Most Coloradans think ‘Rocky Mountain High’ is the state’s only official song. Here’s the story of the other.

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Megan Verlee/CPR News
A columbine flower in a Denver garden.

You probably know what Colorado’s nickname is and the state flower. You might even know what the state bird is … It’s the lark bunting, in case you were wondering. But did you know the state has an official song too? Well, two, to be exact.

Aimee Resnick grew up in Centennial, but a recent conversation with her roommate at Northwestern University prompted her to wonder something that she did not know..

“Where does the state song, “Where the Columbines Grow” come from?” Resnick said. “I was talking about John Denver with my roommate and Rocky Mountain High, and I was wondering where this other kind of superfluous, more outdated song came from.” 

Well, in fact, two songs have been designated as Colorado's official state songs. Both songs' creators express a profound appreciation for nature and the breathtaking beauty of Colorado, and they were both influenced by memorable summers spent in the Rocky Mountains.

Where the Columbines Grow” was named the official state song in 1915. A.J. Fynn wrote the song after being moved by a field of columbines he saw during a hike near Schinzel Flats. Fynn came to Colorado as a school principal in Central City.

During this time, Fynn actively explored archaeology in Colorado when his fascination with the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings inspired him to write two books: The American Indian as a Product of Environment and North America in the Days of Discovery. In the time between his books on Native Americans, he wrote the music and lyrics for “Where the Columbines Grow.” 

The song includes outdated and insensitive references to Native Americans, but in 1915 — the year Fynn published it and it became the state song — he also dedicated it to the Colorado pioneers. Fynn’s lyrics don’t just reference the displacement of Native Americans from the land, they also reveal his concern for the environment and foreshadow present-day concerns about endangered species, drought, and wildfires.

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.

Excerpt of "Where The Columbines Grow," by A.J. Fynn

In 2007, an attempt was made to replace Fynn’s "Where the Columbines Grow" with John Denver's 1973 hit song "Rocky Mountain High." But despite the controversy over how some viewed the Denver song as glorifying drug use, on March 12, 1973, the Colorado General Assembly designated it a second official state song, ranking equally with "Where the Columbines Grow.”

Like Fynn, John Denver wasn’t a native of Colorado, but he too developed a deep connection to the state. When Denver was camping at Williams Lake near Aspen, far from any city lights, he saw the Perseid meteor shower. That inspired him to collaborate with guitarist Mike Taylor in 1972 to pen "Rocky Mountain High."

Despite the widespread interpretation of the lyric "Friends around the campfire and everybody's high" as a reference to drug use, Denver insisted that the song was actually about experiencing the euphoria of nature.

Aimee Resnick says both songs work well — together.

“They honor both pieces of our state's history …. I think it honors both our history and where we've gone more recently with people coming for tourism and just to enjoy the mountains.” 

If you’re wondering, is Colorado the only state with two official songs? The answer is no. Several states have more than one state song, and if you count anthems, ballads, marches, and honorary songs, New Hampshire and Tennessee have a total of 10 each. New Jersey is the only state in the U.S. without an official state song.

This question came to us as part of our series, Colorado Wonders. If you have a question about our state, ask us