the assemblage listened to a performance of each song. When A.J. Fynn’s turn came up, he paraded a group of schoolchildren into the legislative chamber to sing Where the Columbines Grow with all the gusto and might the young choralists could muster.

 

Their performance was enthralling. With a resounding majority, the official status of Where the Columbines Grow was reaffirmed as Colorado’s state song. To assuage his critics, Fynn penned a fourth verse to include the name “Colorado.” Curiously, this verse never became widely known. Even today, many resources fail to recognize the existence of that fourth verse.

 

Further efforts to unseat Where the Columbines Grow were put forth over the next half decade. Ultimately, they went nowhere. Lawmakers were content to preserve the existing state song, which by then had achieved a decades-long legacy. Little did anyone know, the controversy was just heating up.

 

In the late 1960s, big named musician John Denver arrived in Colorado. Inspired by an experience he had viewing the Perseids meteor shower while camping near Aspen, he composed a folksy song called Rocky Mountain High. After its release in 1972, the song climbed to the top of the charts.

Album cover for Rocky Mountain High by John Denver
45 RPM picture sleeve for "Rocky Mountain High" by John Denver (1972)

Coloradans latched onto Rocky Mountain High, and the notion to scrap Where the Columbines Grow in favor of John Denver’s iconic hit grew legs. According to those supporting the measure to change the state song, not only did Rocky Mountain High include the word “Colorado” in its lyrics, it was sung by a well-known musician living in Aspen, who had the word “Denver” in his stage name. On top of that, the song was more pleasing to people’s shifting sensibilities. New interpretations of Where the Columbines Grow suggested the second verse hadn’t aged well.

 

These arguments were presented to the Colorado state legislature in 2007. After much debate, lawmakers surprised everyone by voting to make both anthems the official state song. Where the Columbines Grow would scooch over to make room for Rocky Mountain High and everyone would be satisfied.

 

Coloradans who had no opinion on the matter in the first place were indeed satisfied, mostly because they didn’t know or care that the matter was being debated. The sentiment of those rooting for one song over the other were mixed. Some were (and still are) steadfastly opposed to the notion of two songs. Others are willing to compromise. The thing is, Colorado isn’t the only state to have adopted multiple songs. Tennessee has at least 10 state songs. West Virginia has four. New Hampshire has two plus another eight that are honorary. Colorado is quite tidy in comparison.

 

Whether or not the issue of Colorado’s dueling state songs has finally been laid to rest is anyone’s guess. Either way, one thing is certain: Colorado is a state full of people proud to call it home.

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