What’s "Almost Heaven?"

On March 15, 2011 · 9 Comments

We examined a song containing a blatant geographic inaccuracy in a recent article, "In Them Old Cotton Fields." I left a hint for readers when I stated that I too took offense at a song with an equally irritating error, one having to do with the Mountain State. Many of you probably knew the answer immediately, but to clarify it’s " Take Me Home, Country Roads" performed John Denver. The offending lines:

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

This song has become something of a cultural icon to the fine people of West Virginia. I love that state and I have no intentions of perpetuate common stereotypes because I know first-hand that those are demonstrably false. However, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River do not generally represent the topography of West Virginia except in a most extreme literal sense. Widespread adoption of this song as an unofficial state anthem can be misconstrued as evidence, intentionally or otherwise, as a smear upon the West Virginia educational system. That’s a shame.

Let’s start with the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Blue Ridge in Virginia Map
SOURCE: James Madison University, A Description of the Geology of Virginia

This range stretches through several eastern states. It runs along the entire spine of neighboring Virginia and then barely straddles the farthest rim of the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. There, the border between the two states follows the ridgetop. At best, West Virginia’s share of the Blue Ridge Mountains includes half a ridge, clipping one edge of one single county of the state’s 55 counties.

A similar issue exists with the Shenandoah River.

Shenandoah River
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

Nearly the entire Shenandoah River and its extended watershed remain within the confines of Virginia. A small portion crosses through West Virginia, once again at the extreme farthest edge of the Eastern Panhandle, before emptying into the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry.

Thus, except for a tiny strip of land about twenty miles long and two miles wide, the song is factually incorrect.

View Larger Map

The West Virginia residents of this 40 square mile area can rightfully claim "Take Me Home, Country Roads" as their own. The inhabitants of the other 24,037 square miles, the remaining 99.83% of the state, are simply perpetuating a geographic inaccuracy. Whether the rest of the song applies, well, I’ll leave that up to them. I’m not sure a reference to moonshine creates the most positive image either but that’s not my call. Only the geography bothers me.

View Larger Map

It’s very pretty within the strip of land where the song applies legitimately. I’ve driven through it many times using Route 9 on the way to my beloved Loudoun County, on the Virginia side of the ridge. One might even claim with some visible evidence that it should qualify as almost heaven.

For the sake of accuracy to the remainder of the state however, perhaps the lyrics could be tweaked to better express features more commonly representative of West Virginia: maybe the Appalachian Mountains and Gauley River (home of some amazing whitewater rafting)? The order would have to be reversed to match the melody but it would fit.

I’ve known people who grew up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley who swear to their belief in an improbable conspiracy theory, insisting that the song’s original wording had to have been "Western Virginia." The song is so famous and the geography is so wrong that they try fervently to pull it back across the border and claim it as their own. I tend to discount conspiracy theories and this one seems to lack evidence even more than most. It’s wishful thinking. It also sounds terrible if one tries to sing it that way. No Virginia, the song belongs to your western neighbor.

According to the Wikipedia page on this subject, with all the usual caveats about the source’s veracity, the geography contained within its verses was a composite. Part of it was a tribute to a friend who extolled the virtues of the Mountain State. The country roads were inspired by a location in Maryland. The rest of the lyrics were simply a bunch of nostalgic tear-jerk phrases that sounded good when dropped into a melody.

Is it a wonder that I’m cynical?

On March 15, 2011 · 9 Comments

9 Responses to “What’s "Almost Heaven?"”

  1. William Cary says:

    John Denver sang “west Virginia” but in the song title it was unfortunately capitalized and the wrong state adopted the song as being about them. What does this say about the American education system when western Virginia doesn’t recognize its own geographic references and West Virginia presumes “it’s gotta be about us!”

  2. Lost Owl says:

    The song should be about west Virginia, not West Virginia, because West Virginia is an illegally formed state! After the Civil War, it should have been restored to Virginia:

    Article 4, section 3 of the Federal Constitution provides that “no new state shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other state; nor any state be formed by the junction of two or more states, or parts of states, without the consent of the legislature of the states concerned, as well as of the congress.”

    The Virginia legislature never consented to the succession of West Virginia.

    Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania: “We may admit West Virginia as a new state, not by virtue of any provision of the constitution, but under an absolute power which the laws of war give us. I shall vote for this bill upon that theory, for I will not stultify myself by supposing that we have any warrant in the constitution for this processing.”

    Senator Garret Davis of Kentucky: “I hold that there is, legally and constitutionally no such state in existence as the state of West Virginia and consequently no senators from such a state. My object is simply to raise a question to be put upon the record, and to have my name as a Senator recorded against the recognition of West Virginia as a state of the United States. I do not believe that the Old Dominion, like a polypus, can be separated into different segments, and each segment become a living constitutional organism in this node. The present state of West Virginia as it has been organized, and as it is seeking representation on the floor of the Senate, is a flagrant violation of the Constitution.”

    • William Cary says:

      > The Virginia legislature never consented to the succession of West Virginia.

      That may be true to an extent but the people of Kanawha (what many wanted the new state to be named) were Union sympathizers and wished not to secede. The original state boundaries for the new state of West Virginia did not include an Eastern panhandle. Virginia told them in essence to take these three debt ridden counties because they (Virginia) didn’t want to have to pay their bills.

      As to the legality of the split from Virginia, this is from Wikipedia:


      The question of the constitutionality of the formation of the new state was eventually brought before the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of Virginia v. West Virginia, 78 U.S. 39 (1871).[17] Berkeley and Jefferson counties lying on the Potomac east of the mountains, in 1863, with the consent of the Reorganized government of Virginia voted in favor of annexation to West Virginia. Many voters absent in the Confederate army when the vote was taken refused to acknowledge the transfer upon their return. The Virginia General Assembly repealed the act of cession and in 1866 brought suit against West Virginia asking the court to declare the counties a part of Virginia which would have in essence made West Virginia’s admission as a state unconstitutional. Meanwhile Congress on March 10, 1866 passed a joint resolution recognizing the transfer. The Supreme Court decided in favor of West Virginia, and there has been no further question.

      Back to the song about West Virginia. Peter Tork of the Monkees once recorded a song entitled, “I Was Born In East Virginia.” The song always sounded forced because of the word “east” rather than the more customary “eastern.” Of course, Tork’s vocals didn’t help smooth out the offending “east Virginia” lyric. It did not make the final cut on the Monkees Headquarters album but he sang it to excited fans who couldn’t hear a word in Monkees 1967-1968 concerts.

      • Lost Owl says:

        Congress may have voted, but Virginia (and the rest of the former Confederacy) was un-represented for the vote. No southern state had yet been readmitted; Virginia did not return to Congress until 1870.
        The Supreme Court decision specifically is concerned with a state governor’s actions, so the holding was: Where a governor has discretion in the conduct of the election, the legislature is bound by his action and cannot to undo the results based on fraud.
        The particular question did concern some counties in question between the two “states,” so the assumption is that this rendered a de facto decision on West Virginia’s legality, ie, to decide the matter at all, the Court would have functioned under the understanding that West Virginia had standing as a separate. Granted. However, the fact is, the Supreme Court never ruled directly on the issue. Virginia did recognize the division in 1911, a half-century after the split. Ironic that Lincoln allowed, and legitimized on the state level, exactly what he invaded the south to prevent on the federal level.

  3. Randy Clark says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but at the time it was written Bill & Taffy Danoff were living in Fairfax County and so would have been able to visit WV’s northern panhandle with relative ease and came to write about what they knew.
    At any rate the theft is complete so perhaps the best solution is (when singing along) to substitute the word Plain for West.

  4. Charles M. says:

    I live in Aldie, Loudoun County, and know the region very well, living so close to the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah. But we do *not* refer to Jefferson County as being in a different state; to me, Wheeling and Huntington are cities in western Virginia. Indeed, calling the Charleston regime our “western neighbor” is like calling the Pyongyang government the “northern neighbor” of the Republic of Korea. Jeez, TMC, I thought you were a loyal Virginian! Someday our blue flag will fly along the Ohio once more. Sic semper tyrannis!

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