Only Miss Cleo knows for sure, but John Denver's latest reincarnation may be too saccharine even for him. The troubadour, who sang of Rocky Mountain highs and Grandma's feather bed, inspired not only a hit posthumous musical, Almost Heaven: The Songs and Stories of John Denver (set to reappear at the Denver Performing Arts Complex this October), but now a cringingly cute children's book due out next week.
The oversized, 32-page John Denver's Sunshine on My Shoulders, illustrated by Christopher Canyon, features a happy-go-lucky white kid with a flower-studded Afro frolicking through a summer afternoon alongside her John Denver look-alike dad (except that he, too, has a 'fro rather than Denver's trademark bowl cut). Canyon claims to have been a huge -- huge! -- fan of the New Mexico-born country boy even before the assignment, and he perfectly captures a Disney-meets-Denver ethos as mice, cats, crickets, ants, birds and the rest of the freakin' forest get jiggy with pa's folksy tune.
But there's no sign of the Denver gal who inspired all the jigginess.
In 1971, twenty-year-old Jacquelyn Helton recorded the poem "Sunshine on My Shoulders" as she was suffering from osteosarcoma in her Capitol Hill apartment. Knowing the cancer was fatal, she created a collection of memories for her eighteen-month-old daughter, Jennifer, whom she'd nicknamed Sunshine.
"She agreed to be part of a research project for Children's Hospital. Doctors wanted to understand the emotional and mental impacts cancer patients were going through during the course of illness. So she agreed to record memories and thoughts," says Keith Schrum, associate curator of the Colorado Historical Society. "She wanted to record the memories for her daughter, because she knew she would not live to see her grow."
Schrum isn't sure how Denver, né Henry John Deutschendorf, picked up on "Sunshine" (or how much he adapted it from the original poem), but Helton's story was big news in 1971, when papers the world over reported that a "young hoodlum" had stolen a dying mother's recorder, and then again in 1973 and 1974, when young-adult novelist Norma Klein published Sunshine and Universal Studios aired a fictionalized made-for-TV movie, also called Sunshine -- both based on Helton's recordings. (In one of those small-world ironies, Sunshine's dad was played by Cliff De Young, who later portrayed John Ramsey in 2000's tabloid-TV Getting Away With Murder: The JonBenet Ramsey Mystery.)
"I usually know the stories of his songs, but I've never head that story before," says Harold Thau, Denver's longtime manager and the producer of the Denver Center's Almost Heaven production. "I can't swear on a stack of Bibles that it's not true, but I've never heard it."
Either way, Helton wasn't just sending sunshine to her Sunshine. She also penned this dirge, titled "America Hurrah, Ha, Ha, Ha," which Klein included in her book:
You may take your poverty aid,
and your military aid,
and your foreign aid,
And even your cool aid,
for what it's worth,
You may burn us for
burning our draft cards,
(as our mothers once
burned us before, for
playing with matches.)
But it no longer matters,
You can prosecute us,
for not killing in an unjust war,
for wanting peace.
Through a universal, workable understanding,
I don't want to kill a person, for such an unworthy cause,
as we are fighting for now.
I DEFY YOU AMERICA!
You can imprison us for years,
of young and productive lives
because we happen to have the guts,
to stand for what we believe in,
because we are human;
because we retain our humanity,
despite your propaganda.
You can stifle the lives
of those who haven't been told
but not me,
I'm free, you hear!
They only can understand
as far as you have taught them
(and that's not very far)
their minds have grown lethargic and old.
Freedom can't be won with a song.
Right! It takes many voices
and many songs.
We! We are the ones that matter!
You have grown old
and have done your work.
Let us grow old as we wish.
I prefer the feel of a newborn child,
and a man's hand on my shoulder
to that of a weapon,
We're pretty sure environmental publishing house Dawn Publications won't be converting that one into a Canyon-illustrated children's book, but the rest of the series -- yes, series -- will include such titles as "Country Roads Take Me Home," "Windsong" and "Ancient Rhymes."
C'mon, now. We know that sunshine almost always makes you high.
The gift that keeps on giving: Even as names so very familiar from the JonBenét Ramsey saga resurface in the Kobe Bryant case -- Hal Haddon, the attorney who headed the Ramsey dream team, is now on Team Kobe; Fleet White, the friend who was with John Ramsey when he found his six-year-old daughter's body on December 26, 1996, has written Eagle County judge Fred Gannett about the proper punishment for people who leak information to the press -- this Labor Day weekend marks the one-year anniversary of another player's passing. But Donna Jorgenson Farrell doesn't want the last thing that people remember about Bill McReynolds to be that he played Santa at the Ramseys' Christmas party a few nights before his "little angel," JonBenét, was killed. And not killed by McReynolds, either, since he's one of the few people in the universe officially cleared of the crime, despite renewed reports in the tabloids this past spring that Santa is still on the list of suspects.
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And so Farrell is helping to push an endowed scholarship at the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication in memory of Professor William McReynolds, Santa's alter ego. "I was a student of Bill's," says Farrell, a 1988 graduate. Not just any student, either, but a "non-traditional student," the kind of student this scholarship will aid. Farrell, who went on to become close friends with McReynolds and spoke at his memorial service last September, says she learned a lot from the popular professor -- not the least of which was that even editorial writers have to do research. "One of the assignments we got in a big tussle over was a movie review," she remembers. "He wanted us to see Santa Claus: The Movie. I didn't want to. He was right." After all, she points out, real reviewers don't have a choice of what to see and what not to see.
Just like real police investigators.
McReynolds was a slave to Santa long before he retired from the J-school and began playing Kris Kringle on the Pearl Street Mall and at holiday parties. His students even called him "Santa." "Bill's belief was that Christmas should be every day," explains Farrell. "The spirit of his life was a Santa Claus spirit -- and that was before he put on the red suit. He was the most kind, gentle man I ever met."
Farrell says she's meeting with the journalism school's new dean this week to talk about the scholarship, which has garnered only $6,545 toward a goal of $25,000. Hmmm. Maybe some of the $100,000 that the Globe gave the J-school in a settlement deal -- Jefferson County had brought charges against a tab editor for trying to buy a copy of the Ramsey ransom note -- could be earmarked as a gift for the Santa fund. (That Jeffco case also landed Fleet White in jail for contempt of court, making him the only person jailed in connection with the Ramsey case -- but that's another story.)